The alluring charm of the aboriginal arts is seen throughout the Australian continent. The boat for the diving excursion on the Great Barrier Reef was more like a party than a boat ride to see one of nature’s wonders.
Lou, a native aborigine of Australia was a one man show making music with his large horn like instrument known as the didgeridoo. Lou made us laugh and got nearly everyone to learn a bit of the native dance. Art galleries are many in Sydney, Cairns and Melbourne all filled wonderful pieces of modern Aboriginal art.
One of the oldest civilizations, indigenous people of Australia date back more than 40,000 years. Nomadic tribes that were hunters had no language and used art for storytelling ceremonial purposes. The term “Aborigines” has been used in Australia to describe its indigenous peoples as early as 1789. The culture and particularly the art forms of the Aborigines have endured through the centuries, even through the dark ages of colonization. Currently they make up only 2% of the Australian population.
A feeling of an ancient time warp comes over you when you see an aboriginal painting. The fundamental focus in the arts and culture is recording of the origins of life, and is referred to as dreamtime. Resourceful ancestors are the forces that created the world with their wonderful power, wisdom and intentions. The figures that were drawn or etched were believed to come alive and protect them. According to the Aborigines, dreamtime is not an easy concept to understand as art is an integral part of the Aboriginal culture. The end products however, are beautiful exquisite pieces of art for everyone to enjoy.
The Aboriginal philosophy called Tjukurpa is founded on the laws and traditions created by their ancestors, based on the connection between man, his ancestors and his land and this philosophy encompasses the arts as an integral part.
Everywhere the ancestral beings had carried out their many tasks and significant landmarks that were formed, for example on mountains, rivers, rocks, or even bushes or trees.
Ancient Aboriginal art covered a wide medium including painting on leaves and ceremonial clothing, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture and sand painting, as well as artistic decorations found on weaponry and tools.
Being nomads roaming in extreme climatic conditions in the desert not much of the ancient art remains. There are however many interesting sites remaining in throughout Australia. In areas of flat rock surfaces rock engravings, the oldest and most lasting of the aboriginal art, can be found.
Rock paintings are mostly found in caves or shelters protecting both people and paintings from the rain. Mostly earth or natural pigments were used.
Pigments used were white clay or gypsum, yellow, red, and purple, ochres, and black obtained from charcoal. Ochre pits have been found which are over 30,000 years old and are still in use. The pigments were mixed with kangaroo or emu fat or other natural glues and then applied with fingers or a brush. Nourlangie Rock and Ubir, famous rock painting sites can be visited in Kakadu National Park.
Today there are many indigenous Aboriginal artists who work with conventional western materials such as acrylics, canvas or board to create beautiful visual effects, at the cutting edge of modern art, but who have synthesized old traditional imagery to conventional techniques.
Dreamtime based art remains an integral theme for modern artists. They also represent a new context of interaction between indigenous and western societies. Through modern art the Aboriginal people are able to introduce and express their culture to the world. Acrylic paintings are mythical representations of landscapes or conceptual maps of designs wrought by ancestors. In this tradition, paintings, dances and songs relating to the Dreamtime are repeating the work of ancestors, thus keeping the Dreaming alive.
Just like the many languages, Aboriginal art varies from place to place, from the cross hatching style on bark in Arnhem land to the contemporary dot painting on canvas in the western desert. Dot painting is one of the most common forms of Aboriginal art. Like most Aboriginal art it is more of a ritual involving secrecy, mystery and symbolism, than a purely artistic expression.
Music and Dance
The didgeridoo is the instrument that is the symbol for Aboriginal music. It is made from a log hollowed out by fire or termites. Different tube lengths (normally 100-160 cm) produce different sounds, and a player will normally have a number of instruments to choose from to suit the voice of particular singers who are being accompanied.
The didgeridoo is played by blowing through vibrating lips directly into the mouthpiece, air reserves being held in the cheeks and replenished by rapid sniffs through the nose which do not interrupt the continuous blowing. There are two playing styles, either resting on the foot or the ground.
Music is a vital part of the everyday life and Aboriginal sacred ceremonies. It is traditionally connected with important events such as the bringing of rain, healing, wounding enemies and the winning of battles. Traditional music is still practiced and performed widely along with a very strong and lively contemporary music scene.
Aboriginal music is learnt and carried on to later generations by performing it. It is not seen as fixed but rather is something that is varied or built upon in successive performances, usually with a large number of participants and performed communally. The diversity of culture across Aboriginal groups is reflected in the diversity of songs, music, instruments and techniques.
Young aboriginal children are encouraged to dance and sing about everyday tasks. At puberty a child learns the first songs about the plants and animals of their clan and the history and mythology of the group – all with different melodies. Young men also learn more lighthearted songs which are the basic entertainment for their group. When a man marries and enters further into group responsibilities, the karma songs are the central part of his education and his source of spiritual strength. His maturity can be measured in the knowledge he has acquired through songs and ceremonies.
Aboriginal music is used for formal religious ceremonies, both for women’s reproductive ceremonies the initiation ceremonies for young boys. Entertainment music is also popular. The best known form of these public events is the corroboree in which the men dance for up to three or four hours continuously while the women and children sing. Non-sacred songs were traded freely between tribes and spread easily, often crossing from one language into another.