Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Aboriginal self representation through art

Critically discuss the concept that art is a major means for Aboriginal people to
maintain cultural identity and for communication with both each other and the world elsewhere. Referring to examples, explain how this is achieved.

Marcia Hewitt 10436125
University of Western Australia
March 2007

Art (and that includes dance, song and storytelling) has always been intrinsic to the identity of Aboriginal people as a means of communicating about ancestral spirits, historic events, hunting areas , water holes, kangaroos walking and running and possum tracks. Contemporary art is no different, as self representation is as important now as ever for Aboriginal people for cultural survival.

Sacred art goes even further, and expresses the actual laws and rites by which the Australian Aboriginal people live (Bell, D. 1994) Parents taught children stories and dances to understand country.
“Yes, we listened then to the story from the land, from the places to which we are related, from our very own camps. The knowledgeable men danced invisibly. We heard about these knowledgeable men of the spirit, from the ancient spirits. The spirits lived in their own places where it is said they performed the beautiful ceremonies. And a man would say, “I have received this beautiful ceremony and they would perform the ceremony of that place.” (Nganyintja Ilyatjari, 1991, pg. 3).

It is necessary to define art for Aboriginal people as part of the Dreaming; all plants, animals, rocks, sky, lakes, everything comes from the Dreaming and so Aboriginal people communicate about their dreaming through corroborree, painting, story telling and music such as didgeridoo music. (Neuenfeldt, K. 1999). It is their language, and in the absence of a written alphabet, it is essential for mimetic tradition. Art is sometimes seen as having been created by the ancestors themselves, such as rock art showing the Wadjini in the Kimberley. Aboriginal artists employ an enormous variety of media and techniques, from sand sculptures, body paintings rock paintings to coffin lids, weavings in feather string into baskets to also ironwood clapping sticks and pipe stems. In some areas, such as central Arnhem Land, all of these media are employed today by members of a single linguistic group. (Morphy, H. 1981).
It must also be mentioned how conflicted Aboriginal identity has become since European invasion, and that this complexity is felt as what I call ‘cultural pain.’
The dialogue about identity is ongoing and political, in the academic arena and also between Aboriginal people themselves. (Dudgen, P. 2000). For this reason Aboriginal art and film have an ongoing importance in the empowerment of Aboriginal people, (Michaels, E. 1986). and there is a changed status of Aboriginal artists including visual and performing artists and film makers from anonymous artifact makers whose works were collected until the 1970’s by museums, anthropologists and pastoralists to that of serious acceptance in the global art industry in the 1990s (Langton, M. 1994).

In contemporary society, art is no less important, and in some ways still informs about survival, or has a pragmatic interface. The painting “Nyoongar Dreaming” by Christopher Pease (WA Art Gallery 1999) depicts an Aboriginal man standing on a freeway; instead of surrounded by natural bush, as we are used to seeing, the stark freeway is the background, giving a feeling of lostness and isolation. This truly depicts urban Aboriginal culture (indeed for all of us!). Sally Morgan informs us through her art the cultural pain and dichotomy of the Rottnest holiday place, which was once called Wadjimup, by depicting a bunch of European looking tourists on a land mass of buried Aboriginal people, looking almost like fetuses! (Morgan, 1988,p.70).

Since the European invasion Aboriginal identity has become complex and there is an increased need to communicate , assert and re-define identity. For example the painting of Robert CAMPBELL Jar. called “Hands of time” depicts blackfellas with neck ties, holding hands to a whitefella with a necktie. Campbell’s paintings often touch on the theme of political self-determination and colonial conquest. So we see here the politics of art, the need to depict one’s own identity in a way that other people can see and understand. The art of Julie Dowling draws on the traditions of oral history and in particular the portrayal of matrilineal members of her family and her broader community (Croft, 2001). Her paintings show that she is able to take the colonizing, disempowering cultural concepts, such as “black velvet” and turn them around as empowering art styles, by drawing her figures on a black velvet- like background which intensifies the subject.

In conclusion, there is an ongoing and intensifying need for self determination and self definition by Aboriginal people, and as art has always been the means by which the Aboriginal community has communicated, there are now new media, such as film and TV , (the Walpiri film cooperative) music groups like Yothu Yindi who can continue to communicate to the European community their expression of culture, as defined by themselves, and communicated to the global arena.

Power to the people;
Power to the land:
Power for cultural revival;
Power for survival.

Yothu Yindi (Johnson, C. 1997, pp 107 - 115).


Bell, Diane. 1994. Today’s Woman in World Religions. New York. State University of New York Press.

Casey, Karen. 1989. Lithograph---Black dog-white dog. 48 x 40 cm. Tasmania collection.

Chomsky, N. 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 37- 45.

Clark, I. 1990. Aboriginal languages & clans; An Historical Atlas of Western & Central Victoria 1800-1900 Melbourne and Monash University p. 341.

Croft, B. 2001. Indigenous Art: Art Gallery of Western Australia. Art Gallery of
Western Australia, Perth.

Dodson, Michael. 1994. The End in the Beginning: re(de)finding Aboriginality. Australian Aboriginal Studies. Speech given at Wentworth Lecture. Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Studies.

Dowling, Julie. 2000. Uncle Freedom synthetic polymer paint, oil and ochre on canvas.
100 x 120 cm. in Indigenous Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Edwards, W.H. 1987. Traditional Aboriginal Society. Second Edition. South Yarra. Macmillian Education Australia Pty. Ltd.

Show Us a Light. 1989 Director Nancy SOKIL Ronin Films.

Harvey, Barbara.2001.Aboriginal Perspectives on Cultural Arts. Course Reader ACS1121. Edith Cowan University Press. Perth.

Hughes, M. A. 1998. The complexity of Aboriginal Identity: Mudrooroo and Sally Morgan. Westerly. Vol 43 No. 1. The University of Western Australia. WA pp 21-27.

Ilyatjari, Nganyintja. 1991. Traditional Aboriginal Learning: How I learned as a Pitjantjatjara Child. Transcribed by Bill Edwards in The Aboriginal Child at School: A National Journal for Teachers of Aborigines.

Johnson, C. 1997. Reconciling our songs. Indigenous Literature of Australia, Hyland House, South Melbourne, pp. 107 - 115.

Langton, M. 1994. Aboriginal art and film: the politics of representation. In Race and Class: Aboriginal Australia: Land, law, culture. Vol. 35. No. 4. Institute race relations, Russell Press, Nottingham, pp. 89-106.

Morgan, S. 1988. artwork: Greetings from Rottnest.. synthetic polymer paint on canvas. 183 x122 cm. Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Michaels, E.1986. The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia 1982-1986. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, p.3.

Neuenfeldt, K. 1999. The Didjeridu: from Arnhem Land to Internet. Sydney. John Ubbey and Co. Pty.

Stanner, W. E. H. 1965. Religion, Totemism and Symbolism in R. M. & C. H. Berndt (eds) Aboriginal Man in Australia, Sydney. Angus & Robertson.
___The Dreaming. 1953 in WEH Stanner (1973) White Man Got No Dreaming. Canberra; ANU Press.

Stanton, J. 1992. Nyungar landscapes. Aboriginal artists of the South-West: the heritage of Carrolup, Western Australia. Perth: The University of Western Australia Berndt Museum of Anthropology, Occasional Paper No. 3: 4-33.


At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sydney ,referred by the local Aborigines as "Warrane",has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years.50,000 year old
grindstones been found in the area recently, predating any previous finds more


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