Dreamtime Stories; the Living History of Aboriginal Art

By Tippett, Veronica | UNESCO Courier, December 1988 | Go to article overview
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Dreamtime Stories; the Living History of Aboriginal Art

Tippett, Veronica, UNESCO Courier

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.

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