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Iconography: Australian Aboriginal Iconography


Art has a central place in Australian Aboriginal religion. The substance of Aboriginal ceremonies and rituals consists of enactments of events from the Dreaming, or ancestral past, events that are conserved in the form of the songs, dances, designs, and sacred objects that belong to a particular clan or totemic cult group. Such forms are referred to collectively by a word that can be translated as "sacred law," and it is as "sacred law" that art mediates between the ancestral past and the world of living human beings. Designs that were created in the Dreaming as part of the process of world creation are handed down from generation to generation as a means of maintaining the continuity of existence with the ancestral past.

Designs can be referred to then as "Dreamings," and they are manifestations of the ancestral past in a number of senses. Each originated as a motif painted on an ancestral being's body, as an impression left in the ground by that being, or as a form associated in some other way with ancestral creativity. In many regions myths relate how ancestral beings gave birth to or created out of their bodies the sacred objects associated with particular social groups and land areas. The meaning of the designs on the objects often refers to the acts of ancestral creativity that gave rise to the shape of the landscape; in this respect, the designs can be said to encode Dreaming events. Finally, designs can be a source of ancestral power. Paintings on the bodies of initiates are thought to bring the individuals closer to the spiritual domain; sacred objects rubbed against their bodies can have a similar effect. Upon a person's death in eastern Arnhem Land, designs painted on his or her chest or on the coffin or bone disposal receptacle help to transfer the soul back to the ancestral world for reincorporation within the reservoirs of spiritual power associated with a particular place. Art is linked with the concept of the cycling of spiritual power through the generations from the ancestral past to the present, a concept that characterizes Aboriginal religious thought. The same design may later be painted on an initiate's chest, signifying what Nancy Munn refers to in Walbiri Iconography (1973) as the intergenerational transfer of ancestral power, which conceptually integrates the Dreaming with present-day experience.

Aboriginal art varies widely across the continent. Any similarities that exist tend to reside in the properties of the representational systems that are employedthe kinds of meanings that are encoded in the designs and the way in which they are encodedrather than in the use of particular motifs. One notable exception appears to be what Munn refers to as the circle-line or site-path motif (0 = 0 = 0), which forms a component of designs throughout Australia. In such designs, the circles usually refer to places where some significant event occurred on the journey of a Dreaming ancestral being, and the lines refer to the pathways that connect the places.

Likewise, designs in Aboriginal art exist independent of particular media. The same design in Arnhem Land may occur as a body painting, a sand sculpture, an emblem on a hollow log coffin, or an engraving on a sacred object (rangga). In central Australia the same design may be incised on a stone disc (tjurunga), painted on the body of a dancer in blood and down, or made into a sand sculpture. Further, it is the design that gives the object its particular ancestral connection: the designs are extensions of ancestral beings and are sometimes referred to as their "shadows." Thus, they can be used in different contexts for different purposes. The same basic design may be used as a sand sculpture in a curing ceremony, painted on the bodies of initiates to associate them with particular ancestral forces or signify membership in a social group, or painted on a coffin to guide a dead person's soul back to the clan lands for reincorporation within the ancestral domain.

Systems of Representation

Meaning in Aboriginal art is encoded in two distinct systems of representation, one iconic and figurative, the other aniconic and geometric. The iconography of Aboriginal religious art arises out of the interplay between these two complementary systems. This distinction extends outside the area of the visual arts to dance and ceremonial action, which involve some components and actions that are essentially mimetic and represent the behavior and characteristics of natural species, as well as other components that are abstract and have a conventional and nonrepresentational meaning. The balance between the figurative and the geometric varies from one region to another. The art of central Australia, of groups such as the Warlpiri, the Aranda, the Pintubi, and the Pitjantjatjara, is characterized by geometric motifs, whereas western Arnhem Land is associated with a highly developed figurative tradition. Nonetheless, there is a figurative component in central Australian art, and the marayin designs, clan-owned body painting designs used in certain western Arnhem Land initiation ceremonies, are largely geometric.

The forms of Aboriginal art are systematically linked to its various functions. The figurative art presents images of the Dreaming that at one level can be readily interpreted as representations of totemic species and the forms of ancestral beings. The X-ray art of western Arnhem Land, for example, is a figurative tradition that creates images of totemic ancestors associated with particular places, thus linking them directly to the natural world.

