Mainstream fascination with Aboriginal art began in the 1970s, when an Australian school teacher encouraged tribesmen to draw examples of traditional indigenous art on a blank board. Since then, Aboriginal art has become an industry estimated to be worth AU$200 million a year, most of which is used to improve living conditions in their impoverished communities.
Of course, these famous aboriginal art styles go back a lot further than the 1970s. The dot paintings that have captured the imaginations of art enthusiasts around the world can be seen in rock paintings dating back at least 20,000 years, and examples of ancient Aboriginal iconography are etched on rocks beside famous hiking trails throughout Australia.
Warlugulong, the work of Aboriginal artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, is a famous painting that demonstrates the power of combining Aboriginal art styles and cultural motifs. It features elements from nine Aboriginal “dreamings”, and its main focus is expressing the devastating yet awe-inspiring effects of a bushfire started by the ancestral being Lungkata, who wanted to punish his two sons for greed. It has been named one of the most important Australian paintings of the 20th century. In 2007, it was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for AU$2.4 million (Wikipedia).
Such examples demonstrate the recent rise to prominence of Aboriginal art, which, as an art style dating back at least 20,000 years, could be called the oldest “art craze”.
Aboriginal art is broadly categorized into “figurative” and “non-figurative”; the former referring to images that are immediately recognizable for what they portray, and the latter describing more ambiguous drawings that could represent one of a number of things. Study of Aboriginal art reveals variations in style according to the region where it was discovered, and how far back it dates.
Whatever the variations, Aboriginal art springs from sacred cultural traditions and beliefs held in common by tribes throughout Australia; that being a strong spiritual connection to the land, and the “dreaming”.
Different tribes may have different words for it, with the word “dreaming” itself being an attempt by western culture to grasp the concept. It has consequently been adopted by the Aboriginals when they attempt to explain it. But “dreaming” doesn’t refer to literal dreaming. It refers to creation itself.
Aboriginal cultural belief holds that the land was lifeless and formless until the spirits breathed life and shape into it during a period known as “the Dreamtime”. Unlike creation in religions more familiar to western culture, the “Dreamtime” was not an event that occurred thousands of years ago, but rather one that is constantly occurring, and it’s only our awareness of it that varies. That awareness is expressed through the “dreaming”, which manifests itself through the stories, songs, and art of Aboriginal tradition.
Raising awareness through art
There may be no word for ‘time’ in Aboriginal tradition, but they have probably known more change in the past century then in the 20,000 years preceding it.
Indigenous communities of today are still feeling the effects of over a hundred years’ worth of discrimination and forced removal, as in the case of the “Stolen Generations”: Aboriginal children who were forcibly taken from their communities by government and church agencies between 1869 and 1969, often suffering physical and emotional abuse in the hands of their new caretakers.
Thirty-three per cent of Aboriginal people still live in rural areas, and studies have indicated significantly lower life expectancies amongst Australia’s indigenous population whether they live in rural or urban communities. Statistics released in 2006 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed an average gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous males of 11.5 years and 9.7 years between indigenous and non-indigenous females. This is a reflection of the poverty and health issues endured by indigenous populations – a large portion of who are either children of the “Stolen Generations”, or were themselves stolen.
Aboriginal art serves as a means to preserve their culture and draw attention to their plight, as well as generate financial resources that can be invested in initiatives to address the needs of impoverished indigenous communities. Over the next four years, AU$11 million will be invested in the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support (IVAIS) program, which is one example of efforts underway to promote the Aboriginal art industry. Many academic institutions are also providing courses in Aboriginal art to foster sensitivity towards their culture, and awareness of the challenges that still have to be overcome.
Through a greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal art, people can contribute to a worthy cause, as well as provide themselves with a glimpse into thousands of years’ worth of culture and spiritual connection to the land.
Matthew Flax writes for nowlearning.com.au, which promotes tertiary education opportunities throughout Australia, including online art appreciation courses, TAFE courses in Sydney, and rural science courses.