Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.

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  1. Pingback: arte aborígena em pedra (texto em inglês) | AICL - Ass. Int'l dos Colóquios da Lusofonia

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