Art, Land and the Dreaming

Art is a central part of the life of Australian aborigines and 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. More recently, artwork has been made specifically for public viewing. Regardless of whether the art is for private or public purposes, for many artists their work remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming and the artist’s country.

Uluru is a landscape of profound spiritual significance for Anangu Aborigines.

The Dreaming is a term used by Aboriginal people to describe relations between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It relates to a period before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings. This period is called the Dreamtime. Many art works are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s Dreaming.

Dreaming and the DreamtimeTraditional Symbols

Conventional designs and symbols are an essential part of the long traditions in Aboriginal art. When applied to the body of a person taking part in a ceremony or the surface of an object, these have the power to transform the object to one with religious significance. Dots are one of the conventional symbols widely used and for many non-Aboriginal people these are what give Central and Western Desert art its distinctive character.

Sand Painting
Aborigines with sand painting and body painting – from Spencer-Gillen expedition to Central Australia in 1912
Contemporary Culture and SocietyContemporary Aboriginal Culture and Society

The diversity of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures continues, despite being profoundly altered since the occupation of the continent by European invasion. It is difficult to cover the wide range of issues in contemporary culture, but some of the most important ones identified by Aboriginal representatives include:

Native Title and Land Rights
The”Stolen Generation” of children
Education and Health (coming soon)
Law and Justice (“Deaths in Custody”) (coming soon)
As background to these issues, we have also prepared pages about Australia’s Indigenous Population and Traditional Bush Medicines.

Prehistory of AustraliaAboriginal Languages

In the late eighteenth century there were between 600 and 700 Aboriginal ‘tribes’ in Australia. Each had its own territory, its own social system and laws, and its own language. Between them, they spoke between 200 and 250 separate languages. Of these, around 150 have all but disappeared and now only 20 or so are still strong and in active use in daily life. Many Aborigines are deeply concerned about the state of their languages, but pride in culture through art is helping to maintain or recover some of them.

One question often asked is what word should be used to refer to Australian indigenous people. For a discussion of this, see our page Aboriginal or Aborigines?

Further information is also available from the excellent site maintained by Matthew Ciolek about the art and culture of Australian Aborigines.

MusicAboriginal Music

Music is a powerful part of Aboriginal culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional songs are of central importance in telling and maintaining Dreaming stories. Contemporary Aboriginal culture is also rich in music and there are exciting blends of Western and traditional sounds across a variety of styles, ranging from didjeridu music to the contemporary popular sounds of Archie Roach or Yothu Yindi.

Aboriginal LanguagesPrehistory of Australia

Aboriginal people believe that their origins lie in the Dreamtime and that they have always lived in Australia. Western archaeological evidence has, since the 1950s, rapidly accumulated evidence of human occupation of this continent for more than 40 000 years, and perhaps as long as 60 000 years.

While these accounts of Australian prehistory appear to be in conflict, this may not be as great as it first appears. The Dreaming tracks which cross the continent record the travels of ancestral beings – and in Arnhem Land or Cape York some of these tracks come from beyond Australia’s shores. Archaeologists believe similarly that the ancestors of Australian Aborigines voyaged across the sea from islands to the north – providing the earliest evidence of sea travel by modern humans.