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The Basis of Aboriginal Art

From McCulloch & McCulloch's 'Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Complete Guide', explains Aboriginal art in the chapter The Living Art of Aboriginal Australia.

The Basis of the Art

Aboriginal art is based on stories and traditions of the creation of the world, during which creation ancestors took epic journeys and created people, flora, fauna, landforms and celestial bodies. It is from this that laws of kinship and marriage derived and regular ceremonies required to renew growth, protect the land, ensure fertility and health and keep the stories of the ancestor creators and their creations alive. Unlike the time delineations of the Western history, the Aboriginal belief system does not relate only to the past but is constantly evolving. It is kept alive through ceremonial practice, which guides and dictates customs and laws while re-affirming spiritual beliefs. Contemporary events such as floods, fires, cyclones and other natural phenomena and sometimes aspects of daily life such as sport and current events are also incorporated.

This concept is often called ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’ named so by early 20th century anthropologists attempting to convey a belief system which is at one past, future and contemporary. The term ‘dreaming’ however implies a more fanciful concept than that denoted by Aboriginal belief system itself. Anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner attempted a more accurate, but less popularly evocative, title of the ‘everywhen’ to denote the all encompassing nature of the Aboriginal belief system.

At the core of this belief system is that the land and its people are interdependent. Nor is the Aboriginal belief system one ideology but specific to each of the hundreds of different tribal groupings with numerous different creation stories. The Rainbow Serpent is one of the powerful creation stories found through most parts of Australia; similarly that of the Dingo; Seven Sisters and a number of others. In the Top End and Arnhem Land creation ancestors include the Djang’kawu brother and the Wagilag Sisters who traversed the sea and land creating rivers, mountain ranges and other formations as well as the people themselves. In the north - western Kimberley, the supernatural Wandjina beings control rain and fertility. Ancestral Tingari men and women traversed areas of the Western Desert bringing law and culture. The Honey Ant, Lizard and Fire Dreamings are just some of the other major creation stories of the central areas.

Dances and songs, designs made in sand, incising and paintings on rock walls and bark shelters, designs painted on the body and the making of a number of sacred objects and more recently acrylic, ochre paintings, and many other practices affirm and renew these stories and the laws impart. 

Imagery in Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art from this base is not conceived, as is much Western art, from perceived subject matter. Neither does the western notion of aesthetics apply; nor that of an artist’s desire to communicate emotions, thoughts or observations or comment in highly individual manner. Under Aboriginal law, an artist is permitted to portray only those images and stories to which, through birthright, he or she is entitled. To do otherwise is a serious and punishable offence. Within this confine, the styles and imagery of work vary widely, and increasingly so as new forms evolve. There are artworks notable for meticulous layering and overlayering of fine dots to create works of shimmering luminosity; others have an appealing fresh quality with bold use of colour and raw, free design; others still are notable for an adherence to traditional design while showing innovation of the application of finer and more rhythmic lines. Even paintings such as those by the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, Minnie Pwerle and many others, which have been embraced and praised in the Western terms for their similarity to internationally famous abstractionists, derive from this base.

For some viewers the story of the work is important; for others, the visual impact of the paintings predominates. It is this combination of a strong sense of design, finely honed use of colour or surface texture, spatial relationships underpinned by an intangible but ever-present connection with the land, its creators and their stories, and the artists rights to interaction with this that gives much Aboriginal art its unique quality and power.

However from the 1980s, a whole new generation of indigenous artists has evolved linked to this art but with their own, often highly individual styles. These often urban-based artists incorporate their indigenous histories as their basis of art which includes the commentary, narrative, the personal, the aesthetic and the political.