Rock art windows on the past

Aboriginal Art
March 24, 2000

From the dawn of time, the Aborigines of Australia have engaged in artistic practices that form an integral part of their peoples' religion and culture. These artistic practices have been handed down from generation to generation and are representational of the world's most enduring cultural resource.

Throughout this vast continent, Aboriginal people continue their cultural traditions, which are inextricably connected to the Dreaming: a unique and complex religious concept that encompasses the creation period, the present and the future. The Dreaming has its foundations as a spiritual dimension. However, it also incorporates everything physical in Aboriginal life. To the Aboriginal people the Dreaming always existed: it is as infinite to the past as it is to the present and the future. Throughout Aboriginal history, people have continued to access the Dreaming through ceremonies, songs, dances and art.

Aboriginal people believe that before humans existed, the earth was a flat featureless plain, from which emerged supernatural ancestral beings. The ancestral beings created all the land forms and everything that comprised the world. They created the unique topographical features such as waterholes, caves and rivers as they emerged from within the earth. They had the ability to transform their bodies, and they fought great battles between rival groups.

They created the human groups who were to succeed them and to whom they taught the laws, ceremonies, songs and dances. The ancestral beings gave the human groups the artistic images that would serve to commemorate their illustrious lives.

Aboriginal Art , by the respected social anthropologist Howard Morphy, takes the reader on an artistic journey that begins 40,000 years ago and continues to the contemporary period, throughout which Morphy expertly examines all subjects. The volume is indexed thematically, rather than as a regional survey, no doubt because many of the same themes are relevant to the numerous groups who speak more than 200 different languages and who are spread throughout the massive 4.79km² island continent.

The "discovery" of the art is generally described in two stages: the colonisation period of the 1800s and, in more recent times, a period of international appreciation of its aesthetic form. When early settlers marvelled at the strange rock art images, little did they realise that these paintings would later be recognised as among the world's most important ancient rock art discoveries.

Aboriginal art differs widely from region to region, and the earliest representations are difficult to identify specifically. However, the earliest surviving examples are in the form of rock paintings and engravings, which are found throughout the continent and are likely to date from about 30,000 years ago, serving as one of the records of Australia's prehistory.

In the north of Australia at Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land, a proliferation of rock art was discovered throughout the escarpment. Over millennia, Aboriginal people seasonally sheltered there to escape the rising waters of the flood plain during the tropical wet season. These "galleries", which are considered among the world's most enduring, contain thousands of artistic images, including dynamic spirit figures, humans, material culture and animals, many in the unique X-ray style, which depict the internal organs and structure. Here we also see recorded images of early external visitors to Australia's northern shores.

At Oenpelli today, the Kunwinjku people continue to carry on the artistic traditions handed down by their forebears, creating artistic images of their Dreamings with ochres on bark and paper, which are closely aligned with the archaeological records. In the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia, Morphy notes other unique images known as Wandjina and Bradshaw figures, which dominate the rock art galleries of the area. The Wandjina are almost human in form with large round eyes, slim noses and no mouths. The heads are surmounted by a halo, and the figures are often depicted with an oval shaped form on their chests. The Wandjina are thought to have come from the sea and sky and after creating the landscape, they were absorbed into the walls of rock shelters. The tradition of the Wandjina dates from about 1,500 years ago and continues into the present. The Bradshaw figures represent human-like beings often depicted carrying ceremonial objects. However, their true significance remains unknown.

Of the Aboriginal contemporary art movement, the most widely known is that of the central desert region. Despite a long-standing tradition of art and craft production, the contemporary art movement is considered to have begun in 1936 with the Aboriginal artist Albert Namitjira, who followed the European style of his teacher, Rex Battarbee. However, it was not until 1971 that a new tradition arose: that of depicting traditional ceremonial body painting and ground sculpture designs on western material, culminating in the acrylic art movement.

The movement began at the small settlement of Papunya, 245 km northwest of Alice Springs, when white Australian school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged senior Aboriginal men to draw and paint their traditional imagery, initially with natural ochres and acrylic house paint on scraps of plywood, followed by the more stable medium of artists' acrylic paint on canvas.

The paintings were of immediate significance, and as the demand for the works slowly increased, it brought with it a degree of financial independence for the artists. The success of this venture spread to other language groups throughout the desert region. Over the ensuing years, numerous Aboriginal communities established their own art movements, with each group presenting unique depictions of their artists' Dreamings.

Central-desert acrylic paintings are at the forefront of Australian contemporary art sales. Following their international debut in the 1980s, the works are now sought after by the cognoscenti the world over.

Within the landscape of Aboriginal Australia today, the artists of the Centralian region have received the greatest international recognition and, in doing so, have changed the perception of what were once considered images of "tribal" or "ethnographic" art, to images that are now generally admired as 20th-century art - images borne out of antiquity, brilliantly coming to life, a window on the past, a record of the present and a commitment to the future.

The art of Aboriginal Australia is an expansive subject, and Morphy's book skilfully educates the reader through its 11 informative chapters. Aboriginal Art presents one of the most complete studies available, surveying the social and cultural aspects of the many language groups: the rock art history, religion and material art culture. Thoroughly researched and written with elegance, this authoritative work has quickly established itself as a most important volume, an essential reference work for scholars and lay readers alike.

David Cossey is director, Gallerie Australis, Adelaide, Australia.

Aboriginal Art

Author - Howard Morphy
ISBN - 0 7148 3752 0
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £14.95
Pages - 447

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