THE Aboriginal art of Australia belongs to the world's oldest living art tradition, unbroken for thousands of years. It continues to survive and develop because it has been retained and treasured in the memories of successive generations of Aboriginal people who have invested it with remarkable breadth, depth, symbolism, vigour and intensity.
Despite the fact that the past 200 years of European settlement have seen the erosion of much of the traditional fabric of Aboriginal life and the cultural attenuation of many groups of people, a large and rich body of Aboriginal artistic heritage has survived. In many communities the arts are still an integral part of social and religious life but have also acquired a new and urgent emphasis-that of reinforcing Aboriginal identity and asserting traditional values in the face of an encroaching wider community.
In many ways the extraordinary richness and variety of Aboriginal culture, even in Australia, has been a well kept secret. But while there is still emphasis on secrecy to preserve the sacred nature of much Aboriginal culture, there is also an increasing openness and willingness to share aspects of it. For example, it is still not widely known that Australia is the world's largest repository of Palaeolithic rock art sites, many of which redate the well-known rock art galleries of Europe and Africa. Throughout Australia ther are thousands of sites housing superb engravings and paintings. In northern Australia in particular there are vast galleries which record a pageant of mythological and historical events from Antiquity until recent times. As individual works of art they are astonishing and as a continuous record of the development of a unique artistic tradition they are unsurpassed.
Most traditional Aboriginal art can be regarded as religious art, in which landscape and myth predominated. As such, it represented and amplified themes concerning the sacred myths and totemic beliefs connected with the Dreamtime, that sacred time in Aboriginal culture which represents the beginning of creation. According to Aboriginal belief, all life as ltis known todayhuman, animal, bird, fish-is a part of one unchanging and interconnected system, one vast network of relationships, which can be traced back to the Great Spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime refers not only to an ancient era of creation-it continues as the Dreaming in the spiritual lives of Aboriginal people today.
Often Aboriginal art was, and is, also a statement concerning land-a reflection of the Aboriginal relationship to particular stretches of land to which individuals or groups were linked through mythological associations or secific connections with spirit beings. Art, as the essence of the mythical and ritual force, prevaded the life of Aboriginal society, uniting it and giving it meaning.
Music, song, dance and the associated visual arts were all inextricably connected. There were no 'professional' artists as such in Aboriginal society. Everyone participated in the arts, although those with exceptional skills were recognized and encouraged.
Aboriginal Australia was (and still is) made up of small, select groups with different languages and distinct territories. This gave birth to different art styles and traditions. Western Desert art, for example, with its curves, lines and concentric circles, has a unique and very distinctive style. Papunya, an Aboriginal community settlement about 300 kilometres west of Alice Springs, is the present home of several tribal groups whose original home territories lie in central Australia. There, the Walbiri-Pintubi people create magnificent ground designs from plants, featherdown, ochre and clay. these patterns represent the land as well as events of the creation era. The meanings of the symbols in the ground paintings vary according to the site revealed, the religious inferences and the degree of information the artists have been allowed to convey. The paintings also tell stories through symbols and signs which continue to be part of traditional Aboriginal communication.
Papunya is also the birthplace and home of a dramatic and profound new art form which has caught the imagination and interest of people throughout Australia and overseas. It involves the transference of the decorative ground sculptures and sand paintings onto board and canvas with the use of commercial paints. This innovation in Western Desert art began in 1970 with the encouragement of a teacher at the settlement. Now the Desert painters produce an exciting and vivid array of paintings in which traditional themes are considerably elaborated and colour contrasts are used which were not possible using traditional techniques. But the distinctive Desert style remains; the symbols and stories retain their links with a tradition that stretches back to the Dreamtime. Neither does this new form displace the old-the ground paintings are as important as ever in their original ritual context.
In the north of the Northern Territory, other, just as distinctive, art styles are to be found. The rock and bark paintings of western Arnhem Land are an outstanding example. The Aboriginal people in this large tropical region have retained close links with their long past and with the land they have inhabited for many thousands of years. Much of the rock art that abounds in this area reflects that antiquity and underscores Aboriginal links with earliest times. Some of the oldest paintings are said to have been produced by spirit beings called Mimi. They are vivid, lively, open line drawings, usually in red ochre, of men and women in action-running, fighting and hunting.
