Body Painting

Body painting, decoration and personal adornment traditionally carry deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal people. Body painting is carried out within strict conventions that are primarily related to spiritual matters, although the creative nature of these activities is also acknowledged.

The particular designs or motifs used by individuals reflect their social position and relationship to their family group and also to particular ancestors, totemic animals and tracts of land.

People are not free to change their appearance at will; they must conform to respected patterns. In many situations individuals are completely transformed so that they ‘become’ the spirit ancestor they are portraying in dance.

Decoration – scars, painting and adornment

The art of body decoration includes scarring, face and body painting for ritual, wearing of ornaments, and the transformation of the body using added texture and headdresses to form living images of ancestral beings.

Scars were made on the body for many reasons, but mainly during ceremonies to mark age, initiation or to raise a person’s status. Techniques varied from place to place, but scarification (or cicatrisation) usually involved cutting the skin with a sharp shell or rock, then rubbing irritating substances like ash into the cuts so that prominent keloid scars resulted. This process created raised, pigmented patterns on the chest, back, arms or legs of the initiate. Scarification is now rarely practised.

Decoration varies in the regions

Body painting ranges from simply smearing clay or natural ochres from the earth onto the skin to detailed geometric paintings on the torso, face and limbs.

Throughout Arnhem Land, communities decorate the bodies of young boys before initiation. Their chests, and sometimes upper arms and thighs, are painted in clan patterns and totemic subjects. These designs are the same as those used in the bark paintings, and they are also painted on ceremonial objects, burial poles and coffins.

Among the Yolngu of eastern Arnhem Land, adult men’s bodies are still decorated in this way with moiety (dhuwa or yirritja) designs at large funeral ceremonies. The colours used originate from a range of earth-based pigments. These give the artists a full range of tones, from white through beige and brown to yellow, rust red and black. With the addition of feathers, leaves and plant substances and coloured arm and leg ornaments, the body could become highly decorated.

The Tiwi on Bathurst and Melville Islands also have a flourishing tradition of body art. They decorate face and body in particularly strong designs for both Pukumani(funeral) and Kulama (yam) ceremonies.

In northwest Queensland, men rubbed charcoal on their foreheads and painted a white band from either eyebrow down the front of the ear and along the shoulders and arms. White and red bands were painted across the chest and the rest of the body was covered in red.

Decoration and ceremonies

The context and designs varied from place to place, but invariably the use of earth pigments to colour the body is indicative of an intricate relationship between human beings and the environment, and is practised mainly during ceremonies – initiation and funeral ceremonies in particular.

In many Desert communities of central and western Australia, men used extremely elaborate personal decoration on ceremonial occasions.

During large gatherings closed to women, particularly those enacting the journeys of the Tingari men throughout the desert, ceremonies consisted of making elaborate ground constructions (also called sand paintings) and decorating the bodies of the many male dancers in linear symbolic patterns which related specifically to various sections of the song cycle being conducted.

Men painted for ceremony

Warumungu men painted for ceremony
in front of a sand painting.
Photo by Baldwin Spencer 1912

Body art in these contexts became part of the overall theatre of the ceremony. Women of the desert paint their upper chest, shoulders and breasts for communal women’s ceremonies. The colours are paired – yellow and white is ‘owned’ by one moiety, red and white by another, similar to the eastern Arnhem Land Yolngu distinctions in dhuwa and yirritja colour ‘ownership’.

The right to paint another woman’s upper body is given to a specified relative. It is not appropriate for women to paint themselves for ceremony; however, in contemporary educational situations, for schools, social celebrations or cultural trips and demonstrations in major cities where women are showing the culture to outsiders, this sometimes occurs out of necessity when the correct artist is absent. The lengthy communal painting and decorating process before the dance and main singing commences is part of the entire ritual, and at the close of each performance the body ornamentation is smeared and disguised or obliterated, just as the stamping feet of performers eventually destroy the design on the ground.


Ornaments were worn by many groups. In coastal areas it was common for women to make necklaces out of strings of shells and beautiful examples were made in Tasmania. In Arnhem Land, animal teeth, bones and bird feathers were crafted into necklaces and pendants. This type of regalia was generally used in performances where body movements were emphasised as the string on waist and armbands flashed and arched with each twist of the hips. Bright strings of red ininti beans from the bean tree adorn desert women who wear them diagonally across the chest and under one breast.

Contemporary use of Body Painting

Body painting continues as a strong and live part of contemporary Aboriginal culture, not only in traditional ceremonies but also as part of art and practices by urban people. Stephen Page, the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, has commented about body painting that “There are no time constraints, no boundaries; there’s an apparent timelessness about the ritual.”. Djakapurra Munyarryun, a leading dancer with the company, says: “We never dance without ochre on… because that’s what we have been doing for a long time, like a thousand years. Body paint for us is really important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some people don’t recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing. They can see when I am dancing, it’s like they thought I am an old old man. Because when I am there, it’s like my soul is very strong and I watch the audience. The paint makes me more older, older looking.”