If you’ve ever seen Aboriginal art, you’ll know that it’s distinctly beautiful, mesmerising and wholly unique, all at the same time. But behind the beauty of it is something else entirely: layers upon layers of cultural, spiritual and historical significance to our people.
So what exactly does art mean to Aboriginal people? And why is it so important? Here are 5 reasons why art is so significant to us:
1.Aboriginal Art replaces a written language
Our culture in Australia dates back nearly 80,000 years and throughout that time, we have passed on information via storytelling. In fact, as Aboriginal Australians we had no written language, we relied on stories, and still do, to pass down important cultural and spiritual teachings from one generation to the next.
And one of the greatest mediums to tell those stories is through art. For thousands of years, we have relied on art as our primary form of storytelling and a key source of historical and cultural information.
2.It’s a survival mechanism
If there’s one thing that we excel at, it’s survival - we’ve survived - and thrived - for generations in the often very harsh conditions of the Australian wilderness. This takes considerable knowledge, and this knowledge is also often passed down through paintings.
From the management of resources and land, to how to locate and prepare bush tucker, Aboriginal art isn’t just historical and cultural - it’s practical. We have long been translating our ways of surviving in the bush into our art.
3.It can communicate different things to different people
Just like a picture can paint a thousand words, Aboriginal art can have multiple levels of interpretation. The stories and meaning behind any given piece of art are best understood by the elders in the group, who are given the privilege of understanding the details. Only some details may be shared with outsiders.
Aboriginal tribes may also only convey certain aspects of stories within art to children. For example, stories told to children may take on a simpler form which highlight educational and behavioural aspects.
4.It fosters a sense of community and belonging
Unlike Western art which is usually produced by just one individual, Aboriginal art can be highly collaborative. It isn’t uncommon for our artists to work together on their individual paintings, as this reinforces social and cultural values.
In addition to this, artists often work collaboratively on one painting to create a shared meaning, for example, they might work together on telling a story that has relevance to everyone.
Art is therefore used to foster a great sense of community and belonging.
5. Aboriginal Art allows our voices to be heard
Many describe Aboriginal artwork as ‘Australia’s greatest cultural gift to the world’ and in many ways, it is: it allows non-Indigenous Australians and people from all over the world to get a rare and unique insight into one of the world’s oldest cultures.
But Aboriginal art is also a great gift to artists’ own community. It enables many talented artists to promote culture and heritage, while at the same time earning a living, especially in the more remote parts of Australia. Art is represented through paintings, printed fabric, and clothing.
Aboriginal art is beautiful, but it’s so much more than that: it enables us to tell our stories, both within our culture, and to the outside world.
The very best of Aboriginal art was recently exhibited at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Wiradjuri fashion brand Ngali works with Gija artist Lindsay Malay from the Warmum Art centre to bring his art to the world via our unique women’s clothing collections.