An introduction to Australian

Aboriginal art and culture

Aboriginal art and culture Aboriginal art and culture australian torres straight islander cultures oldest continuous living traditions earth british invasion 1788 estimated population occupying australia dissapearances massacres terminal illnesses diseases white invaders 600 different languages common heritage dreamtime spirituality dreaming creation period landscape ancestral beings human laws strong sense culture kinship responsibility pas present and future 50000 100000 years ago macropod track alary south australia 35000 years old oldest dated rock art engraving site in the world cave paintings eternal dreamtime western system of capitalism wisdom natural laws nature humans basic existence ancestors essence daily ritual lineage heritage spiritual beliefs cornerstone eternal mythic spirit ancestors flora and fauna corporate organic whole real dynamic identity relationship foundations true exceptionally strong relationship ancestral heroes landscape art ceremonial life music dance song paintings decorative personal clothing body adornment utensils carrying dishes mats bags nets weapons hunting spears instruments guarding sacred places vegetation care-taking connotations intellectual revolved complex extensive genealogies cycles genealogical oral history relationship distant tribes land ownership legend sacred objects designs descendants artist individual style symbolism teachings generations symbolic geometric non-figurative mediums body designs carved trees ground drawings rock engravings paintings bark message sticks boomerangs digeridoos arcs circles dots bars wavy lines depicted religious references degree information intended audience tribes guess creators group inside knowledge related mythology ceremonial information guardians spiritual presence trace tracks sing songs process creating designs reproducing religious act reaffirmation belief absorption essential power visual language celebrated continuance aboriginal society adults reproduce correctly clan appropriate inheritance training knowledge symbolic patterns song sycles material ritual items disposed hidden ceremonies burial poles hollow log coffins permanent sculptures elements colours altered age eroded weather insect interference retouching perishes generation continual source strength traditional society possessions sacred accompanying followers australian principles longest span culture surviving world ancient centre multifaceted definition treasures pride minds respected deep art commercial activity integrated traditional relegious downgrading destruction communities transposing forms portable europeans sharing exchange explainations sacred peoples exploit essential existence concious awareness introduction of board canvas artificial materials art trade traditional arts remote communities pride self-relience tribal wider society weaving galleries simultaneous appriciation upsurge adoption contemporary mainstream gaining economic self-sufficiency pride descent cultural revival traditional life ceremony federal government northern territory reconciliation native misendeavours sufferings future harmony embrace ancient understandings healthy roots grow strong trees shining light leaves interlinked entity essence compassionate role breathing structure neighbours existence differences histories solutions
The Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander cultures are the oldest continuous living traditions on Earth.
At the time of British invasion in 1788, there was an estimated population of between 750,000 and up to 3 million indigenous people occupying every part of Australia. (The exact figure is so dificult to estimate accurately because of the considerable number of unreported deaths; meaning of course ‘dissapearances’, massacres and cases of terminal illnesses due to diseases introduced by white invaders.)
Despite diverse cultures and a recorded 600 different languages, the Aboriginal peoples shared a common heritage - refered to now as the dreamtime - and a common value system dominated by spirituality, land and family. The dreaming tells of how, in the creation period, the landscape was formed by ancestral beings, and how Aboriginal peoples became human. The Dreamings gave the Aboriginal peoples the Laws by which they should live. It gave them a strong sense of belonging to their culture and an important sense of kinship with, and responsibility to, the land where they lived. The dreaming holds past, present and future as one. Perhaps a strong reason the culture has remained unchanged for so many thousands of years.
Estimates date Aboriginal settlement on the Australian continent at least as far back as 50,000, perhaps even 100,000 years ago. The macropod track at Olary in South Australia has been dated as 35,000 years old, confirming it as the oldest dated rock art engraving site in the world. Cave paintings are believed to be much older, but the figures can not be agreed upon. Aboriginal people themselves believe that they have been here since the beginning of time: that is, in their belief, the active part of creation known as the eternal Dreamtime.
Aboriginal society sees all things as living and interrelated under a strong system of kinship. Responsibilities and roles are clearly defined, and kinship incorporates everyone. An amazing opposite to the Western system of capitalism.
It is a culture rich with wisdom of the natural laws of nature and humans basic existence within it. It is a culture that holds reverence for and respect to its ancestors, which in essence forms a strong part of the Aboriginals daily ritual.
The Aboriginal peoples are proud of their lineage. It is a living heritage, older than we can imagine, that has dedicated itself to the worship and development of its spiritual beliefs. The land can be regarded as the central cornerstone of Aboriginal spirituality. It is the direct link between all living things and the eternal, mythic world of the Spirit Ancestors.
The land is not just a surface over which the people walk, hunt and live out their lives. The land, together with its people, flora and fauna, and everything else it contains, is a corporate, organic whole. The Aborigine feels part of this whole, bonded with the land in a real dynamic identity.

