Aboriginal Art History

The following information has been supplied to Click for Australia courtesy of Aboriginal Tour Operators and should not be copied with out their permission.


"Elaborate patterns and designs created by central Australian Aboriginals and used, particularly in ground mosaics, for traditional ceromonial purposes have in the last 21 years begun to find a new role in striking and meaningful canvas paintings, some of which are reproduced on internet site http://www.aboriginalart.com.au "

"Though comparable patterns and designs were once created elsewhere in Australia, the surviving style of ground mosaics appears to have been restricted to the people of the Centre - to the majority (but not all) of those living in the major range country, north from Alice Springs for about eight hundred kilometres and west to south-west to the Western Desert country. European settlement and the spread of Christianity very largely destroyed the ceremonial life of the centrally placed Arrernte people, but the traditions survived among the Pitjantjatjara, Pitubi, Walpiri, Amnatjira and Warramunga tribes."

Ground mosaics are the most elaborate of their art works, but complementary designs and decorations are applied to the bodies and specially constructed head dresses of actors: to secret-sacred ritual objects that are stored near the ceremonial grounds; and often to shields, boomerangs and other weapons. The design elements are not, in themselves, considered dangerous. But in a ceremonial situation, when the correct secret-sacred chants are sung, they are believed to partake of mythological forces, whose essence they pass on to otherwise profane objects. Thus, the dancers and the objects they use are thought to become imbued with supernatural power. If not made unrecognisable in rituals, the decorations are usually destroyed immediately afterwards, for most are not to be displayed in secular situations."

The mythological beings, to which all Aboriginal people are totemically and ancestrally related in one way of another, are regarded not as really dead so much as at watchful rest. They still live in rock-holes, caves, clay-pans and other natural features. Sacrilegious behaviour, or casual regard for ancient custom and law, may so anger the supernatural beings that death and destruction follow. Sacrilege that is recognised on the instant must be punished on the instant, so as to placate the creative ancestors."

"The artists creating the ground paintings are all men; inevitably, they are well into middle age, for only after extensive and often very painful ritual is one knowledgable and competent enough to depict the diegns correctly. Younger but still ritually correct men are sometimes employed as assistants (obviously, a period of introductory instruction is required), but few men involved in making ground mosaics are under forty."

Women have similar styles of body markings, have limited numbers of sacred objects and dances, and may mark the sand with leaves, sticks or their hands in the telling of stories; but they are not involved in making the decorated ground paintings."

No one man can create a ground design. In the complexity of Aboriginal social situation, each site that is still 'living' has at least two men who stand in a 'keeper-owner' relationship to it and two men called Kutungulu ('inspectors' or 'policemen') who ensure that their keeper-owners maintain correct protocol. Similarly, unless given formal dispensation, men can create only those paintings over which they are recognised as having authority: there is no concept of total artistic freedom in the Western sense. Each major secret-sacred ground painting represents both an individual identifiable geographical locality and a mythological incident that occured there, although is inevitable that related sites and incidents will also be recalled. As there are hundreds upon hundreds of differents sites in a tribal territory, ranging from individual tress or rocks to mountains, the most learned old men may well know the details of hundreds of paintings - even possibly, of more than a thousand. The designs must be relatively static in composition and have persisted over a great many generations to allow for such feats of memory."

An indication of the ancient derivations of the ground art is that identical designs elements occur in the rock engravings, some of which are now known to be about twenty thousand years old. Plain and concentric cirlces, straight bar-lines and sinuous lines and animal tracks prevail in each art form. The major difference is probably, the regular inclusion of arcs (representing seated figures) in ground painting. There is a similarity in the absence of the square or rectangle, a design element that frequently occurs on woomeras (spear throwers), hard-wood shields and other wooden objects. Despite the similarities, however, the fragile nature and purposeful destruction of ground paintings - presumably in ancient times as in modern - makes it unlikely that we will ever know when this form of art became prevalent."

All ground paintings, and the modern paintings on canvas or art-board which are derived from them, are meant to be seen as plan/map views. This is almost certainly influenced by the hunting and foraging life-styles that the Aborigines once followed and, to varying degrees, still do. It is a great asset, when travelling the bush, if the slightest sign of a track - a scratch on clay is recognised as indicating the time and direction of travel, and the type of animal that caused it. Conservation of energy in the hunt is almost as essential as the discovery of game. (The exceptional tracking skills of the Aborigines have been successfully used for finding lost people or seeking out criminals; Aboriginal trackers are employed by the police in all remote areas.)"

