Marylin Armstrong, Larapinta Dreaming, acrylic on canvas (63 x 41 cm). Private collection.
Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest art traditions in existence. The Australian continent was populated about 50,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Aborigines. The culture of the Aborigines is in many respects unique in that until the nineteenth century they had very limited contact with cultures outside Australia. One of the most striking manifestations of contemporary Aboriginal culture of the central desert area are the iconic dot-paintings, a distinctive style of painting in which an ancient art form is expressed with modern materials and in a modern context.
Aboriginal culture was, before colonial times, largely determined by the natural environment in which they lived. Material culture was limited to simple practical and ritual objects.; spears, baskets, shields, ritual and ceremonial poles were all adorned with culturally specific patterns. Aboriginal artists were strictly tied to the tradition in which they lived and their creativity was bound by conservative traditions and rules. The art was expressed using materials naturally available, such as rocks, sand, wood, bark, beeswax, reeds and the human body, including blood. The people of the central Australian deserts expressed their art predominantly in temporary sand drawings, body painting and more enduring rock paintings and engravings.
The culture of the Aborigines traditionally revolves around what is commonly known as the Dreamtime. This is an primordial mythological period which is the source of all social, legal, practical and metaphysical knowledge. The Dreamtime is transferred from one generation to the next by using landscape related stories called Dreamings. These stories are passed from father to son and from mother to daughter and each story is managed by an individual or by clan groups. Most stories of the Dreamtime are strictly confidential and known only to initiates of the Dreaming. Dreamings are usually stories of mythical creatures, travelling across the land. Landscapes associated with these stories are allocated to family groups and individuals. Each location is managed, for example through fire stick farming, by a group of men or women and only they know the esoteric meaning of the place, as expressed in the Dreaming.
Australian Aboriginal Art
Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)
The characteristic patterns of central desert Aboriginal art, such as the iconic dots and concentric circles, are a symbolic language used to propagate the stories of the Dreamtime. These symbols are related to the specific language groups and clans that create the art. The art from the central desert people is dominated by dots and geometric symbols while the art of the Arnhem Land people is more figurative enhanced with specific hatching patterns. These are not schools of artistic groups with common ideas, as is the case in Western art, but are culturally, geographically and genetically related groups of artists who draw inspiration from the same Dreamings.
Aboriginal art is experienced in a very different way than Western painting. The biggest difference is that the traditional art is entirely utilitarian., there is no concept of art for art’s sake in Aboriginal culture. The works are exclusively manufactured to express the stories of the Dreamtime to pass them on to future generations. Body painting is undertaken for rituals in which events from the Dreamtime are enacted. Sand Mosaics are experienced by a ritually singing and dancing through them, destroying them in the process. The painters of central Australia manufacture their contemporary works, which are mostly derived from traditional sand mosaics, horizontally on the ground and not vertically on an easel. The works of Aboriginal artists in museums is, however, almost invariably displayed vertically, following the conventions of Western art. One exception is the Art Gallery of South Australia where a monumental work of Clifford Possum is exhibited horizontally.
Aboriginal art as we currently know it is fairly new and became appreciated by a wider audience in the nineteen seventies. Geoffrey Bardon, who worked as a teacher at Papunya Tula, brought this form of art to the attention of the Western world. Papunya Tula is one of many settlements for aboriginal people that were established by the Australian government in the middle of the last century. People were forcefully removed from their traditional territories and taken to the settlements. This caused tension and immense stress because the people were separated from their traditional way of life. Geoffrey Bardon observed the importance of drawings in their culture and provided the men in Papunya Tula with materials to express their traditional art with contemporary materials. The men painted a mural on a blank wall in the settlement which was the starting point of the now world renowned central and western desert art movement.
The use of new materials has opened up a whole new world for Aboriginal art and has become a distinctive style in the global contemporary art scene. Tradition and contemporary art are also separated in the exhibition space. Contemporary works are exhibited in art galleries while traditional works, such as baskets, boomerangs and painted objects, are exhibited in the anthropological museums. The inspiration for both is, however, the same: the stories of the Dreamtime.
A particular design can only be used by a limited group of people, the owners of that particular Dreaming. The designs of Aboriginal art from the Western desert are almost entirely abstract in nature and each painting has several layers of meaning. Aboriginal art can thus not exclusively be interpreted from an immanent perspective as the true meaning of the work lies outside the picture itself lies, i.e. is transcendent to the painting. The full meaning of the painting is always more than what can be seen on the surface. To come to the true meaning of the paintings, it must examined at different levels.