"Aboriginal spirituality is the belief and the feeling within yourself that allows you to become part of the whole environment around you - not the built environment, but the natural environment... Birth, life and death are all part of it, and you welcome each............

You can try to imagine the effect of being ripped away from the land and their function with it might have had on the Aboriginal people. A traditional Aboriginal seems completely lost in the cities of our modern times, as it holds no relationship to the foundations of their true identity.
It is their exceptionally strong relationship with the ancestral heroes and with the landscape that forms the basis of all Aboriginal art. At the core of the arts is the Aboriginal ceremonial life. Music, dance, song and paintings were each part of the same process of constantly connecting the life of the people with the Dreaming.
The arts were a part of life for everyone in traditional Aboriginal culture. Their art was expressed in the form of decorative personal clothing, body adornment, utensils, carrying dishes, mats, bags, nets, weapons, hunting spears and instruments, to give an example. Every grown man and woman had a role in the making of these things.
Certain people had the duty of guarding sacred sites, visiting and retouching art, conducting ceremonies at sacred places or clearing the unwanted vegetation from sacred land formations. Care-taking had strong spiritual connotations.
Intellectual life revolved around recalling complex and extensive genealogies and ceremonial songs. The ceremonies enacted the song cycles that described in great detail the travels and actions of the ancestral beings, and recalling genealogical information was a form of oral history enabling all Aboriginal people to trace their relationship with sometimes distant tribes. The songs also defined land ownership.
Children were retold stories, and drawn for in the ground. The songs they must learn contained the knowledge they needed in society, and to continue its traditions. In these ways the Aboriginal culture was past down the generations.

"The Aboriginals are true lovers of Nature. We love the earth and all the things of the earth. Aboriginal people come literally to love the soil, and we sit or recline on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power... It is good for the skin to touch the earth, to walk with bare feet on the sacred earth... The soil is soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That is why Aborigianls sit on the earth instead of propping themselves up and away from its life-giving forces. For us to sit or lie on the ground is to be enabled to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; we can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come close in kinship to other lives around us."                       Anne Pattel-Gray

Legend has it that sacred objects and designs were either brought with the creation ancestors or made and painted by them and taught to their descendants. Although each artist, to a degree, brings in an individual style to his work, the symbolism is sacred to the teachings of the Dreamings passed down the generations.
All Aboriginal art is symbolic, and often geometric and non-figurative. Mediums for this symbolism include body designs, carved trees, ground drawings, rock engravings and paintings, bark paintings, and designs on message sticks, boomerangs, digeridoos and other sacred objects. A range of symbols are used, namely arcs, circles, dots, bars and wavy lines. The meanings of the symbols vary in every painting depending on the site depicted, the religious references, the degree of information the artist has been allowed to convey (their ritual status) and the status of the intended audience. Other tribes may guess at the symbolism but the total meaning is only accessible to the creators and their immediate group, those with the inside knowledge of the related mythology and ceremonial information.
For the artists - the guardians of the landscape or dreaming depicted - the paintings embody their own spiritual presence. They trace the tracks and sing the songs in the process of creating the designs. In this way reproducing the designs becomes a religious act, a reaffirmation of belief in the creation ancestors and the absorption of some of their essential power. The symbols are a form of visual language in which the ancestral renewal of life is celebrated and its continuance ensured.
In traditional Aboriginal society no man or woman was classed as an artist. All adults were expected to remember and to reproduce correctly the clan designs appropriate to their inheritance and their level of ritual training and knowledge. The designs are owned by clans, not by individuals. Every line and mark within the design has symbolic meaning. Not only the patterns and visual symbols must be learned precisely but also their complex and detailed meanings and the song cycles that go with them.
Very little of Aboriginal material art was done to last for long periods of time. It was the act of painting itself which is important, not the finished product. Ritual items were usually disposed of or hidden after the ceremonies they were made for were complete. Body designs were washed away. Only the burial poles and hollow log coffins could be seen as permanent Aboriginal sculptures and even these were left to the elements after ceremonial use. Even the important rock paintings colours altered with age, and eroded by weather and insect interference, and needed constant retouching. Each painting eventually perishes, however the designs are passed intact from generation to generation, and by constant use in ceremony remain a continual source of strength.

