To better appreciate Aboriginal Art, it is helpful to understand the relationship between Aboriginal artists and their artworks and why each artist shares their specific Dreaming.
You may notice when viewing Aboriginal artworks that the artist’s names often have recurring or similar ‘middle’ names, these are in fact, the artists skin names. Skin names are inherited at birth and form part of a broader kinship system that spans across Australia. This kinship system dictates daily life, social relationships and responsibilities, rights to land, ceremony and Dreamings, and of course, the Aboriginal artworks we share.
Understanding this integral part of Aboriginal society means you can better understand the subject matter and reasoning of individual artists and Aboriginal Art broadly. In Aboriginal culture, knowledge is a statement of authority so whilst two artists may paint the same Dreaming imagery their respective depth and knowledge of the subject matter and the story they share may differ considerably. Generally, these days, artists only paint versions of their Dreamings which are appropriate for public viewing.
Aboriginal people are born with their skin name based on their parents and as such have immediate relationships within their community and their country, relating to both the landscape, wildlife and their associated Dreamings. In this way, an Aboriginal artist may be the owner of, and have rights to create images associated with their specific Dreaming. In Warlpiri culture, for example, the Nangala and Jangala skin group have rights to and share images of their Emu Dreaming.
Across Australia, kinship systems vary though are generally made up of between 4 and 8 skin groups. The following are the eight skin groups listed in Warlpiri. In each group, there is a male and female notation, the male starting with J and the female with N.Jangala – Nangala
Japangardi – Napangardi
Jungarrayi - Nungarrayi
Jakamarra – Nakamarra
Jampijinpa – Nampijinpa
Juprrula – Napurrula
Japanangka – Napanangka
Japaljarri – Napaljarri
Depending on an Aboriginal person's skin name they have immediate and predefined relationships with each of the other skin names. These relationships are complex and will dictate much of daily life including the important relationship of who they can marry.
If you are interested in learning more about the Kinship system and Aboriginal Culture please visit the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies