Aboriginal art has a deep-rooted connection with nature.
Many of us think Australia is synonymous with kangaroos, the Sydney Opera House, Inxs and Kylie Minogue. Some link it to the exciting Gold Coast and the harsh Outback, while others recognise it for its fabulous cricket, hockey and rugby teams. However, there's a lot more to it than these associations. In reality, it's an ancient land with an old soul and a deep wisdom that goes beyond the human realm.
Those who think Australia's history began with European colonisation are on track. However, its true heritage dates back more than 30,000 years and it involves the mysterious and magnificent native inhabitants of the land ? the Aborigines. These indigenous people may comprise only two per cent of the Australian population but their contribution to Australia's culture warrants attention and respect.
It is believed that between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, Australian Aborigines migrated from somewhere in Asia. They comprised more than 500 groups that spoke around 200 languages and dialects, some of which are now extinct. However, one element unified these groups - their love of the land and nature. This deep connection with nature has inspired their culture and their art including traditional forms such as dance, music and paintings and engravings on rock, sand and even tree bark.
Aboriginal art, like its culture, has a deep and spiritual connection with everything in nature. This symbiotic bond is what gives Aborigines their identity. Aborigines believe that the earth is not just soil or rocks; they link the environment, the air, the stars, moon and the sun and all creation as an extension of the 'Dreamtime' also referred to as the 'Dreaming.' According to legends, this period is the mystical past when their ancestors inhabited the earth. Everything in this realm existed in spirit form. They also believed it was the time that all creation was initiated.
Aborigines believe that their tribes and clans are also descendants of their spirit ancestors, whom they symbolise as animals such as the emu, kangaroo or even birds and fish. These then become symbols or totems that represent a clan. Totems are an important part of aboriginal art. Totems are engraved, painted or carved on different media and objects. These objects, which could be boards, cave walls or stones, and the sacred designs on them, represent the life force of the ancestral spirits and their continuance in the present realm.
Totems are also used in the sacred rituals that reaffirm the spiritual connection between the Dreaming, the earth and the Aborigines. And just as the 'Dreaming' can also refer to a person's spiritual beliefs, totems can also identify an individual with his ancestors. Aboriginal paintings can be found on canvas, bark, trees, wood, human bodies and even on cave walls.
The artists used paints that were made from water or saliva mixed with ochre and other natural pigments. They use everything from primitive brushes, twigs, their fingers and even the mouth to spit onto the canvas to create traditional motifs and patterns. The important forms of painting that can be seen in aboriginal culture include X-ray art that depicts the skeletal outlines of animals and humans, dot painting that uses dots to create complex patterns and totems, and the technique of using hand prints. Spirals, circles and straight lines dominate these paintings.
Bark painting was an important form of art for the Aborigines. French artist N. M. Petit was the first European to make a record of such a painting in the 1800s in Tasmania. You could also find examples of such art in Victoria and New South Wales. Today, bark painting is still practised among aboriginal communities living in Kimberley and Arnhem Land.
Carved shells, Mimi (mythical creatures) carvings, jewellery and basket weaving are among other indigenous artistic pursuits. Traditionally, headdresses, ornaments, face and body painting as well as scarring hold great spiritual importance for Aborigines. These forms of decoration are governed by strict rules. Clay or natural ochres are mostly used to decorate the torso, face and limbs. They reflect distinct patterns or motifs that represent an individual's tribal and social status as well as their ancestors or totemic animals. They could be used in ceremonies to signify a coming of age or even marriages.
Other forms of artistic expression, especially the performing arts practised among the aboriginal people including the story-telling tradition and dance and music, play an important role in Aborigine society.
Elders have passed on stories of the Dreamtime to younger generations for centuries. This tradition is still an integral part of aboriginal culture as it brings the clan together, connects it to the Dreamtime and reinforces the aboriginal way of life. According to myths, the spirits from the 'Dreamtime' plane used songs and music to create living things on earth. Songs are composed in honour of their ancestors, animals and nature. Funerals, hunting expeditions and rituals and ceremonies also have special songs.
The didgeridoo (also called the yidaki, gurrmurr or gindjunggang) is the primary musical instrument used by Australia's indigenous people, especially those in the north, to create music for their ritual, ceremonial and celebratory events. Some tribes also use clap sticks in conjunction with the didgeridoo to create a rhythmic beat with the haunting tunes of the didgeridoo.
The instrument is traditionally made from hardwood sourced from trees native to the region, and can be likened to a wooden trumpet. The sounds that emanate from the pipe seem almost primeval. While the instrument looks simple, it takes a very skilled player with good breath control to play the instrument for a long time.
Like every tribal or contemporary community, dance is an integral part of social life in aboriginal society. It is considered an important form of expression and entertainment. Every tribe has some traditional moves that incorporate foot and hand movements with some intense foot stamping. Dancers also imitate animals and birds.
Australia has numerous art galleries and cultural centres that are dedicated to promoting indigenous art and culture. Several of Australia's national parks also have aboriginal sites and art. Aboriginal artists have also won acclaim for their work.
Regardless of the art form and the recognition it has gained globally, the Aborigines of Australia commune with nature and their ancestors through it. Their art, like their culture, cannot perish. It has sustained its identity through centuries of hardships and struggle. Its essence is spiritual and primeval. It is of this reality yet far removed from its superficialities.