.........Aboriginal spirituality is the belief that the soul or spirit will continue on after our physical form has passed away through death. The spirit will return to the Dreamtime from where it came, it will carry our memories to the Dreamtime and eventually it will return again through birth, either as human or an animal or even trees and rocks. The shape is not important because everything is equal and shares the same soul or spirit from the Dreamtime."                                              Eddie Kneebone.

In traditional Aboriginal society a persons most important possessions are the clan’s sacred objects, designs and knowledge of the accompanying ritual song cycles.
Aboriginal religion has permitted its followers to live off the 'Australian' continent following its principles for the longest span of any culture now surviving in the world. Although it is an ancient culture, the very nature of the practice of Aboriginal art, its role at the centre of life itself, and its multifaceted nature, allows these ancient arts to slip easily into any modern definition of great art and to be truly considered as treasures of Australia. Aboriginal art is a living tradition held with great pride and love in the minds of all Aboriginals and which should be respected and appreciated by all others. It is a truly deep art, that we can learn a great deal from.
Art as a commercial activity has now become fully integrated into Aboriginal social and ceremonial life.
It is often asked whether the sale of traditional religious art leads to its downgrading and eventual destruction. However Aboriginal communities do not see that they are selling the designs themselves; they are merely transposing them into forms that are portable for Europeans and receiving some payment for sharing the designs. Just as they would in any traditional exchange. Only general explainations are given with the paintings and, as with amongst the Aboriginal tribes themselves, not all designs can be shared openly. Much remains sacred to the Aboriginal peoples. They are wise not to exploit their own essential existence, however, at the same time, they are also concious of the awareness and understanding of their culture their art can raise throughout the world.
The introduction of board, canvas and artificial materials, first introduced in the 1970's, allow the Aboriginal artist more levage into the serious European art trade. The techniques are more lasting, allowing the art to be considered as valuable investments in trade.
The continuation of traditional arts in remote communities has had an enormous effect on their pride and self-relience. In may ways, art is the most important way in which tribal people communicate with the wider society. When their works of painting, sculpture, carving or weaving are appriciated, shown in galleries and bought for high prices, the artists feel that there is a simultaneous appriciation of their world view, their great Dreaming designs, their songs and ceremonies. They feel heard.
The result of the recent upsurge and increase in quality in traditional Aboriginal arts has been their acceptance and adoption as part of the contemporary mainstream of Australian art. Not only has this increased the status of the Aboriginal communities in the eyes of Australian society in general, it also considerably assists in gaining economic self-sufficiency.
There is a new growing pride in being Aboriginal among Australians of Aboriginal descent, and a cultural revival is taking place. Displaced Aborigines, are searching out their true identity and relearning their customs, belief and pride of place in their culture. Throughout tribal Australia there has been a strong resurgence of traditional life and ceremony, and with that, a return to the land. For example: Recent laws passed by the Federal Government have seen land returned to the Aboriginal ownership under freehold title; in 1976, 36 percent of the Northern Territory, or 482,868 square kilometres. Small steps in a very long but nessecary road in acheiving reconciliation and understanding between the Native peoples of Australia and all other Australians. Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is still an important issue for Australia. As a nation we need to reponsively come to terms with the past as best we all can, and move forward, healed from some of the burden of our past misendeavours and sufferings, into the future as a just and fair, and basically united, though diverse nation. A nation using positively the rich and varied sources of wisdon beneath its own feet. To achieve this, we need to reaquint ourselves with all the stories of the land. We need to understand what we have lost as well as what we have gained in the name of 'development'. Perhaps then it may be possible to retrieve what is needed for the land and its people to live in harmony once again, in ways that embrace contemporary and ancient understandings.
"When one is walking through the land one must be quiet and respectful, walk carefully and listen. In this way the land may begin to speak to you."           Maisie Cavanagh
From healthy roots grow strong trees. Knowing where those roots lay and what they need for nurishment, is as important as shining light onto the new leaves. We are, all of us, one interlinked entity, and it is time we recognise that and behave like one! In essence, taking a compassionate role in the whole growing, breathing structure  of our home. This begins with understanding the land and our neighbours and recognizing them as a part of the same picture. We don't need to adopt each others beliefs, but somehow find our common goal of existence, and an appriciation of our differences. We can't return to what has been, we can't change the past but we can face it, learn from our histories and work out some positive solutions for our present steps forward.

Text compiled from the following books: 

Wisdom from the Earth, Anna Voigt & Nevill Dury, 1997 Simon & Schuster Australia,

 ISBN 0 7318 0569 0.

Australia's Living Heritage, Jennifer Isaacs, 1984 Lansdowne Publising,

ISBN 1 86302 561 


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