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Art and Aboriginal societyArt and Aboriginal Society


As with all artistic expression, Aboriginal art is shaped and determined by its social and cultural setting. It is an expression of knowledge and place in the social structure as well as a means of expressing identity. Artists express this identity and social relationship using ancestrally inherited designs and practices. Whenever an Aboriginal artist, working in a traditional social structure, produces a work then the content of that work is linked back to the Dreaming stories and responsibilities of that person. Howard Morphy has summarised this relationship as follows:

The ancestral beings gave the rights to occupy the land to the people that they left behind on condition that they continued to perform the ceremonies and produce the paintings that are a record of their creative powers….. Knowledge of the form and content of paintings helps to establish the right to occupy land and the ability to maintain connections with the ancestral forces in that landscape. For this reason knowledge of paintings and the right to produce paintings is closely regulated, and paintings can only be produced by those who are acknowledged to have the right to do so. Although across Australia art is closely related to land and to the particular journeys of Dreamtime beings, the details of the way in which art is related to group identity and gender relations varies widely. In Eastern Arnhem Land and some of the more densely populated areas of central Australia, land, paintings and other manifestations of the Dreaming are the property of clans, groups of people connected primarily by descent, whereas in other regions the rights in paintings and land are more widely dispersed.
Howard Morphy "Aboriginal Art" page 149

Traditional Aboriginal society is structured by a number of systems that organise all aspects of life and help to give an individual their sense of place in society and in their country. These systems vary across the country but most include kin groups and "moieties". An individual person is placed through birth in a kin group (or "skin name" as it is often called in central Australia) while people and all the features of the natural and spiritual world belong to one or other of two moieties. These systems (kin groups and moieties) jointly help to determine many aspects of social or religious behaviour.

Moieties divide society into two classes which may then be perpetuated by patrilineal descent, matrilineal descent or alternating generational descent. In many parts of Australia all three moieties are important. In art, moiety can play an important role in determining the subjects which an artist may paint.

Across most of Arnhem Land there is a patrilineal moiety of two classes, the Dhuwa and the Yirritja. Artists whose work is represented on this Web site come from both moieties. For example Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga is the clan leader and elder for the Gumatj (Burarrwanga) clan - with Yirritja moiety. Moiety affiliation determines many important matters such as marriage - a person of the Yirritja moiety must marry a person of the Dhuwa moiety.

Kinship structures are also very important to many Aboriginal societies. In his book "Papunya Tula", Geoffrey Bardon describes how all male Aborigines in the western desert region, after full tribal initiation, own a Dreaming and are the custodians of its associated stories and songs. Each man can paint or otherwise discuss his personal Dreaming as he inherits it, or as he is permitted by custom. While the ownership of the story is strictly demarcated by tribal skin groups, each one can be part of a much greater story and might overlap with other stories from other tribes. The skin system is complex, but it is essential to a proper appreciation of the way that custody of dreaming stories is established - and the factors which influence the work of an artist.

In the western desert, the custody of a particular dreaming story and painting of it is determined by tribal skin relationships ("skin names"). There are eight male skin groups (starting with T) and eight female skin groups (starting with N) as shown in the following diagram:

Aboriginal skin name groups

Arrows point from marriage partners to their children and joined (paired) boxes show allowed combinations of skin names for marriage partners.

This summary can only give a very limited insight into the relationship of art and social structure in traditional Aboriginal societies. However, it does allow an impression of the complexities behind ownership of stories and designs in aboriginal art - and an appreciation that these are still strong today.

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