Art is a central part of Aboriginal life
and is intimately connected to land, law and religious belief.
Connection to a person's home land is deeply felt. Mick Dodson
(former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner)
has expressed this powerfully:
To understand our law, our culture and
our relationship to the physical and spiritual world, you
must begin with land. Everything about aboriginal society
is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land. Culture
is the land, the land and spirituality of aboriginal people,
our cultural beliefs or reason for existence is the land.
You take that away and you take away our reason for existence.
We have grown that land up. We are dancing, singing, and painting
for the land. We are celebrating the land. Removed from our
lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.
Aboriginal people, when speaking in English
of this connection, often refer to land as "country". Anthropologist
Deborah Bird Rose has described 'country' in this way:
"People talk about country in the same
way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country,
sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel
sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country
knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or
happy. .country is a living entity with a yesterday, today
and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life.
Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment
for body, mind, and spirit; heart's ease."
An excellent source to explore the relationship
of two Aboriginal communities with their country - the Gunditjmara
nation of south west Victoria and the Kutjungka of north western
Australia - is the Lore of the Land
CD-ROM and associated
Aboriginal art takes many forms. Traditionally
it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to
be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level
of knowledge or understanding. More recently, there has emerged
work that has been made consciously to be seen by the non-initiated
or for commercial purposes. However, irrespective of whether
the art is for private ceremonial purposes or is for the public,
it remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from
the Dreaming. The materials used
are varied and have ranged from rock engravings and paintings
through works on bark, wooden sculpture to ephemeral paintings
on sand, on human bodies and on headdresses or other materials.
A Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria
(Mussolini Harvey) has described the link between body painting
and the Dreaming:
"In our ceremonies we wear marks
on our bodies, they come from the dreaming too, we carry the
design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming
mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming
held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive."
Nearly all Aboriginal art can be related to
landscape and some paintings and designs do represent explicitly
the physical relationship between different features of the
landscape. However, Aboriginal paintings should be seen primarily
as maps of conceptual relationships that influence the way the
landscape is seen and understood. When Aboriginal paintings
do represent specific features of landscape, they show them
in their mythical rather than their physical relationship to
As well as its essential spiritual and symbolic
character, Aboriginal art increasingly has a social and political
dimension. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj people,
has clearly expressed the importance of art to contemporary
We are painting, as we have always done,
to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the
rights and responsibilities we have to it. We paint to show
the rest of the world that we own this country and the country
owns us. Our painting is a political act.