The aborigines of Australia still practice an art comparable with that of our stone- age ancestors of Europe. This art permeates all aspects of the aborigines' life. It is the vital medium through which they keep alive their philosophies, their laws and the stories of their creation.
Throughout southern and central Australia, this art is remarkably simple and abstract, consisting almost entirely of spirals, concentric circles, wavy and straight lines. In other parts of the continent, however, the art tends to become representational. In the Hawkesbury River basin of New South Wales, the natives engraved, on the flat rocks, outlines of huge men, animals, birds and fish, some of them reaching a length of sixty feet. Because the meanings and the underlying myths of these remarkable engravings were not collected whilst the aborigines who produced them were still living, that knowledge is lost forever.
In North-eastern Australia, on the opposite side of the continent, the art of the caves is dominated by large anthropomorphic figures with halolike ornaments known as the Wandjina. These paintings are associated with the ceremonies of rainmaking, spirit children and the increase of food.
In Arnhem Land, Northern Australia, aboriginal art has developed in some of its most interesting forms. The present volume deals with the rich and varied art forms of the cave and bark paintings found within the boundaries of that remote land.
The most decorative and colourful cave paintings have been found along the western edge of the Arnhem Land plateau. Recent investigations have shown that they are of two different types: the static, polychrome, X-ray paintings -- some of them produced within the memory of living men -- of animals, birds, fish and reptiles, but seldom of human beings, in which the internal as well as the external details are portrayed; and an older, more vital, monochromatic art, consisting almost entirely of single-line drawings of human beings in action -- men running, fighting or throwing spears and women carrying their food vessels. These single-line monochromatic drawings have a sense of movement entirely lacking in the polychrome paintings.
The aborigines believe that these drawings -- most of them less than a half a metre high -- are the work, not of their own kind, but of a tall, thinbodied fairy people known as the Mimis, who live in the rocky plateau. No one has seen a Mimi, though they collect food and hunt in the same way as the aborigines, for the Mimis are a shy . . .