Symbols in Aboriginal Art
The tradition of passing information through art is a universal. It has allowed customs and beliefs to continue over time—and not just for Aboriginal people. But because Australian Aboriginal people do not have their own written language, the use of many common symbols or iconography in their artwork allows the tradition of storytelling to exist.
The presence of Australian Aboriginal Art can be found over 30,000 years ago. A very important aspect of this art is the use of symbols. The use of symbols is an alternate way to write down stories of cultural significance, teaching survival and use of the land.
Symbols are used by Aboriginal people in their art to preserve their culture and tradition. They are also used to depict various stories and are still used today in contemporary Aboriginal Art. These ancient symbols can be seen in their rock paintings, cave paintings, body paint, ceremonial clothing, and sand painting.
Aboriginal Symbolism is Dynamic
The meaning of the symbols found in Aboriginal Art can change depending on the context of the story and can vary from region to region. Symbols can fluctuate slightly between different language groups, and between different artists and family clans.
Furthermore, a painting may have several levels of story depending on whether the story is being told to children, newcomers, or elders. Within Aboriginal Art, artists put together groups of symbols as their way of telling a story. Artists have their own stylistic and technical approach through their usage of spatial composition, color and symbols used.
Aboriginal Artistic Styles
Although styles of Aboriginal Art can vary from artist to artist, there are several distinct styles that can easily be identified. Many of these stylistic differences are specific to the region and date of the art’s creation.
For example, X-ray paintings and images of spirit ancestors were found in ancient rock paintings in northern Australia. The term X-ray art was initially used because the paintings of figures, animals, birds and fish depicted their internal organs as well as their external features.
The characteristic patterns of central desert Aboriginal Art, such as their iconic dots and concentric circles illustrate stories of the Dreamtime. Although extremely prevalent in Aboriginal Art galleries today, dot paintings are not the traditional artistic style of all Aboriginal peoples. In fact, dot paintings on canvas only first emerged in the 1970s.
Another region, Arnhem Land features a much more figurative style, with more realistic looking representations of people and animals.
Each Aboriginal nation or tribe developed their own distinct symbolic artistic language. The contemporary art of central Australia is, however, detached from these limitations and uses more colors and symbolic elements.
Dreamtime Art Symbolism
Most symbolism in Aboriginal art focuses on the Dreamtime, which is the period in which Aboriginal people believe the world was created. Traditionally, symbols of the Dreamtime events were created on cave walls, carved into timber or stone, on the desert floor, and on their bodies with the use of body paint.
Dreamtime art focuses on ancestors who travelled the land and created important sites in the landscape. For ceremonial use the, symbols were also painted onto the bodies of dancers who performed the stories, and this strengthened the associations between the people and the timeless stories of the creation of their lands.
Aboriginal Color Palettes
Traditionally, only ochre, or natural pigments, were used in Aboriginal art because that’s what they had readily available. They created paintings using materials in their surroundings, such as plants and even mud.
These pigments were used to produce colors such as white, yellow, red and black from charcoal. Other colors were soon added such as smoky greys, sage greens and saltbush mauves. Many desert communities can be identified because of their use of strong primary colors, while other communities might use more muted styles. Even within regions there can be many variations.
Today, however, modern artists may use a wide variety of colors.
Some Symbols Don’t Always Have the Same Meaning
The basic symbols for a man, woman, child, community, family etc., are standard, but can have different interpretations according to the artist. Sometimes, colors are used to represent certain aspects in a story.
The use of symbols in Aboriginal Art relies on the context of the use. Unlike hieroglyphics, the placement of symbols used in Aboriginal Art does not create a specific meaning every time. Thus, a more explanatory guide of these symbols is generally necessary.
These guides to help understand the symbolism in specific works of art can give insight into how each specific artist uses symbols in their paintings. However, even with this information, there is no guarantee that the meaning of those symbols can be reapplied directly to other artworks.
Whatever the meaning of an individual symbol, interpretations must be made in context of the entire work of art, the story behind the painting, the region from which the artist originates, and the style of the painting.
Common Symbols and Their Usual Meanings
In Aboriginal Art, a simple set of symbols, such as dots, concentric circles and curved and straight lines are often utilized. While symbols vary widely between the various Aboriginal cultures found across Australia, there are a number of useful starting points that can help identify potential meanings.
Concentric circles usually represent campsites or rock holes. Straight lines between circles illustrate the routes travelled between camps or places while wavy lines across a painting usually mean water or rain.
