The average person's concept of "Aboriginal" does not include much of a corner for structured art.
Yet on the island continent of Australia, a place teeming with fascinating, unique species, there exists a rich artistic tradition among the indigenous Aborigines, a people whose origins are lost in the misty reaches of antiquity.Petroglyphs pecked into great flat rocks in South Australia; cave painting and carving all over the continent; bark painting, tree carving and x-ray paintings of the tropical North. At Uluru (Ayers Rock), in the outback, in national parks and city museums - Aboriginal art exists wherever seekers have eyes to see and interest to ferret it out. Following its trail could lead to an interesting pilgrimage through Australia.
The early Aborigines presumably migrated from Asia some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. As hunter-gatherers who lived in clans, varying from 50 to several thousand members, their life was in many ways easier than later agriculturalists. For they appreciated the interaction between climate, geography and ecology, and bent with the elements rather than fighting them.
These people explained the creation in myths they called "dreamings," and every plant, animal and natural feature had its place. Their visual arts reflect these creative myths, and depict their sacred totems (an object serving as an emblem of a family or clan).
"Almost without exception, Aboriginies tell of a time beyond memory when the earth was flat and featureless--no flowers, food, people. Then sometime, somehow, out of the earth or out of the sea, traveling over the edge of the world or descending from the skies, came the creative heroes," said Baiglin and Mullins, noted authors on the subject. "They decreed and created how things should be--drawing gullies with their staffs, giving birth to man and other creatures, converting one another into trees and rock formations.
The creators might throw someone into the sky to make the moon, or throw a woman gathering yams up to harvest the stars. "Everything that moved and grew, had substance or form was created by these heroes. They defined codes of conduct, created rituals, then left, sometimes turning into sacred objects, sometimes sinking into a rock's face, leaving the impression for men to see and paint."
In the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, I saw a film on the dreaming of Ngurunderi--how he created fishes, islands, and rivers while pursuing his two disobedient wives along the seashore. Finally overtaking them, he killed them, then proceeded into the sky.
In Sleisbeck, Arnhem Land, Aborigines still make sacred pilgrimages to the Sickness Dreaming Place, home of the creature hero Nargorkun and his wives, the Narlinji-linji. After much creative activity, including emergence of fire and forcing rocks and ridges to their present position, he was stung by hornets. This caused him great swelling and sickness, and he dragged himself to a cleft in the rock, where he slumbers. Visitors must be very careful not to disturb his rest, since if he wakes he will split the earth in two, coming out.
Nargorkun is painted on the wall of the cave, a painting the Aborigines believe is the incarnation of the creator himself, rendered in red and white--not as one might suppose based in Christian tradition, but in the fertility colors of blood and water. Red and white figures are widely seen in cave paintings.
At the great dreaming place of Uluru (Ayers Rock), a foremost Australian tourist attraction, paintings portray the totemic beings who made the rock--not only humans, but snakes and other creatures. Uluru has long been a major site for initiation and fertility rites among Aboriginies, often involving blood-letting.
Elsewhere are depicted such supernatural creatures as the stick-figure Mimis (Arnhem Land), fairy folk who come out of rock crevices only at night; or the terrifying Quinkans, who having broken the marriage laws, lurk just beyond the marriage laws, lurk just beyond the campfire to attack the unwary. Stenciled designs are widely seen, the earliest probably having been the human hand.
Pecked petroglyphs, probably made with sharp stones, also date to people of the Dreamtime. These are found throughout the mainland and Tasmania, with concentrations in the Sydney-Hawksbury district of New South Wales, where there was suitable flat sandstone. There more than 4,000 figures have been recorded, with individual areas of several acres having as many as 100 figures.
But cave painting is the most common ancient art form. Art was and is essential to Aboriginal life, dealing with the ceremonial and secular, even daily events; with sorcery and magic, religious beliefs, fertility and birth, achievements, gossip, hunting, loves and hates.
The richest concentrations are in the North, and paintings must be retouched to endure. Certain areas for gathering natural red and yellow ochres were highly prized. For example, Aborigines traveled hundreds of miles to collect red ochre, regarded as blood of a sacred emu, from the Yarrakinna deposit in the Flinders Range of South Australia, carrying it home in big blocks on their heads. After grinding the ochre they mixed with it natural fixatives such as emu fat, wax and wild honey.
In central Australia, art is dictated by a code of rigid adherence to designs ordained by totemic ancestors. In the tropical North, by contrast, painting becomes freer, more elaborate and colorful, perhaps influenced by the Island cultures.
In Arnhem Land one can see fine examples of tree carving (dendroglyphs) and bark painting. The latter may have begun when Aborigines whiled away the time by painting the bark they used to make temporary shelters, abandoning them when they moved on.
Modern bark paintings show a strong sense of design and color. Subjects range from totemic figures and ancestral beings (snakes are a favorite) to natural features of sky, land and sea; hunting, fishing, dancing, boats and daily activities. Bark paintings deteriorate in only a few years in the open, but many are now collected and put in museums.
Western Arnhem Land is also a center of the stylized x-ray painting, which shows not only the external form of an animal, but its skeleton, heart, lungs and other organs. There too one finds experts in the art of skull carving.
On Echo Island off Arnhem Land, one will find spectacular displays of carved and painted burial poles; also on Melville Island, a center of bark painting.
Few relics remain from long ago because in Australia, as elsewhere, white colonists originally saw little of value in indigenous art until too late. The Australian government has now become alert, and is preserving many sites and artifacts.
In the Melbourne Museum, one finds a good collection of stick sculptures. During June, the South Australian Museum in Adelaide was displaying "Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia"--body and ground designs transferred to canvas and acrylic paintings. This collection, which has since shown at the Asia Society Galleries in New York City, will be at the Smart Gallery, University of Chicago, from Jan. 27-March 19, and from May 13-late August at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.
In connection with Expo '88 in Brisbane, the city's Queensland Museum mounted an extensive, nationwide collection of bark and x-ray paintings, and the new acryluic art by Aboriginal painters.
The latter expression is mainly a development of the past 20 years, when Aborigines of the interior were given paints and canvas and asked to reproduce whatever they liked. The result was mostly depictions of mythic actions and sites, using the traditional symbolic elements: concentric circles, lines and dots. Artists have found ready acceptance for their often stunning pictures, which are found in many galleries and homes of Australia.
On Echpo up