Doreen Reid Nakamarra

Marrapinti, 2008, Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 153 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017, 2017.251.2, © Estate of Doreen Reid Nakamarra, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Photography: Spike Mafford

Embodied Wisdom

Commentary by Lieke Wijnia

Cite Share
Read by Ben Quash

In Australian Aboriginal culture, to explore and know the land and its history is also to know oneself, one’s community, and its resources (Morphy & Carty 2015: 45–6). Purposeful movement is an important element in this active relationship, requiring both expertise and care for the pluriform layers of historical, natural, and spiritual meaning in walked landscapes. This embodied approach to knowledge of oneself and one’s surroundings is passed on from one generation to the next.

Such an approach is also reflected in the final verses of Proverbs 4.

Although the text’s fatherly advice is not addressed to daughters, women feature at various moments in Proverbs. Chapter 4 mentions the father’s mother (v.3) and includes the metaphorical figure of Wisdom as a woman (vv.6–9).

And this painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra evokes the paths taken by ancestral women to a significant sacred site (Marrapinti Rock Hole), where they would camp. Its visual texture and the delicacy of its shading give it a radiant quality. In this way it reinforces the experiential and spiritual aspects of the women’s journey, which only emerge as experience and wisdom grow.

Wisdom ultimately resides in the heart, as Proverbs 4 states several times (vv.4, 21, 23). For the ancient communities who compiled Proverbs, the heart was regarded as the seat of intelligence and will, rather than of emotion (Whybray 1972: 33; Hunter 2006: 87–8). But (I would argue) for those who travel in the spirit of Reid Nakamarra’s women, the heart is an effective compass because it is a site of both intelligence and intuition.

Reid Nakamarra’s painting not only reflects the travels of the ancestral women, but also their remembrance and thus the significance of oral traditions and rites of passage through which knowledge (wisdom) is gained. The story of the painting belongs to Reid Nakamarra’s husband’s people, which Reid Nakamarra was only allowed to paint after she had been part of the community for a certain length of time (Cirigliano 2017). Wisdom requires growth over time. It is only with age and embodied experience that one is able to follow in ancestral footsteps (Morphy 2013: 100). The instruction ‘Look out for the path that your feet must take, and your ways will be secure’ (Proverbs 4:26) resonates here.

This artwork, like the book of Proverbs, illuminates our place on the bridge between ancestral pasts and spiritual presents.



Cirigliano II, Michael. 2017. ‘Curator Conversations: Exploring Contemporary Aboriginal Art with Maia Nuku’, 25 October 2017’, [accessed 25 January 2020]

Hunter, Alastair. 2006. Wisdom Literature (London: SCM Press)

Morphy, Howard. 2013 [1998]. Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon)

Morphy, Howard, and John Carty. 2015. ‘Understanding Country’, in Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilisation (London: The British Museum), pp. 20–119.

Whybray, Roger Norman. 1972. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Book of Proverbs (London: Cambridge University Press)

See full exhibition for Proverbs 4

Proverbs 4

Revised Standard Version

4Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,

and be attentive, that you may gain insight;

2for I give you good precepts:

do not forsake my teaching.

3When I was a son with my father,

tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,

4he taught me, and said to me,

“Let your heart hold fast my words;

keep my commandments, and live;

5do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.

Get wisdom; get insight.

6Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;

love her, and she will guard you.

7The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,

and whatever you get, get insight.

8Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;

she will honor you if you embrace her.

9She will place on your head a fair garland;

she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”

10Hear, my son, and accept my words,

that the years of your life may be many.

11I have taught you the way of wisdom;

I have led you in the paths of uprightness.

12When you walk, your step will not be hampered;

and if you run, you will not stumble.

13Keep hold of instruction, do not let go;

guard her, for she is your life.

14Do not enter the path of the wicked,

and do not walk in the way of evil men.

15Avoid it; do not go on it;

turn away from it and pass on.

16For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;

they are robbed of sleep unless they have made some one stumble.

17For they eat the bread of wickedness

and drink the wine of violence.

18But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,

which shines brighter and brighter until full day.

19The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;

they do not know over what they stumble.

20My son, be attentive to my words;

incline your ear to my sayings.

21Let them not escape from your sight;

keep them within your heart.

22For they are life to him who finds them,

and healing to all his flesh.

23Keep your heart with all vigilance;

for from it flow the springs of life.

24Put away from you crooked speech,

and put devious talk far from you.

25Let your eyes look directly forward,

and your gaze be straight before you.

26Take heed to the path of your feet,

then all your ways will be sure.

27Do not swerve to the right or to the left;

turn your foot away from evil.