How People Are Depicted
Humans are often depicted as a U shape, representing the ground when a person sits cross legged on the earth. The tools portrayed beside them define whether the U shape represents a male or female. A woman may have a coolamon bowl and a digging stick next to her. This combination of symbols may look like this: UOI. A man would carry spears and possibly boomerangs, so his symbols may look like U || (.
Groups of people are generally marked as a circle or a set of concentric circles. These circles may represent a meeting place, a campsite, a fireplace, or a watering hole. The travel of people between several locations may be depicted as parallel lines linking up between the circles.
Symbols for Various Animals
In Aboriginal Art, animals are typically represented by the tracks they leave behind. For example, an emu leaves a three pointed V track as its footprint, a dingo (Australian native dog) leave a set a paw prints, kangaroos leave a set of tick shapes from its back paws with a long line between where its tail drags, and a possum or other small marsupial leaves an E shape, which depict the claw marks.
A echidna is depicted by a series of short parallel lines, and reptiles are frequently shown as one would see them from above. For example, a snake is represented by a curvy line, and a lizard, or goanna, is depicted by two parallel lines with small prints on either side made by feet.
Furthermore, the ceremonial use of certain clan patterns is used to show that a person has links to a particular clan. These patterns are made of fine lines drawn in specific ochre colors to represent elements such as fire and water, and when combined with specific totemic animal designs, signifies which clan the owner belongs to. A person’s identity is closely linked to the symbols that they use, and this shows their relationship to the Dreamtime story and their clan’s mythology.
Deeper Interpretation of Specific Symbols
In addition to the straightforward meaning some symbols may represent, there is also often a deeper interpretation to the symbols. For example, the symbol of the budgerigar, a type of parakeet found in Australia, portrays the bird from an aerial view and is depicted as indentations on the ground.
Generally, these tracks in the ground symbolize events, ancestral travels or current travels that have happened regionally. Aboriginal people used this bird in guiding them to various edible foods coming into the season and followed it in their pursuit of food and water.
Furthermore, one of the most common symbols used in Aboriginal Art is the circle, which can represent cosmological aspects of cultural and spiritual places. Circular impressions left on rock surfaces also indicate forms of sacredness and expressions of connections to cultural representations within the mind, body, and emotions.
Therefore, the multiple layering of specified symbols provides protection of sacred knowledge. Cultural visual knowledge is obtained through deep spiritual connection to ancestral pasts, which only those who have been initiated into the tribe and tradition can interpret. Traditional initiation processes shape social behaviors and obligations through learning cultural law.
Levels of Meaning in Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal Art often has several levels of meaning in a piece. Therefore, it’s possible for outsiders to understand some parts of the stories the art is conveying, while other portions of the work may be kept secret from outsiders.
The first level of meaning relates to the physical appearance of the work of art, and includes the materials, composition, and colors. On this level, paintings generally do not include any figurative elements, but instead by specific symbols of concentric circles, animal tracks and other shapes.
The second level of meaning corresponds to the physical depiction that the work of art conveys. Dot paintings depict the natural landscape that is connected to the stories from the Dreamtime. For example, traditional sand paintings contained cultural and practical knowledge on the landscape and the tribe.
On a practical level, these works of art communicated the places where water and food could be found. The cultural level of this art contains knowledge about kinship and other social aspects of life.
The third level of meaning represents the ceremonies that show the journeys of the Dreamtime ancestors. At this level, the paintings contain several dimensions and show a series of events in time in one image. In contrast to a figurative image, which usually shows a moment in time, this type of Aboriginal Art can express a series of events.
On the fourth and deepest of the levels, the pictures depicted contain specific, spiritual knowledge that is known only to insiders of the tribe. Therefore, not much is publicly known about this interpretation or meaning, since this knowledge is generally kept secret.
A sense of secrecy found in Aboriginal Art and culture can be difficult to grasp when compared to the curious nature often found in Western culture. However, it is not only forbidden to share knowledge with outsiders of the tribe, even within the tribes there are clear rules regarding the distribution of knowledge within the tribe.
The exhibition of works that depict secret stories has caused problems for artists. The drive of art enthusiasts to know the hidden meaning of paintings has caused artists to develop more complex and busy designs to contain the deeper meaning of the paintings.
Modern Aboriginal Art still uses traditional symbols in their contemporary paintings to continue the tradition of storytelling through art and can be easily accessed today.
Here are some of the symbols that you can look out for in Aboriginal paintings, to help you better understand their meaning.
This crescent or 'U' shape icon represents people, both man and woman and can be found in many Aboriginal paintings.