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