Despite European intrusions. religious and ceremonial life and artistic activity have continued to exist and develop in this part of the country. Many bark paintings being produced today by Arnhem Land artists reflect a remarkable continuity of subject and style with the ancient cave paintings. One feature of rock art that appears 'in contemporary paintings is the X-ray drawing style that illustrates the internal organs and skeletal structure of the creatures represented. These paintings, which generally portray animals, birds, reptiles and fish-seldom human beings-are intended to reveal the whole being, not simply its external manifestation. Yet this adherence to traditional technique and styles is no mere copyist tradition, but an art that is vibrant, relevant, imaginative and contemporary.
The art of bark painting has flourished over the last two decades to become the most widespread form of Aboriginal artistic expression throughout northern Australia. Designs are painted in earth ochres on the smooth inner surface of sheets of bark from stringybark eucalyptus trees, The bark is stripped from the trees during the wet season and cured over a fire. The edges are then trimmed, and the bark is flattened with stones or weights. Colours come from a range of earth-based pigments including ochres, pipeclay and manganese, as well as charcoal, giving the artists a palette of white, brown, yellow, red and black. No blue or green paint is used but the addition of seeds, feathers and leaves makes possible a wide choice of patterns and colours.
All Aboriginal art traditionally rested on the need for explanation, and today when an artist sells his work, he usually provides a brief "story" for each piece. Generally this is the simplest explanation of the design, such as might be given to an uninitiated child. The deeper levels of meaning, the references to sacred symbols and other details reserved for tribal elders who have attained ritual maturity, are never passed on at the sale of the painting. In many families of eastern Arnhem Land today, unlike in earlier times, the women often paint on bark. Their designs represent aspects of life related to their traditional role of food gatherer.
As the story of the Papunya artists shows, non-traditional art forms such as acrylic paintings, batik, silkscreen printing, leatherwork and pottery are also being adopted and developed by Aboriginal artists and have no less validity or legitimacy as cultural expressions. Such innovative responses to a changing world include the beautiful batiks of the women of Utopia whose works incorporate motifs and designs derived from traditional stories and their desert environment.
The Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst Islands about 100 kilometres north of Darwin have also successfully blended the old and the new to produce a dynamic and creative art industry. The Tiwi people have lived on these two islands for more than 20,000 years, expressing their culture in art and craftwork that is now sought worldwide.
Tiwi art is traditionally strongly abstract and symbolic, comprising circles, curved lines and dots. These designs are applied to a number of artefacts, the most dramatic being the spectacular pukamani or grave posts which are unique to the Tiwi. In 1969 an art teacher at the mission school on Bathurst Island began an Aboriginal silkscreen workshop. This led to the founding of two ventures, Bima Wear and Tiwi Designs. Bima Wear recently fashioned the Pope's vestments for his visit to Australia. Today all seventeen people who work at Bima Wear are Aboriginal women. Most of the garments designed, printed and sewn by them are for females. Tiwi Designs, on the other hand, employs only men. Women have worked there in the past, but traditional cultural influences make it difficult for men and women to work together. Tiwi designs, which have strong visual appeal and have become very popular, are now applied to a wide range of items from tablecloths, placemats, T-shirts and wall hangings to lengths of fabric for fashions and furnishings. Although this enterprise is recognized by the Aboriginal artists as a "new way", they point out that ltis based on a traditional understanding of their natural environment and a familiarity with ritual knowledge and its traditional forms of expression.
Today, all major art institutions in Australia and many regional galleries are building collections of Aboriginal art. And through public exhibitions, media reviews, films and publications, the work of senior Aboriginal artists is being increasingly seen as one of the most important and vibrant facets of Australian cultural life.
VERONICA TIPPETT is the Aboriginal Programs Officer in Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is herself an Aboriginal. She has held a number of senior positions in the Australian national public service and has been particularly concerned with equal employment opportunity and training programmes.…