Art is a central part of Aboriginal life and is intimately connected to land, law and religious belief. Connection to a person’s home land is deeply felt. Mick Dodson (former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner) has expressed this powerfully:
To understand our law, our culture and our relationship to the physical and spiritual world, you must begin with land. Everything about aboriginal society is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land. Culture is the land, the land and spirituality of aboriginal people, our cultural beliefs or reason for existence is the land. You take that away and you take away our reason for existence. We have grown that land up. We are dancing, singing, and painting for the land. We are celebrating the land. Removed from our lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.
Aboriginal people, when speaking in English of this connection, often refer to land as “country”. Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has described ‘country’ in this way:
“People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. .country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.”
An excellent source to explore the relationship of two Aboriginal communities with their country – the Gunditjmara nation of south west Victoria and the Kutjungka of north western Australia – is the Lore of the Land CD-ROM and associated Web site.
Aboriginal art takes many forms. Traditionally it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level of knowledge or understanding. More recently, there has emerged work that has been made consciously to be seen by the non-initiated or for commercial purposes. However, irrespective of whether the art is for private ceremonial purposes or is for the public, it remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming. The materials used are varied and have ranged from rock engravings and paintings through works on bark, wooden sculpture to ephemeral paintings on sand, on human bodies and on headdresses or other materials.
A Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Mussolini Harvey) has described the link between body painting and the Dreaming:
“In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive.”
Nearly all Aboriginal art can be related to landscape and some paintings and designs do represent explicitly the physical relationship between different features of the landscape. However, Aboriginal paintings should be seen primarily as maps of conceptual relationships that influence the way the landscape is seen and understood. When Aboriginal paintings do represent specific features of landscape, they show them in their mythical rather than their physical relationship to one another.
As well as its essential spiritual and symbolic character, Aboriginal art increasingly has a social and political dimension. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj people, has clearly expressed the importance of art to contemporary Aboriginal culture:
We are painting, as we have always done, to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. We paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country and the country owns us. Our painting is a political act