How to Read the Symbolism in Aboriginal Art
For thousands of years, an art form has existed that includes works in a wide range of media, including bark painting, ceremonial clothing, painting on leaves, rock carving, watercolor painting, and wood carving. This art form is known as Indigenous Aboriginal Art and pre-dates European colonization.
Initially created by the Aborigines who first settled in Australia, with the passage of time collaborations from other civilizations have also been included in the collection. Since the Aborigines did not have a written language back then to communicate, much of their cultural heritage and passing down of information to newer generations was through this remarkable art form.
This Jajirrdi and Janganpa Jukurrpa (western quoll and common brush-tail possum Dreaming is based at Yakurdiyi, a cave and rock hole south-east of Yuendumu. ( © Ritasha Nampilinpa Watson / ArtArk)
The Aboriginal Art of Telling a Story
Aboriginal art is centered on storytelling . That is why we find much of their art based on symbols and icons that represent different elements within their culture and stories. Many of these symbols retain their meanings across different regions, while the contextual meaning within a painting may be subject to change. Much of the art available and discovered by archaeologists uses an aerial perspective.
Much of this is now being reinterpreted into ceremonial acts, songs, and other traditions through painstaking study and careful analysis.
Windmill Corroboree, Aboriginal Dance, North Queensland - very early 1900s. ( Public Domain )
Recognition for the Oldest Form of Art
According to a recent study published by Creative Spirits, the highest price that an Aboriginal painting could fetch in 1990 was around $10,000. However, all of this changed with time as in 2008; an Aboriginal painting was sold for a whopping $2.5 million.
Furthermore, the annual worth of the Aboriginal Arts Market was worth $400 million by 2007. Every year Aboriginal Art contributes millions of dollars to the Australian economy as paintings sold at auctions fetch incredibly high prices. One of the biggest examples of Aboriginal Art increasing in value over time is that of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s painting, known as Water Dreaming.
The painting was sold for a mere $150 back in 1973; however, by the year 2000, it exchanged hands for a spectacular $486,500 price tag. This is an increase of more than 3,243% in 27 years. By 2010 the Australian government launched a nationwide Indigenous Art Code that protected artists from dodgy sales practices backed by a committee on behalf of the Aboriginal Australian Art Industry.
Aboriginal rock art on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station. (Graeme Churchard / CC BY 2.0 )
History of Aboriginal Art
Many critics out there consider Aboriginal Art form as the oldest form of art. Some consider the Aboriginal culture to date back as far as 60,000 to 80,000 years. While Aboriginal Australians very well may have been the earliest of settlers in the land, as of the 2016 Australian Census, they comprise only 3.3% of the total population of Australia.
It is widely believed that the oldest of all ancestors of the Aborigine people migrated from Asia during the Pleistocene era.
Before extensive European settlement was made possible, it is widely believed that over 250 Aboriginal languages existed. Furthermore, a study by Anders Bergstrom in a 2018 doctoral thesis stated the populations of the region appear to have been genetically independent of the rest of the world since their divergence around 50,000 years ago.
Early anthropologists who discovered aboriginal art form initially for the rest of the world used the term ‘Dreaming’ that refers to the religious and cultural understanding and worldview associated with Australian Aboriginal beliefs.
That is why you would hear the term ‘ Dreamtime’ whenever this art form is mentioned as it is attributed to the Aboriginal understanding of the world, how it was created, and various other stories. Hence Dreamtime is often referred to as the beginning of knowledge from which all other laws of existence sprouted and soon these laws became an obligation and must for survival.
Some natural sites were also considered sacred to the Aborigines. These were the locations where seasonal rituals were performed. During such rituals, the people created art to tell stories. While these stories may differ from one region to another, the Dreaming or Jukurrpa is a common element found in all Aboriginal art.
Many of these included mythical ancestral spirits who were labeled as creators of both the land and the sky. This is why, in many art pieces, you will always find some spiritual or mythological undertone that refers to Dreaming.
One tradition that has existed since the earliest Aboriginal Culture and still continues to the present is asking for permission before creating an artwork. Early Aboriginal Artists would depict traditional stories or scared teachings, but in order to do so would first ask their elders within the community before proceeding. Hence through this method, stories across generations have been passed down and some through family lineage as well.