The title of Luke Taylor's book, Seeing the Inside, aptly expresses the capacity of X-ray art to look beyond the surface form of things. The figures are in part accurate representations of kangaroos, fish, snakes, and so on. However, they are more than that. The X-ray component, representing the heart, lungs, and other internal organs of the animal, adds an element of mystery to the figures and differentiates the representations from those of ordinary animals. Moreover, the art includes representations that combine features of a number of different animals in a single figure. For example, the figure of the Rainbow Snake, an important mythical being throughout Arnhem Land, may combine features of a snake, a kangaroo, a buffalo, an emu, and a crocodile. Such figures in X-ray art, together with songs and dances associated with them, are part of a system of symbolism that decomposes the natural world into its elements, breaks the boundaries between different species of animals, and alludes to the underlying transforming power of the Dreaming. The western Arnhem Land X-ray figures are public representations of the ancestral world and, painted on cave walls, are projections of the ancestral past into the present in a fairly literal form. Their presence on rock surfaces acts as a sign of the ancestral transformations that created the form of the landscape and a reminder of the creative forces inherent in the land.

Much of the ceremonial art and most of the secret art of Australia is, however, geometric in form. The geometric art encodes meaning in a more elusive way, well suited to a system of esoteric knowledge in which some of the meanings of art are restricted to the initiated. Without some assistance, its meaning will remain a mystery: in order to be understood it has to be interpreted and its meanings have to be revealed. Geometric art gives priority to no single interpretation, and as a person grows older he or she learns increasingly more about the meaning of particular designs. Thus, geometric art is potentially multivalent, and different meanings and interpretations can be condensed into the same symbol or design.

This property of geometric art enables it to encode the relationship between different phenomena or orders of reality. On one level, a circle in a design may represent a water hole, and the line joining it may represent a creek flowing into the water hole. On another level, the circle may be said to represent a hole dug in the ground and the line a digging stick. On yet another level, the circle may be interpreted as the vagina of a female ancestral being and the line as the penis of a male ancestor. All three interpretations are related, for digging in the sand is an analogue for sexual intercourse, and the water hole was created through sexual intercourse between two ancestral beings in the Dreaming. The design of which the circle is a part may belong to a particular clan and be identified as such. The design as a whole thus represents ancestral beings creating features of the landscape in territory associated with a particular social group. It is this set of associations that characterizes the iconography of Aboriginal art: the designs mediate between the present and the ancestral past by encoding the relationship between ancestral being, people, and place. Aboriginal religion firmly locates the identity of people in the spirituality of place, and designs infused with the power of ancestral beings provide an important transportable medium of connection.

The geometric art represents the ancestral world both semiotically and aesthetically, by expressing ancestral power in an artistic form. The Dreaming beings are often complex concepts, and their encoding in abstract representations provides one of the ways by which people develop shared understandings that help to order their collective experience of the ancestral past. For example, in the case of the Yolngu people of northeastern Arnhem Land, the Wild Honey ancestor consists of the whole set of things associated with the collection of wild honey: the hive, the bees, the honey; pollen and grubs; the paperbark tree where the hives are found and the swamps where the trees grow; the hunter, his baskets, and the smoke made by the fires he lights. All things associated with wild honey are attributes of the Wild Honey ancestor. In painting, the Wild Honey ancestor is represented by a complex diamond pattern representing the cells of the hive. The diamonds are cross-hatched in different colors to signify different components of the hive: grubs, honey, pollen, and bees. The bars across some of the segments represent sticks in the structure of the hive, and the dots within the circles represent bees at its entrance. On another level, elements of the design signify smoke, flames, and ash from the hunter's fire, and on still another level, the diamond pattern represents the rippling of floodwater as it passes beneath the paperbark trees. The Wild Honey ancestor is all of those things and more.

Systems of Interpretation

As people go through life they learn the meanings of designs such as the Wild Honey pattern; they associate it with places created by the ancestral being and with ceremonies that celebrate that being's creative power. For the individual, the design is no longer an abstract sign but a manifestation of the ancestral being concerned. Aesthetic aspects of the design reinforce this understanding, as Howard Morphy has shown in Ancestral Connections, his book on the aesthetics and iconography of Yolngu ritual art. In northeastern Arnhem Land, Yolngu body paintings convey a sense of light and movement through the layering of finely cross-hatched lines across the skin surface. Similar effects are created in central Australian painting through the use of white down and the glistening effect of blood, fat, and red ocher. These attributes of paintings are interpreted by Aboriginal people as attributes of the ancestral being: the light from the ancestral being shines from the painting as symbol or evidence of the power of the design.

Throughout much of Australia, rights to designs and other components of "sacred law" are vested in social groups that exercise some control over their use and have the responsibility to ensure that they continue to be passed down through the generations. Such rights are of considerable importance, as "sacred law" provides the charter for ownership and control of land. Hence, designs not only represent sources of ancestral power but are politically significant in demonstrating rights over land and providing a focal point for group solidarity and identity. This dimension is reflected in the iconography insofar as designs often vary on the basis of group ownership, each group holding rights to a unique set of designs.

