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Glass plate negative - An episode in the great fire ceremony, Forrest River mission, Western Australia, photographed by Herbert Basedow, 1916

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Man in a great fire ceremony, 1916


This is a photograph by Herbert Basedow of a heavily-scarred man on his hands and knees on flat, sandy ground. He wears very little but he has a prominent hat, comprised of a tight-fitted bowl and a long pole extending upward. The hat is decorated with small feathers, and a bundle of larger feathers is attached to the top of the pole.

Educational value

In this photograph, the man is dressed as a spirit being called Ngardaddi, in a headdress with black cockatoo feathers at its peak. His performance was part of a ceremony that had two moral aspects to it - to teach the audience the value of fire and to teach people not to steal.

The man's scars, or cicatrices, are characteristic of those of men in the Kimberley region. Decorative scarring was practised all over Australia for various purposes.

This photograph actually depicts a replay of the ceremony, which was performed at night. In the early 20th century night photography was difficult and could be dangerous. So in this case, someone put the headdress on during the day so that Basedow could photograph him wearing it.

The ceremony was performed at a mission on the Forrest River, which is now an Aboriginal settlement known as Oombulgurri. Basedow stopped there for several nights during his visit to the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia in 1916. The performance was a reciprocal gesture, following a slide show that the missionary, ER Gribble, staged for the mission residents, where he showed images mostly taken at missions in Queensland. After the slide show, the residents performed a number of their own ceremonies.

Herbert Basedow was a doctor, anthropologist and explorer. From 1903 to 1928 he ventured to remote regions of central and northern Australia - places rarely seen by Australians even today. Aboriginal people often feature in his photographs. Basedow wanted to document Aboriginal cultures as they had been before British colonisation, and often went to some lengths to craft his photographs to appear as such.

This photograph was taken during an expedition in the Kimberley region of north-east Western Australia to investigate a reported deposit of metal that would be useful for munitions.

© Education Services Australia Limited and the National Museum of Australia 2010

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