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Visual art and Aboriginal knowledges

Due to the diversity within Aboriginal language groups, Aboriginal art cannot be classified into one particular form or style.

Aboriginal peoples use all arts as a form of communication, as a teaching tool in everyday life and as a significant element of ceremonial practices, both past and present. Aboriginal artists develop art for a variety of purposes: some express traditional knowledges and relationships, while others express a diverse range of purposes and positions associated with society, politics, historical events, beliefs, relationships and personal reflections. Therefore, Aboriginal art cannot be narrowly defined; rather it encompasses a variety of arts forms and practices.

Aboriginal art is art developed by an Aboriginal artist or artists and is evident locally, nationally and internationally in many media, such as:

2-D media 3-D objects Time-based media
  • collage
  • drawing
  • painting
  • photographic
  • printmaking
  • ceramics
  • fibre art
  • installation
  • sculpture
  • wearable art and body adornment
  • electronic imaging
  • film and animation
  • sound art
  • performance art
Visual Art 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus, QCAA, p. 19.

Traditional knowledge

In Aboriginal language groups, specific people, usually Elders, are custodians of traditional knowledge that dates back over 60 000 years.

Each Aboriginal language group has particular symbols and practices aligned to their specific culture and Country/Place. The associated stories offer a complex understanding of Aboriginal life from that group’s perspective.

Although some symbols may look similar from group to group, the meaning of the symbols may be quite different. Symbols have been passed down through families in a variety of ways, through everyday life and ceremonial practices.

Today, Aboriginal artists use their artworks to pass down traditional knowledge and practices within a family, and to create contemporary associations with Country, place and peoples of their language groups. Whatever the reason, one Aboriginal art form is not ‘more authentic’ than another. Rather, these artworks should be viewed as distinct from one another, with the artist’s purpose and intention always considered during analysis.

Within an Aboriginal language group, particular people protect the special knowledge and skills needed to translate art symbols and stories into ceremonial objects, body art and art forms such as paintings, rock art, song and dance. These are passed on during special ceremonies or other community processes to the appropriate people within the language group.

Strict protocols are associated with the use of some symbols, images and artworks. For example, some symbols may be used only by men, and some only by women; some are not to be seen outside of the language group, others are to be used only within specific situations and not documented, and there are those which are to be used only by particular people within a community.

Ceremony and cultural beliefs

Visual arts practices associated with Aboriginal ceremonies are complex and interrelated with religious and cultural beliefs. Therefore, the primary focus of ceremony-related artwork is not on the artwork itself, but on the processes and practices used during the creation of the artwork. The purposes of these actions, and the role of the completed artwork in the ceremony and afterwards, are also of importance.

Before ceremonies begin, a great deal of time is spent preparing materials for the creation of the artworks (these include ornaments, body art, installations and so on). Such practices include:

  • sourcing and collecting ochres, plant and natural fibres
  • making ochres into paints for body art (before and during ceremonies)
  • carving objects and painting them to represent spiritual figures
  • painting tools and instruments with sacred and special designs

For example, in some areas a mourning ceremony may involve the painting of burial poles with symbols relating to the deceased and their family and, in other areas, a ground installation made from earth, ground fibres, ochres and other materials would be created to represent spiritual ancestors and Creation beings.

The significance of ceremonies and the Aboriginal knowledge passed down through them is important, and many of the visual artworks created for or during these ceremonies would be destroyed as part of the ceremony, or hidden from view afterwards. The purpose, place and passing on of cultural knowledge are the focus of the artworks. Ceremony-related artworks are created for a specific time and place. Time in this sense is not just when the ceremony is held; it is the time of rejoining and reuniting all time — traversing space and place to keep knowledge alive. This is described by many as the Dreaming, although each Aboriginal group has their own name for this concept of time and place.

