Understanding Aboriginal paintings

Aboriginal paintings are not only what you see: they contain many layers, some only accessible to the initiated.

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Aboriginal artists paint country

Non-Aboriginal viewers of Aboriginal paintings usually finds it easy to appreciate the Western aspects of it such as minimalism, abstraction or expressionism. But it is much harder to understand the more spiritual aspects.

Aboriginal artists don't simply play with the formal elements of colour, space and composition. They are actually painting their 'country', a term that means to them much more than just landscape. Aboriginal people believe the land owns them, so such paintings are much closer to portraiture.

Western artists create works that are uniquely "theirs" in style and design. Aboriginal artists, however, are often barely distinguishable from the community in which they reside. Even the most talented artists are but vehicles through which a local culture and the spirit of the land find expression.

During the painting process Aboriginal artists not only connect with country but also with their ancestors. "I can feel them," says Short Joe, a painter from Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre, Cape York . "They are with me and the more feeling I have from my ancestors, I want to do more that is based on true stories. If I can't write it, I can paint it."

If I can't write it, I can paint it.

— Short Joe, Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre, Cape York

Painting places

While it's obvious some artists are better than others, the subjects of their work are owned collectively. We can admire an artist's technical skill or expressive flair, but never see them as separate from their homeland .

In Aboriginal history, things don't happen in time, they happen in place. Aboriginal artists are painting these places.

Top secret and dangerous: The hidden layers of a painting

Many Aboriginal paintings have several layers of meaning. They call them the outer and inner layer or inside and outside.

"The outer layers might be appreciated by people who recognise them as animals, hunting guides or creation stories," explains Keith Munro, an Aboriginal art curator. "Then there might be a significance that only the initiated can appreciate, then a final layer that only can be understood by the artists themselves, or senior law-men."

Senior ceremonial leader and leader of the Yolngu Madarrpa clan, Djambawa Marawili, of North East Arnhem Land, calls the obvious layer the "play message".

"All of Australia wanted to see the significance of those ceremonies [at the Gama festival] and [have them delivered] to art centres so they can see it. But they don’t know which is the real document of this country and which is the play message," he says. "It’s about how those patterns and designs came from our ancestral beings to our grandfathers to our father. But [the] other message now it’s just a play message. But you know it goes out to the world [to] strengthen [Aboriginal culture] but it’s just a message."

John Mawurndjul, a renowned bark artist from Maningrida in North Arnhem Land (NT), deliberately hides the meaning of his works.

His paintings have both an inside and an outside. To the non-initiated the works appear to be geometric abstractions, with neatly divided segments, discs and intricate rarrk patterns. But to the artist's countrymen they are full of meanings that are invisible to the uninitiated.

To completely decode them one must understand not only the visual vocabulary he is using but also the new ways he is deploying it. One must, in other words, have access to knowledge reserved only for some elders of the his people, and perhaps one or two outsiders. Only to these few is the work fully transparent.

Mawurndjul emphasises that painting the secrets of his people can be "extremely dangerous". If he were to reveal anything that needs to remain hidden it would make him a target for sorcery.


View article sources (7)

[1] [1a] 'Painting a vivid picture of Aboriginal traditions', SMH 10/12/2011
[2] [2a] 'Threads and needles', SMH 31/8/2013
[3] [3a] 'Cairns Indigenous Art Fair: A sorcerer's tale from Cape York transforms waste into art', SMH 3/7/2016
[4] 'Bark with bite', TimeOut Sydney 21-27/5/2008 p.38
[5] 'Ceremonial Economy: An Interview with Djambawa Marawili AM', Working Papers 2/8/2015
[6] 'An outsider joins the dots', SMH Spectrum 28/08/2010
[7] 'The hand of a master: John Mawurndjul', Sydney Morning Herald, 21/6/2018

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, Understanding Aboriginal paintings, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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