Body painting, decoration and personal adornment
traditionally carry deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal
people. Body painting is carried out within strict conventions that
are primarily related to spiritual matters, although the creative
nature of these activities is also acknowledged.
The particular designs or motifs used by individuals
reflect their social position and relationship to their family group
and also to particular ancestors, totemic animals and tracts of land.
People are not free to change their appearance at
will; they must conform to respected patterns. In many situations
individuals are completely transformed so that they 'become' the spirit
ancestor they are portraying in dance.
Decoration - scars, painting and adornment
The art of body decoration includes scarring, face
and body painting for ritual, wearing of ornaments, and the transformation
of the body using added texture and headdresses to form living images
of ancestral beings.
Scars were made on the body for many reasons, but
mainly during ceremonies to mark age, initiation or to raise a person's
status. Techniques varied from place to place, but scarification (or
cicatrisation) usually involved cutting the skin with a sharp shell
or rock, then rubbing irritating substances like ash into the cuts
so that prominent keloid scars resulted. This process created raised,
pigmented patterns on the chest, back, arms or legs of the initiate.
Scarification is now rarely practised.
Decoration varies in the regions
Body painting ranges from simply smearing clay or
natural ochres from the earth onto the skin to detailed geometric
paintings on the torso, face and limbs.
Throughout Arnhem Land, communities decorate the
bodies of young boys before initiation. Their chests, and sometimes
upper arms and thighs, are painted in clan patterns and totemic subjects.
These designs are the same as those used in the bark paintings, and
they are also painted on ceremonial objects, burial poles and coffins.
Among the Yolngu of eastern Arnhem Land, adult men's
bodies are still decorated in this way with moiety
(dhuwa or yirritja) designs
at large funeral ceremonies. The colours used originate from a range
of earth-based pigments. These give the artists a full range of tones,
from white through beige and brown to yellow, rust red and black.
With the addition of feathers, leaves and plant substances and coloured
arm and leg ornaments, the body could become highly decorated.
The Tiwi on Bathurst and Melville Islands also have
a flourishing tradition of body art. They decorate face and body in
particularly strong designs for both Pukumani
(funeral) and Kulama
In northwest Queensland, men rubbed charcoal on their
foreheads and painted a white band from either eyebrow down the front
of the ear and along the shoulders and arms. White and red bands were
painted across the chest and the rest of the body was covered in red.
Decoration and ceremonies
The context and designs varied from place to place,
but invariably the use of earth pigments to colour the body is indicative
of an intricate relationship between human beings and the environment,
and is practised mainly during ceremonies - initiation and funeral
ceremonies in particular.
In many Desert communities of central and western
Australia, men used extremely elaborate personal decoration on
During large gatherings closed to women,
particularly those enacting the journeys of the Tingari men throughout
the desert, ceremonies consisted of making elaborate ground constructions
(also called sand paintings) and
decorating the bodies of the many male dancers in linear symbolic
patterns which related specifically to various sections of the
song cycle being conducted.
Warumungu men painted for ceremony
in front of a sand painting.
Photo by Baldwin Spencer 1912
Body art in these contexts became part of the overall
theatre of the ceremony. Women of the desert paint their upper chest,
shoulders and breasts for communal women's ceremonies. The colours
are paired - yellow and white is 'owned' by one moiety, red and white
by another, similar to the eastern Arnhem Land Yolngu distinctions
in dhuwa and yirritja colour 'ownership'.
The right to paint another woman's upper body is
given to a specified relative. It is not appropriate for women to
paint themselves for ceremony; however, in contemporary educational
situations, for schools, social celebrations or cultural trips and
demonstrations in major cities where women are showing the culture
to outsiders, this sometimes occurs out of necessity when the correct
artist is absent. The lengthy communal painting and decorating process
before the dance and main singing commences is part of the entire
ritual, and at the close of each performance the body ornamentation
is smeared and disguised or obliterated, just as the stamping feet
of performers eventually destroy the design on the ground.
Ornaments were worn by many groups. In coastal areas
it was common for women to make necklaces out of strings of shells
and beautiful examples were made in Tasmania. In Arnhem Land, animal
teeth, bones and bird feathers were crafted into necklaces and pendants.
This type of regalia was generally used in performances where body
movements were emphasised as the string on waist and armbands flashed
and arched with each twist of the hips. Bright strings of red ininti
beans from the bean tree adorn desert women who wear them diagonally
across the chest and under one breast.
Contemporary use of Body Painting
Body painting continues as a strong and live part
of contemporary Aboriginal culture, not only in traditional ceremonies
but also as part of art and practices by urban people. Stephen Page,
the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, has commented
about body painting that "There are no time constraints, no boundaries;
theres an apparent timelessness about the ritual.". Djakapurra
Munyarryun, a leading dancer with the company, says: "We never
dance without ochre on... because thats what we have been doing
for a long time, like a thousand years. Body paint for us is really
important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some
people dont recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing.
They can see when I am dancing, its like they thought I am an
old old man. Because when I am there, its like my soul is very
strong and I watch the audience. The paint makes me more older, older