On the first level of meaning, the paintings in the western and central desert tradition are dominated by the many dots in both background and foreground. The paintings generally do not include figurative elements, but a culturally specific symbolic language of concentric circles, animal tracks and other shapes. The paintings from the early modern period are almost entirely abstract in nature and are close to the traditional sand mosaics and paintings from which they are derived. The available colour range is traditionally determined by what exists in nature, mainly ochre based. The contemporary art of central Australia has more or less detached itself from the strict traditions and uses more colours and contains more figurative elements, as shown by the work discussed below.
Interpretation of aboriginal art
At the second level, the paintings depict the natural landscape that is connected with stories from the Dreamtime. Geological structures are interpreted as affected by the activities of the Dreamtime ancestors that roamed the land in primordial times. Sand mosaics were traditionally used to illustrate stories from the Dreamtime and were a vehicle for knowledge about the landscape and communicated the places where water and food could be found. Because of the limitations of drawing in sand, a rich symbolic language is used to express the Dreamings. Concentric circles represent a stone or a place where water and food can be found and with two or four U-shaped lines around it, this symbol represents a camp fire with men (two lines) or women (four lines). Contemporary Aboriginal painting has lost this function of knowledge transfer because it is produced for an uninitiated audience, but the meaning is still contained within the traditional designs.
At the third level, the designs are seen as representations of ceremonies which are conducted to re-enact the epic journeys of the Dreamtime ancestors. These ceremonies are conducted as part of a cultural calendar throughout the year. At this level, the paintings are multi-dimensional and express a series of events in time in one image.
On the fourth and deepest level the paintings contain a metaphysical knowledge that is known only to insiders of the Dreaming. Not much is publicly known about this deepest level of interpretation since this knowledge secret. In traditional Aboriginal culture, the sacred and the secret almost fully overlap. The emphasis on secrecy in Aboriginal culture can cause cultural tensions in the contemporary world. It is not only forbidden to share knowledge with outsiders, even within the Aboriginal culture there are strict rules on the distribution of knowledge. The website of The Art Gallery of South Australia warns for the esoteric content of the displayed works: “… this site may include images of a culturally sensitive nature. All efforts have been made to ensure that restricted works are not included.”
There have been problems with the exhibition of works that depict secret stories. According to Bardon the curiosity of art enthusiasts to know the secret meaning of paintings has lead developing more complex and busy designs to obfuscate the deeper meaning of the paintings. Aboriginal Artist Tim Leura considers the patterns he paints on canvas to be mere toys. The serious work is painted on the bodies of people or on the ground when undertaking a ceremony.
I purchased Larapinta Dreaming in 2003 from one of the many galleries that are dotted around Alice Springs. Aboriginal art is terribly popular among tourists and it is therefore an important source of income for many Aborigines.
Larapinta Dreaming is painted in acrylic on canvas (63 x 41 cm) by Marilyn Armstrong from Hermansburg near Alice Springs. Marilyn was born in Jay Creek community, in the red heart of Australia. As a child she came into contact with famous Aboriginal painters such as Albert Namatjira and Clifford Possum and in 1986 she started to paint Dreamtime stories herself.
The most striking element of Larapinta Dreaming is the oval ring of caterpillars, the ‘larapinta’, encircling a collection of emu and dingo tracks. The background of the painting is entirely made of dots in varying colours, except for the central part of the composition. The colour palette of this work contains many bright colours, a recent development in contemporary Aboriginal art.
The back of the painting illustrates the second level of meaning:
“This area got many sacred sites and there is one where the dogs vomit other side is where the women had been meetings, dances and also the caterpillar dreamings where the Aranda people camp is. Marilyn Armstrong, Mbilja Nampitjinpa (Skin Name)”. ((The skin name refers to the aboriginal kinship system.))
On the second level of meaning, this painting refers to the Macdonnel Ranges, the geological formations around Alice Springs that are reminiscent of caterpillars. This painting is thus probably a reference to an unnamed ceremonial place in the Macdonnel Ranges.
Since I am not privy to the deeper meaning of the Larapinta Dreaming I can not comment on the ceremonial and metaphysical significance, which constitutes the third and fourth level of meaning. I could speculate that since this was painted by a woman, the vomiting might be related to morning sickness of pregnant women and that this painting refers to a place where pregnant women gather and share knowledge with the elders. However, this is pure speculation on my part.