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From Pessimism to Collaboration: The German Frobenius-Expedition (1938–1939) to Australia and the representation of Kimberley art and rock art

Martin Porr, Kim Doohan


In 1938 and 1939 the Institut für Kulturmorphologie, based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, conducted an ethnographic expedition into the remote Kimberley in Western Australia. Despite some earlier activities and publications, this expedition represents the first dedicated effort to conduct detailed and extensive ethnographic work in the region. It was also the first endeavour to specifically focus on the recording of rock art images and related ethnographic information. Over the last decades, the importance of this expedition, the respective publications and the related collections in Germany and Australia have been repeatedly recognised, particularly in relation to the perception and understanding of Kimberley rock art. However, systematic and collaborative community-based research has not been conducted. Therefore, the collection and the related ethnographic information have not been properly assessed and have even been misrepresented. Recent collaborative efforts between the relevant Aboriginal Wandjina Wunggurr communities and researchers in Australia and Germany have allowed entering a new phase in the engagement with these materials with valuable academic and non-academic outcomes. In this paper, we provide some preliminary critical and contextual assessments of the literature that is related to this expedition and how it represented and conceptualised Aboriginal art and rock art.


Australian Aboriginal rock art; German anthropology; critical research history; Kimberley (Northwest Australia)

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ISSN (print) 1179 4704; ISSN (online) 1179 4712
Published with the assistance of the Department of Anthropology & Archaeology, University of Otago.
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