Aboriginal Art Steeped in Mystical Symbolism

From ancient times, Australia's Aboriginal people have recorded their history, mythology and ritual in art. Much of it has been painted on a variety of medium, including rocks, the ground, the human body, tree bark and, more recently, canvases. The work conveys a sophisticated symbolism--a visual language in which land, ancestral heritage and spirituality are mapped out in a variety of patterns.

Though few visitors venture into Australia's vast Outback, fabulous Aboriginal art and crafts are available in Melbourne galleries and they now are sought after as collectibles that will increase in value.

The body of Aboriginal art ranges from prehistoric rock paintings, such as those seen at Ayers Rock in Australia's Outback, to contemporary landscapes on canvas.

Traditional-style paintings are intricately designed depictions of complex tribal stories. Sacred figures, locations and totemic elements are drawn in almost cartoon-like fashion. The simple imagery is then covered with dense overlay patterns of straight and squiggly lines, dots, cross-hatching or filigree.

Some artists use certain patterns because they are believed to have originated in ancient times and are considered sacred property, bequeathed to specific tribes by supernatural beings as part of a cosmic plan. The patterns are thought to express the spirit of the artist's country and ancestry.

The Aboriginal bark painting tradition was begun centuries ago and continues today primarily in Arnhem Land, on the northern coast of central Australia, where tribes from different regions produce distinctly varied work.

In western Arnhem Land, the Kunwinjku's paintings are usually stark images with X-ray-like skeletal detail filled in against a plain background.

In contrast, the Yolngu of northeastern Arnhem Land paint abstractly with plain figures against a background filled with geometric grids and patterned subdivisions divided by patterned borders. Central Arnhem Land's diverse styles include totemic figures painted boldly against intricately patterned backgrounds.

Most bark paintings are symbolic representations of creation stories in which tribal ancestors formed the landscape after arriving from a mysterious place across the seas. Paintings are in earth tones, with size determined by the size of the tree from which the bark is taken.

Since the 1960s, partly due to greater Aboriginal interaction with white Australians, bark paintings have been created for sale, rather than as ritual artifacts. Yet each piece is thought to retain the artists' links with his country, and paintings are intensely personal, spiritual expressions.

Among the outlets for Aboriginal art in and around Melbourne:

Emerald Hill Gallery (193 Bank St. in the suburb of South Melbourne) is an excellent source for bark paintings and crafts. In addition to bark paintings ($72 to $2,400), Emerald Hill sells handcrafted items used by Aboriginal people in daily life.

There are beautiful baskets constructed from bark (from $32), some decorated with paintings or etchings and those woven from papyrus reeds (from $160). Cotton fabrics with Aboriginal patterns cost $28 per meter.

Didgeridoos (from $64 to $160), Aboriginal wind instruments, are made from logs hollowed by termites and often painted or etched with symbolic patterns. Emerald Hill Gallery has audiocassettes ($13 to $15) with didgeridoo music and instructions on how to play. Less challenging to play are the musical click sticks ($13 to $32) used in rituals to create mesmerizing rhythms for dancers.

Boomerangs, which were invented by the Aborigines and are still used by them, are sold at Emerald Hill for about $80 and up. Hand-carved boomerangs of various sizes are often painted or etched. Woomeras (from $56) are spear-throwing devices that work on the lever principal. Decorated clubs, made from tree roots, are still used in ritualized fighting ceremonies.

There are also items for personal adornment. Necklaces of beads made from the bat wing coral tree and strung on human hair cost $32. Earrings made from hakea pods or preserved leaves cost $16. Ceremonial belts woven from hair and ocher cost $80. Feathers are used to make ceremonial headdresses (from $160) and special shoes ($128) worn by tribesmen who want to disguise their footprints so they cannot be identified.

Emerald Hill sells wood carvings (from $32) of lizards, snakes, crocodiles and other Australian animals. Other sculptures include a magnificent hardwood sailing vessel carved by Baluka Maymuru (Mangalile clan in northeast Arnhem Land) for $1,600.

Since the mid-1970s, Aboriginal people who had been relocated into the government-sponsored settlement of Papunya Tula, and to the surrounding area in the central Australian desert, have been painting abstract landscapes, histories and "dreams" in acrylic on canvas. The best source for these paintings is Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi (141 Flinders Lane, Melbourne). Canvases are usually about 4 by 5 feet and prices begin at about $1,200.

Painters have distinct styles. Mick Mamarari Tjapaltjarri, for example, paints grids by connected concentric circles to subdivide his canvas. Emily Kame Kngwarreye (now in her 80s) uses dots to create fields of earth tones from which different patterns emerge. Artist Lin Onus uses traditional painting techniques blended with symbolism. Onus' work may provide a reference for viewers who wish to decipher some of the symbolism used in traditional paintings. Onus' canvases, most measuring about 4 by 5 feet, are priced from about $1,600; smaller paintings cost from about $800.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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