Due to the spiritual and ceremonial connections with the Dreaming, the true significance of ceremonial artworks often remains ‘inside knowledge’ for a particular community. Inside knowledge is knowledge that is known, taught and passed on within an Aboriginal community. This knowledge is not to be shared with people outside of the community’s defined language group, which may be the immediate language group, family or community. See Inside and outside knowledge.

Aboriginal people’s artworks should not be reproduced in any way unless permission is first given by the artist/s involved in its development. Symbols used or seen in books or reproductions should not be copied, as they may involve sacred and spiritual figures that are only meant to be reproduced by selected members of a language group.

For more information regarding the significance and importance of art for Aboriginal peoples, watch the short video clip/s from the documentary Painting Country. These are supported by education notes and transcripts, accessible from the same page.

Protecting Aboriginal knowledge, particularly private community knowledge (including sacred symbols), has created a great amount of debate within Australia. Misappropriation of Aboriginal visual artworks has often occurred , due to differences in approach to intellectual property rights. For example, under Australian copyright law, copyright of a photograph of an artwork held partly with the photographer, and the artwork may be later used in reproductions or in other artworks. Disassociation from traditional knowledge systems, due to the effects of colonisation, has seen many Aboriginal artists translating and interpreting symbolism within their artworks, at times inappropriately.

Protecting Aboriginal traditional knowledge has been seen as a priority within many communities and across government arts agencies within Australia. However, there is still much work to be done in areas such as copyright and intellectual property rights, legislation and the opposing notion of communal property rights within Aboriginal communities.

Ways of viewing Aboriginal artworks

The Australian curriculum changes students to make and respond to artworks from a range of perspectives. These include the contexts — social, cultural and historical — in which the artworks are made by artists and experienced by audiences. The Australian curriculum, provides key questions as a framework for developing students’ knowledge, understanding and inquiry skills (see below).

Table 1: Examples of viewpoints and questions through which artworks can be explored and interpreted
Examples of viewpoints As the artist As the audience
Contexts, including:
  • societal
  • cultural
  • historical
  • What does this artwork tell us about the cultural context in which it was made?
  • How does this artwork relate to my culture?
  • What social or historical forces and influences have shaped my artwork?
  • What ideas am I expressing about the future?
  • How does the artwork relate to its social context?
  • How would different audiences respond to this artwork?
  • What is the cultural context in which it was developed, or in which it is viewed, and what does this context signify?
  • What historical forces and influences are evident in the artwork?
  • What are the implications of this work for future artworks?
  • elements
  • materials
  • skills, techniques, processes
  • forms and styles
  • content
  • How is the work structured/ organised/arranged?
  • How have materials been used to make the work?
  • How have skills and processes been selected and used?
  • What forms and styles are being used and why?
  • Why did the artist select particular content?
  • How effective is the artwork in meeting the artist’s intentions?
  • How are concepts and contexts interpreted by the artist?
  • How does the artwork communicate meaning to an audience?
  • What interpretations will audiences have?
  • philosophical and ideological
  • theoretical
  • institutional
  • psychological
  • scientific
  • What philosophical, ideological and/or political perspectives does the artwork represent?
  • How do philosophies, ideologies and/or scientific knowledge impact on artworks?
  • What important theories does this artwork explore?
  • How have established behaviours or conventions influenced its creation?
  • What philosophical, ideological and/or political perspectives evident in the artwork affect the audience’s interpretation of it?
  • How do philosophies, ideologies and/or scientific knowledge impact on artworks?
  • What important theories does this artwork explore?
  • How have established behaviours or conventions influenced its creation?
  • What processes of the mind and emotions are involved in interpreting the artwork?

More information

See The Conversation’s 2016 series of articles on ‘the Dreamtime’.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s 2015 guide offers practical cross-cultural support: Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property.

For further reading, try Neil Harrison, Susan Page & Leanne Tobin’s2016 article, ‘Art has a Place: Country as a teacher in the city’ in Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 48, iss. 13.

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