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Traditional Symbols Aboriginal Art and use of Symbols


Traditional symbols are an essential part of much contemporary Aboriginal art. Our online galleries offer a wide range of art works using traditional and contemporary imagery and symbols.

Aboriginal peoples have long artistic traditions within which they use conventional designs and symbols. These designs when applied to any surface, whether on the body of a person taking part in a ceremony or on a shield, have the power to transform the object to one with religious significance and power. Through the use of designs inherited from ancestors, artists continue their connections to country and the Dreaming.

For example, body decoration using ancestral designs is an important part of many ceremonies. In central Australia inherited designs are painted onto the face and body using ochres ground to a paste with water and applied in stripes or circles. The modern paintings of the Central and Western Desert incorporate many of these designs. Some of the symbols used are:

Aboriginal art symbols
Symbols used in Papunya Central Desert art -
Based on information from "Papunya Tula" by Geoffrey Bardon

While the most commonly used symbols are relatively simple, they can be used in elaborate combinations to tell more complex stories. For example, a Water Dreaming painting might show a U shaped symbol for a man, sitting next to a circle or concentric circles representing a waterhole, and spiral lines showing running water. The painter is telling the story of the power of the water man to invoke rain. Further symbols will add to the depth of meaning. Today artists often refer to the 'outside' story which they provide for the general public while the painting retains an 'inside' story accessible only to those with the appropriate level of knowledge.

Dots are one of the conventional symbols widely used and for many non-Aboriginal people these are what give Central and Western Desert art its distinctive character. Dots may represent many things - including stars, sparks or burnt ground. The base or floor of any Aboriginal design or painting is the preparation of the earth, or the ancestor being's involvement with the earth.

Amongst the artists of the Central and Western Desert art movement of the last 30 years, Johnny Warangkula was the first to use dotting as the background for his paintings. Because of the brilliance of his work, other painters at Papunya (and later Yuendumu and other central desert communities) adopted his style and conventions.

As the Papunya painting movement developed in the 1970s, dotting was increasingly used to obscure meanings and to hide some of the symbolism that was not meant to be exposed to the un-initiated. It is therefore ironic that the technique of using dots, that many Western people regard as characteristic of contemporary Central and Western Desert art, should have as a major function the obscuring of meaning.

Rather than reveal their secrets to the marketplace, the artists developed ways of avoiding or hiding the sacred. The dots, which became much more prominent in Papunya painting from 1973, are thought to have been crucial. Dick Kimber identified them in 1981 as a prime means of 'eliminating some elements used on some sacred objects', while Judith Ryan has characterized them as 'masking', even 'camouflage'.

For a further discussion of the use of dots, including some controversy over their interpretation, see the article by Tim Bonyhady Papunya Art - Papunya Stories.



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