There is enormous regional variation in Australian Aboriginal art, and the specific symbolism of the designs can only be understood in their regional context. However, the underlying principles of the art have much in common everywhere. Moreover, belief in the spiritual power and mediating functions of the designs is to an extent independent of knowledge of their meaning. For both these reasons, designs and other components of ritual can be passed on to other groupsfrom neighboring or even quite distant placesand become part of those groups' ancestral inheritance. In this respect, religious iconography is integral to the process of religious change, enabling religious ideas to be exchanged with other groups and diffused across the continent. Changes also can occur internally through the Dreaming of new designs. This allows the iconographic system to adjust to sociopolitical reality or to the creation of new groups and the demise of existing ones. However, from the Aboriginal viewpoint, such changes are always revelatory: they ultimately have a Dreaming reference and will always be credited to the past. The designs not only encode meanings that help endow everyday events and features of the landscape with cosmic significance, but are themselves extensions of those Dreaming ancestors into the present.

Since the 1970s, through the popularity of Aboriginal bark and acrylic paintings, art has become an increasingly important means by which Aboriginal people communicate religious ideas to a wider audience. While non-Aboriginal audiences have been attracted by the aesthetic dimension of the works, they also have been exposed to the religious ideas and values that are integral to them. Exhibitions of Aboriginal art emphasize the religious values that the works embody: the idea of the Dreaming, the immanence of the sacred in the form of the landscape, and the emergent nature of spirituality.

Aboriginal people also have responded to and accommodated religious ideas through their art. Yolngu artists from Arnhem Land carried on a dialogue with Christianity from the arrival of the first missionaries in 1935. This dialogue resulted in the placing of painted panels of Yolngu religious art on either side of the altar of the new church built in 1962. Subsequently, as Fred Myers has shown, the Pintubi artist Linda Syddick's paintings combine Christian themes concerning crucifixion with reflections on separation and identity stimulated by the science fiction character E.T., all represented through central Australian iconography. This dynamic aspect of Australian Aboriginal art and its capacity to reach diverse audiences within and outside the society is one of the factors that has enabled Aboriginal religion to continue to make a contribution to global religious discourse.

See Also

Dreaming, The; Tjurungas; Wandjina.


Berndt, Ronald M., ed. Australian Aboriginal Art. New York, 1964. A pioneering volume, with essays by Ted Strehlow, Charles Mountford, and Adolphus Peter Elkin, that provides a broad coverage of Aboriginal art and its religious significance.

Elkin, A. P., Ronald M. Berndt, and Catherine H. Berndt. Art in Arnhem Land. Melbourne, Australia, 1950. The pioneering work on Australian Aboriginal art, placing the art of Arnhem Land in its social and mythological context.

Groger-Wurm, Helen M. Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and Their Mythological Interpretation. Canberra, Australia, 1973. A good account of northeastern Arnhem bark paintings, with detailed interpretations of their meanings.

Kleinert, Sylvia, and Margo Neale, ed. The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Melbourne, Australia, 2000. A comprehensive reference work on Aboriginal art and religion.

Morphy, Howard. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago, 1991. A detailed account of the iconography of the paintings of the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land, including their meanings and ritual context.

Morphy, Howard. Aboriginal Art. London, 1998. A comprehensive and richly illustrated introduction to Aboriginal art with broad regional and historic coverage.

Mountford, Charles Pearcy. Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Vol. 1: Art, Myth and Symbolism. Melbourne, Australia, 1956. A comprehensive collection of paintings from western and eastern Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt. The collection is extensively documented with accounts of Aboriginal myths. The documentation is somewhat general and not always accurate, but its coverage is excellent.

Munn, Nancy D. Walbiri Iconography. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973. A detailed account of the representational systems of the Warlpiri of central Australia and the religious symbolism of the designs. This is a classic work on the geometric art of central Australia.

Myers, Fred R. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham, N.C., 2002. A detailed account of the central Australian acrylic art movement that provides insights into its cultural context and religious significance in addition to its developing global market.

Taylor, Luke. Seeing the Inside: Bark Painting in Western Arnhem Land. Oxford, 1996. A rich account of western Arnhem Land X-ray and ceremonial art covering equally the social and conceptual dimensions of artistic practice.

Watson, Christine. Piercing the Ground: Balgo Women's Image Making and Relationship to Country. Freemantle, Australia, 2003. A rich account of the iconography of desert paintings from Balgo with a particular emphasis on the tactile dimension of their cultural aesthetics.

Howard Morphy (1987 and 2005)

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