Australian Aboriginal Art

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Australian Aboriginal art, song and dance has been the corner stone of culture since the beginning of their existence. Having no form of written language Aboriginal art, songs, and dances passed down through the generations have been the heartbeat that has kept this ancient culture alive. Even though the art, medium, song, and dance of each Aboriginal tribe may be completely different, they all serve the same purposes; create ceremony, and to inform each member of the tribe of their history, spiritual beliefs, values, and expectations for cultural norm and behaviour.

It is not until recently that Aboriginal art has stopped depicting Dreaming stories and has begun to be used for other purposes, such as self expression and emotion release (Pizzi, 13). However as the customary Aboriginal ways of life have been continually interrupted and battered, the personal identity of Aboriginal people and their culture has deteriorated and is in great danger of dying out completely. For tens of thousands of years Aboriginals have created art on rocks, tree bark, the ground and their bodies, with dyes, paints, seeds, plants, sand, and ochres.

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It is these art works which create a visual language expressing the legends, morals, and history specific to each Aboriginal tribe (Kreczmansk and Stanislawska-Birnberg, 3). Each painting or drawing contains symbols and colours which represent a part of a Dreaming story. Generally the symbols similar to what they are representing, but can come to mean different things at different times, such as a spiral could represent a waterhole, campsite, breast, or fire depending on the context.

Aboriginal art is an integral physical manifestation of their culture and cultural continuity is reflected in all forms; such as painting, drawing, ceremonies, song, dance, jewellery, and head masks (Barrington, April 12). On page one of ‘The Tjulkurra’, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Janusz B. Kreczmanski and Margo Stanislawska-Birnberg write, “there is one kind of traditional painting which has not changed for thousands of years in its form and subject matter: the art of the Australian Aborigines. The Aboriginal Dreaming stories are central to culture and each aspect of the Dreaming wheel is connected, and without one of the parts the wheel the rest does not make sense. These stories dictate every aspect of life and behaviour from where you can walk to how the Earth was created.

These Dreaming stories are the blue prints to Aboriginal life, and it is through art, song, and dance that they survive. Each art drawing, painting, ance refers to a piece of information which the viewer gains upon looking at it, every song steers the listeners towards proper social behaviour or indicates where in society one falls (Morphy, 30). Some rituals, drawing and painting mediums and depictions, songs, and dances are gender or age discriminate, further structuring societal responsibilities and purposes (Mayrah, April 20). These Aboriginal art forms are the vehicles that pass meaning, purpose, history, and cultural from one generation to the next.

Over the years Aboriginal way of life has been completely disrupted, abused, and deliberate attempts have been made to be erased. Since colonization Aboriginal people have been continually displaced from their lands, which they had lived on for over 40,000 years, and have had to watch as their sacred sites are cut down, mined, and destroyed. With this the materials used in Aboriginal art are destroyed, but more importantly there is a cultural disconnection as the elders are unable to teach the new generation the ways of their people and land.

For example, when a tribe from the desert is suddenly moved to a coast their traditional sand art becomes impossible to create and the ceremonial act of passing that knowledge down to new generations cannot occur. So that art form is lost forever and the relationship between elders and the new generation breaks down. Or if a Dreaming story is based upon the lake which a tribe lives next to, and the tribe is moved away from this lake the new generations to come will not understand the story, or feel a connection with the land which was given to them by the Creation Beings.

By taking away the tools the Aboriginals have always used to create their art and ceremonies their whole structure of culture is splintered. Tourism and the intrusions of western culture on Aboriginal land have weakened and belittled the art of the Aboriginals and traditional art forms have vanished in many places (Edwards and Guerin, Foreword). Furthermore, as “The Land My Mother, Walya NGamardiki” video the class watched on March 18th explains, the Aboriginals believe that they belong to the land, and if the land is destroyed then they too are being destroyed.

In Aboriginal culture each person and family is born and connected to a Totem, or Spirit Being, and it is that person’s responsibility to protect their Totem; they are thought to be so connected that if one was to eat their Spirit Being it would be considered cannibalism. If a person’s Totem is killed then it is that person’s responsibility to carry out the mortuary rites for the being. When an Aboriginal dies they believe that their spirits go into the sites from which they came, but by destroying these sanctified sites the spirits have no where to return (Mayrah, April 20). For Indigenous Australians…country is the subject of artistic representation, ritual enactment, totemism and the sympathetic magic that assists the group to ensure itself in the quest for survival” (Zimmer, 20). A disconnection between an Aboriginal person and his land is more than an unjust inconvenience; it is a cultural, emotional and spiritual murder worse than physical death. The Aboriginals currently make up only two percent of the Australian population, and their art, songs, and dances have been lost to the new generations.

The ceremonies, art, dance, and song that had always guided, moralized, and given a voice to the Aboriginal youth has been made unnecessary, unfeasible, or irrelevant over time. These youths are now connecting with the anger, violence and messages of resentment of the contemporary black American culture. Instead of singing the songs and dancing the dances of their ancestors many young Aboriginals are rapping and grinding. (Dean, April 8). Many Aboriginals, old and young, feel no real tribal identity or language, no connection with Dreaming, and are left confused by who they are in the middle of two conflicting cultures (Bourke, 133).

Without their art, song, and dance the Aboriginal culture has no history, meaning, future, or heartbeat. It is imperative to the future of Aboriginal tribes that they reconnect with the wisdom and ceremony of their ancestor’s art, song, and dance, while continuing to gain the tools to function in today’s westernized Australian culture.


Barrington, Robin. “Indigenous Australian Aboriginal Art. ” Presentation, Introduction to Indigenous Australia tutorial, Curtin University of Technology, Bentley campus. April 12, 2010. Bourke, Eleanor. “On Being Aboriginal. In Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times. Melbourne: Bibliotech, Australian National University, 1994. “Ways of Working: Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Modules. ” Workshop, Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University of Technology, Bentley campus. April 8, 2010. Edwards, Robert and Bruce Guern. Aboriginal Bark Paintings. Canberra: Rigby, 1970. Kreczmanski, Janusz B. , and Margo Stanislawska-Birnberg. The Tjulkurra: Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri. Marleston: Jb Books, 2002. 1-7. Mayrah, Yarraga. “Aboriginal Culture. ” Indigenous Australia – Aboriginal Art, History and Culture. http://www. ndigenousaustralia. info (accessed April 20, 2010). McGregor, Ken and Jenny Zimmer. Bill Whiskey Tajapaltjarri. Victoria: Macmillian Art Publishing, 2009. 15-23. Morphy, Howard. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1991. Pizzi, Gabrielee. Voices of The Earth: Paintings, Photography, and Sculpture from Aboriginal Australia. Melbourne: A private collection. 7-16. ‘The Land My Mother’ or ‘Walya NGamardiki. ’ Movie, Introduction to Indigenous Australia tutorial, Curtin University of Technology, Bentley campus. March 8th, 2010.

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