Indigenous Art in Australia has finally come to the attention of the rest of the world. Since Australian Rock paintings probably precede all other early Man art world-wide, this is a recognition that comes late in the day.
Early nomadic Australian Aborigines, having no common language to speak of, drew their stories on their bodies, and also rocks and bark shelters, to inform their young and to record their ancestral history and creation. Tribal stories and traditions varied from area to area, but one thing they all had in common was a deep-rootedness to the earth. Indeed the very pigments they used came from the earth, the ochres from the soil and rocks, black from charcoal and white. The earliest rock paintings have been dated as far back at 60000 years ago, and the presence of ochre deep down in excavated caves demonstrates this fact. There are at least 125000 rock art sites all over the country, more are being discovered, dozens of previously unknown sites are found every year.
In many parts of Australia, the relationship between the Ancestral Beings and the people making the art works were embedded in ceremonies, and much of the art work was symbolically destroyed as part of this. The body-art was probably a way of conveying connection, the rock-art probably expressed individual and group identity. As only a few remaining members of some of these groups remain, and in some cases none, it is impossible to be completely sure in all respects what the various signs, symbols and stories were.
Common themes arise however, often involving the belief that the Ancestral Beings themselves have left their images behind. There are many stories involving women (often two sisters) trespassing in waterholes, streams or rivers and being swallowed by river snakes, only to be transformed into new beings. Goannas figure in the mythology, as do fish. And snakes of all hues and colours abound.
Contemporary Aboriginal Art continues to be influenced by these traditional stories and motifs or symbols. Many modern artists continue to use the traditional pigments and colours, but polymers are sometimes being used which bring an unfamiliar gaudiness to the works.
To list all the sites and all the variations would be impossible here, so I recommend to you a book instead – Land Marks by Judith Ryan, with contributions by Stephen Gilchrist, Julie Gough and Paul S.C. Tacon published by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
Another variation from tradition is the intricate cross-hatching (rarrk), work so delicate and exact that it is hard to believe it was actually drawn by hand, with a stick! The different styles and depths of cross-hatching, the band widths and divisions and exactitude are all significant. Paul Riceur writes:
A tradition is not a sealed package which we pass from hand to hand without ever opening, but rather a treasure from which we draw by the handful and by which this very act is replenished.
Despite its ancient origin, Aboriginal Art remained little known or appreciated beyond its immediate communal audience until well into the 20th Century.
Another important manifestation of art work are the log coffins and Morning Star poles. It is near impossible to do justice to these since they are so foreign but also so exquisite. It was my privilege to be taken round the Indigenous Gallery by Yvonne Rulikowski, who brought all her knowledge and experience to bear upon my understanding.