Examples of some of the many symbols of Australian aboriginal art. ( drutska / Adobe Stock)
Symbolism in Aboriginal Art
Symbolism in Aboriginal Art is a primary focus. Much of these symbols are used to tell stories for children, elders, and even newcomers. Hence in this art form, you will find that symbols are put together to tell a story or teach an important lesson. However, there are several distinct styles that can be identified that differ from one region to another.
Nevertheless, the context of the narrative also comes into play which means standard symbols can imply different meanings within the story that is being foretold by the original artist. While talking about symbols, we cannot deny or undermine the importance of clan symbols.
The ceremonial use of certain clan patterns within this art form is used to link people to a particular clan. Clan symbols usually comprise of the following elements:
- A fine set of lines drawn using specific ochre colors that represent elements such as fire and water.
- Specific totemic animal designs that are also included to add greater detail and meanings.
Combining these two features together signifies which clan the owner of the painting or artwork comes from and moreover, it can be further studied to link the person’s identity closely.
This can be conveyed through the symbols that they use within their art that can relate to their relationship to Dreamtime story as well as their clan’s mythological beliefs. Contrary to common belief, the symbol used within the drawings and paintings can also be used to represent deeper meanings and interpretations.
A prime example can be of the symbol used to represent the budgerigar, which is a type of local parakeet common to Australia. While from an aerial view it portrays a bird as expected but it can also represent indentations on the ground. The budgerigar is also popular in Aboriginal Art because back in the day people used this type of bird to guide them to various edible foods as well as locating water resources.
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Some of the common Aboriginal symbols and their meanings. ( drutska / Adobe Stock)
Popular Symbols and Their Meanings
To delve further on the subject of symbols and their prominence in Aboriginal Art, let’s take a quick look at some of the most commonly used ones with their meanings for a deeper comprehension regarding their use:
Motifs have popularly been used as a recurring element within a narrative that has symbolic significance in a story. By using a motif, one can produce various aspects of the narrative, such as mood and theme. In Aboriginal Art motifs are used to depict a lot of things that can relate to actions, inform the viewer about a special ceremony or tradition, and even the plot of the narrative.
For example, many animals in the stories can be simply represented by their footprints. Hence if an artist wanted to depict an emu, then they would draw a three-pointed V track on their painting or drawing.
Yankirri Jukurrpa - Emu Dreaming. ( © Margaret Nangala Gallagher / ArtArk)
Another example could that be of several U-shaped or crescent icons placed along the boundary of another symbol that takes the form of concentric circles. This could represent a meeting place attended by a number of people, more on this I will discuss later.
Hence essentially one comes to the understanding that the use of Aboriginal motifs are a marvel to behold because once you start understanding the different meanings of various symbols, a painting could literarily represent a thousand words. It is amazing and most fascinating that an entire narrative can be told through a painting with unique symbols , and this can surely make you fall in love with this mesmerizing art form.
Emu symbols. ( drutska / Adobe Stock)
As mentioned earlier, the Aboriginal symbol for an emu is similar to an arrow that can represent its distinctive three-toed footprint. Emu is the second-largest living bird by height after the Ostrich.
Australians fairly recognize it as a native bird which is why many Aboriginal Art forms would often include the mention of this bird.
Whether it played a vital role in the culture and tradition of the Aborigines requires further digging. However, when we take into perspective how commonly the emu is being represented through this art form generally implies that the emus were quite common and in abundance during those times.
Just like cats and dogs are popularly owned as a pet, emus must have been a common choice of pet back then. However, in a study by ABC News, emus are stated to represent the creator spirits that used to look over the land according to Aboriginal legends. Many Aboriginal stories also tell about the big emu in the sky.
Ngatijirri Jukurrpa - Budgerigar Dreaming ( © Kenneth Jungarrayi Martin / ArtArk)
Another bird which is commonly mentioned in Aboriginal Art is the budgerigar. These are long-tailed, seed-eating parrots that American English people nicknamed as the parakeet.
Research has found that budgies have survived harsh inland conditions of Australia for over 5 million years, which is why it is frequently found in the wild. Budgies are known for their nomadic lifestyle and their ability to breed even while they are on the move.
This is why in many Aboriginal Art forms and stories, the budgerigar is often looked by people as a sign of hope as they are able to locate food and water resources fairly quickly. The Aboriginal symbol for a budgerigar is a cross that represents a budgerigar that is sitting on the ground, although this same symbol can also be used to represent other elements within a narrative.
Here is another symbol that can represent a lot of things in this particular art form, and the symbol is that of concentric circles. These can represent specific sites, a meeting place, or even a waterhole.
Concentric circle meanings. ( drutska / Adobe Stock)
As one could expect these concentric circles withheld huge importance in the narrative as back in the day's many ceremonial sites, as well as camping sites, were considered the highest level of socialization, as well as their cultural and traditional value, is undeniable for the Aborigines.
For the Aboriginal Australian people living in Central Australia, campsites or meeting places were considered culturally significant because this is where all public matters regarding a clan would be discussed.
Remember we are talking about a time where there were no cinemas, theaters, malls, bars, or any other modern facilities. Hence these sites must have represented the center of all activity within a community.
Sandhills are frequently found all across the terrain of the Australian continent. This is why much of the Aboriginal Art includes the mention of them as culturally and traditionally important for people. The Aborigines used sand hills as a favorite for camping sites and even for hunting activities.
Long and elongated lines are used to represent the symbol of sandhills in many Aboriginal paintings. They are often depicted surrounded by a specific site or waterhole which goes to show that they were considered as an important location by clan members and viable spots to settle with family members.
Going through the list of common symbols in Aboriginal Art, we also come across the crescent or U-shaped icon frequently. This symbol is commonly used to represent people or persons that can be both man or woman, and this is why they can be found in many Aboriginal paintings.
They can be further used with other symbols to represent actions, relationships, status in society, and even ceremonial activities.
Hence this symbol has a lot of room available for the artist to play and create their own narratives. A lot can be told through the use of such symbols, and all of this makes Aboriginal Art form truly enthralling to study.
Symbol for Man
The role of men in Aboriginal culture was that of a hunter and protector of the family, the clan, and settlement spot. They would often travel in groups to hunt large land animals for their resources, and this included birds as well as kangaroos.
In Aboriginal art form, men are often depicted with a crescent-shaped icon accompanied by a spear or a shield. This could also include other weapons as well, such as the boomerang in many instances.
Symbol for Women
The role of women in Aboriginal culture was that of primary caregiver, and they would often collect eggs, honey, fruits, herbs, nuts, roots, vegetables, and even small land animals such as snakes. They would indefinitely play a central role for an Aboriginal family as well as in the Aboriginal form of local government and especially in spiritual ceremonies.
They were viewed as life-givers in society and thus responsible for the early socialization of children within the community. A woman in Aboriginal Art form is often represented similar to man; however, their U-shaped icon was accompanied by a digging stick and coolamon rather than traditional weapons to differentiate them.
Kangaroo in art. ( JENNY SOLOMON / Adobe Stock)
The Mighty Kangaroo
Throughout Australia, kangaroos hold a tremendous amount of cultural and spiritual significance, especially for the Aboriginal people . Not only was their meat considered to be the staple source of protein, but even their pelts were used to make clothing items as well as rugs and skin crafted water bags.
They were represented with a unique symbol almost like an arrow in the Aboriginal Art form and in some instances, a stroke might be added to their footprint to represent a tail.
Words are not enough to describe just how startling the Aboriginal Art form truly is, and there is much to be learned still. These people are what connect us with the ancient world and to the various traditions and cultural activities that used to be the norm back in the old days. I would personally wish to see their folklore and mythologies to be brought to the big screen for the general public to learn more about them.
A movie, TV series, or animated feature would be great to make us understand what Dreamtime actually means. But that is just my personal opinion and the intrigue I feel about the Aborigines. I hope this post was able to excite you as much as me when I first learned about them. For more questions, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback in the comment section below. Oh, and read the image description here to find out the story in the top image…
Top image: This particular piece of Aboriginal art depicts activity at Ngarlikurlangu, north of Yuendumu. Called ‘Yankirri Jukurrpa, (emu Dreaming)’ The ‘yankirri’ (emu) travelled to the rockhole at Ngarlikurlangu to find water. Source: © Margaret Nangala Gallagher / ArtArk
By Liza Brooke
This was a great article Lisa. Thank you