The use of a fixed set of symbols would seem to make interpretation easy, but only those directly involved in creating a ground painting can give its meaning with absolute authority. Related mythological sites, on the travelling route of some Dreamtime creative animal, might well have very fine shades of variation. Again, bird tracks are very similar, as are several other animal tracks. Further, some symbols have a multiplicity of meanings; a series of concentric circles can mean a camp-fire, home, cave, rock-hole, clay-pan, spring, tree or mountain -the list is not exhaustive; a sinuous line can mean a snake, running water lightning, a hair-string girdle, native bee honey storage, or a bark rope."

"A single design element can in itself have several interpratation levels. Thus-to take a hypothetical example-a circle might be described, in the secular context, as a particular geographical region; become a specific water-hole to a first-stage initiate; be a bundle of hair-string carried by a mythological hunter who visited the water-hole to a second stage ritual man; be extented to mean an object made from the hair-string to a still more knowledgeable man; and have its meaning extended even futher to the complete ritual man. Each revelation is made only after the older custodians are certain that the previous step, with its associated songs and ceremonial detail, is fully comprehened by the younger men."

Even if an outsider may be privileged enough to be shown a ground painting, it is highly doubtful that any person other than a man of central Australian Aboriginal origin will ever be permitted to understand its ultimate meaning. This, however, does not detract from the beauty of the ground mosaics and the artistic merit of the adapted paintings. Nor does it make secular interpretations any less interesting.

To see the geographical locations of mythological events is to gain an important aid to understanding of ground painting and associated ceremonies. It may well be useful to see them in different weather conditions to fully appreciate the mythological associations. Thus, Watulpunyu, a Walpiri Water Dreaming site in the depiction of which there are several circles (representing rock holes) and sinuous lines (representing both mythological lighting and running water), leaps into life when you visit it. A spring-flow of water distant from the main rock-holes after heavy rains illustrate the mythology, for in the dreamtime the custodians were unable to stop the storm-water flow. The tiered series of rock-holes , and correct approach protocol, give further initial appreciation. As the years pass and you learn the meanings of natural markings and objects, rock engravings and paintings, and are introduced to linking site, you develop even greater insight. The mythological becomes reality; the reality becomes mythology."

The creators of the beautiful ground mosiac do not consider themselves in artistic isolation. They see themselves as derived from, and sanctioned by, the mythological ancestors; as referring to specific geographic sites and linked with the useful plants and animals of the Aboriginal environment. The mosaic have complementary artistic expression in cave paintings, rock engravings, incised ceremonial objects and other art forms; act as social controls upon young and old; help determine social roles; and give excitement and pleasure to artists and actors in their use."

"They are tangible representationsof legendary events, relating to mythological beings who are seen as both distantly ancestral and yet also ever-present in quiescent, invisible form. At the same time they relate to the Aboriginal ancestral past, to the living present, and to the certainty of the future continuation of the natural and supernatural world."

"The construction of the patterns is a good example of co-operation, co-ordination and long-term planning among the Aborigines. In their most magnificent form, ground paintings cover upwards of one hundred square metres and may include raised and decorated mounds, several standing sacred objects beautifully decorated with red-ochred feathers or leafy sprays. Some traditional sacred objects were balanced on the head-pads of several and some carried for long distances over difficult terrain. The preparation with stone axes and large poles cut from bloodwood trees must have been an immense task. Similarly, although the native daisies that provide plant-down are plentiful, considerable effort must have gone into its collection. Bird-down and primary feathers obtained from emus, from flock-birds, such as the Major Mitchell's cockatoo, and from wedgetail eagles had to be saved over long periods. Red and yellow ochres and white lime or pipe-clay often had to be carried for great distances. (Black pigment could be readily obtained by burning fine grasses or crushing charcoal). Some of these objects were carried in emu feathers or bark bundles bound with human hair-string or a tendril-like plant and slung across the shoulders. Smaller objects could be carried in the men's chignons."

"Today, the use of steel axes and knives, rifles, motor vehicles and suit-cases or travel-bags makes it easier to get and carry many of the objects required. Manufactured red and yellow cement-mix powders and white lime, and, on occasions, cottonwool and domestic fowl's feathers, may be used in the preparations. Yet there is still a preference for the traditional - a little red ochre from an ancient Aboriginal mine four hundred kilometres away may be mixed with the manufactured product - for in the traditional objects residues the true mythological power. The ritual quality of a Western-manufactured substitute is always in doubt, whereas traditional materials have the necessary mythological and ancestral sanctions. Red ochre, for instance, is the blood, the life-force, of the mythological men or animals. Similar beliefs are held about other earth paints, and, indeed, about all useful items and food supplies. There is nothing, in fact, which does not have meaning and purpose, nothing which does not bind the Aboriginal to his land."


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