Aboriginal Art History Informs Aboriginal Culture.

Many years ago I was privileged to catch a glimpse of real aboriginal art history when visiting a sacred site with aboriginal friends from Wave Hill in the Northern Territory of Australia.

It was a culturally significant site to the Gurindgi people of the area and my husband and I visited it with them on several occasions, enjoying a picnic in the shade of trees near the gorge and combining the excursion with a hunting trip for kangaroo and goanna.

Aboriginal symbols in ancient rock carvings and cave paintings had stood the test of time and, further into the gorge, little bundles of skeletal remains of people long since gone were wrapped in bark and pushed into crevices at the back of overhanging rock ledges.

Whilst not wishing to intrude into cultural matters in which I had no place. I would stay at a distance but could not help but be moved by the experience and our friends' trust in involving us in such an important part of their lives and that of their ancestors and children.

Aboriginal art history stretches back for many thousands of years, as evidenced by the discovery of rock carvings in caves under the Nullarbor Plain and cave paintings at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park (which depict now extinct Australian animal species such as the Tasmanian Tiger). This ancient aboriginal art has been dated at 22,000 and 18,000 years respectively.

Ancient aboriginal art history

It is now thought that aboriginal history began longer ago than previously believed, although a seven million year old hominid-like skull found at Bega in New South Wales in 2005 suggests that previous races, perhaps homo erectus, pre-dated aboriginal settlement.

Of course, Aboriginal Australians themselves believe that they have occupied this land since the beginning of time, so the discovery may have come as a surprise to them.

Aboriginal art history is famously displayed in rock carvings such as the ancient examples at Dampier in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the wonderful Mimi paintings from Kakadu and the Bradshaw and Wandjina figures, scattered throughout the Kimberley region.

Symbols and motifs, which appear on durable rock faces, sometimes become part of the rock structure itself but others are seasonably “touched up” as part of the on-going nature and cultural importance of their spiritual meaning. Although used on rock faces and under rock overhangs, similar symbols are also used on bark paintings and, more recently, on canvas acrylic paintings.

Art Central to Culture

Being central to the spiritual life of the people, aboriginal art was made for cultural purposes and shared only amongst appropriately initiated sectors of society. Of recent decades some aboriginal paintings have been made public through the growth of the sale of acrylic and oil paintings on canvas, but secret, sacred symbols remain private.

It has also been suggested that one of the reasons for the proliferation of aboriginal dot paintings is to obliterate or camouflage some of the sacred meanings of symbols used.

Aboriginal symbols on body painting and sand drawings had, and still have, ceremonial purposes, essential to the spiritual life of the people. The Aboriginal art history time-line is one of the earliest continuous records of civilization. A visit to Ubirr or some of the more remote Kimberley or Territory sites is like visiting ancient history itself.

Here's a fascinating documentary about the ancient Quinkan art of Cape York Peninsula.