Religious and ceremonial aspects of life, being so important, are the inspiration for much art. Aboriginal art and decoration is an integral part of traditional life, and occurs as body decoration in ceremonies, on bark shelter and rock shelter walls, on trees (dendroglyphs), carved on rocks (petroglyphs), weapons, utensils, and sacred objected both natural and carved.
There is an enormous variety in the styles of Aboriginal art, with both regional variations and a time depth, where for each region, the styles have varied as one goes back in time. For example, studies of Kimberley (north Western Australia) and Kakadu (in the Northern Territory) rock art show many evolving styles dating back tens of thousands of years.
Much of the painted and carved art can be divided simply into two broad categories or styles – naturalistic or figurative and non-naturalistic or non-figurative. However, Aboriginal art is much more complex than this and includes stencils, thread-cross strings on poles, free standing carvings and objects including beeswax models, charcoal drawings, drawings and raised designs in sand, the application of feathers and feather down, and so on.
A naturalistic style or figurative style means that any person looking at the art is able to recognise what basic subject is being depicted. It looks basically natural or is a figure of the intended subject. Of course, a macropod figure might represent a large kangaroo or a small wallaby, but the basic figure is recognisable. Within the grouping of “naturalistic figures” comes many further subdivisions, based on the subtle differences of the countless styles an artist might use. Both researchers and Aborigines might then name those further subdivisions for their particular locality, based on a dominant feature of that particular art style. For example, in the Kimberley, the “Wandjina Art Period” describes paintings done in the recent period when Wandjina (the important Ancestral Being) paintings were made, in a particular multicoloured, crudely naturalistic, style.
Some of the most beautiful Australian Aboriginal art using a naturalistic art style is found in the rock art across northern Australia, the best-known regions being the Kimberley and Kakadu regions. One form of this style is where the internal anatomy of an animal is also shown in the painting, and hence this is called “X-ray” art. This feature appears occasionally in the very old art of both the Kakadu and Kimberley regions, but really took off in the art of the Kakadu region over the past thousand years or so. This X-ray style continues today with the commercial art produced on barks and paper for the tourist market by Aboriginal people from that region.
Non-naturalistic or non-figurative styles include abstract styles and geometric patterns, the most common being those seen in the art of Central Australia. Here, for example, the arc shape might represent a man or woman sitting at their campfire, or it may represent a boomerang. A circle might represent any important person or place, or even represent the story of important event that took place.
The accompanying photo is a section of a large painting by Reggie Sultan, a Kaytja Aboriginal artist from Barrow Creek, showing people, animal tracks, and water holes. The arc shapes with lines to the side represent seated women and their digging sticks. The line of “arrows” along the top and right represent the tracks of the emu, a large Australian bird, travelling from left to right across the top and from top to bottom along the right side. The “half-arrows” at the far right represent the tracks of a kangaroo passing from the top to the bottom of the painting.
Now that the collecting of pieces of Aboriginal art has become so popular world-wide, a common, mistaken belief is that the Dot Painting Style of Central Australia is a recent development. This belief arises because it was in the 1960s that a Central Australian school teacher encouraged the old men of the tribe to record their art on European sheets of board, using acrylic paints. This use of acrylic paints on flat board dates from that time. However, the art style itself, with geometric designs, is seen in the petroglyphs (rock engravings) dating back thousands of years.
The use of dots was once Australia-wide, particularly seen on body decoration when people are painted for ceremonies, and I have located paintings in the remote Kimberley region where dots are clearly seen on the body decoration of some of the earliest human figures, likely to be older than 20,000 years. (See accompanying photo.)