Cultural Diversity in Aboriginal Art: It’s Not Just Dots
When you turn on the TV, open a book, flick through a newspaper or browse the internet, it’s likely that if you encounter a story about Aboriginal people written by a non-Indigenous person, you’ll find yourself being bombarded by a range of unhelpful Aboriginal stereotypes. These are stereotypes that perpetuate the myth that the First Peoples of Australia were, and are mono-cultural. Aboriginal art is presented to the world by the Australian media in an uninformed, sloppy and alarmingly negligent manner. It is an overwhelming lack of care which provides a vehicle for the mono-culture stereotype to be perpetuated around the world. That is to say – Aboriginal people in every part of the country are all part of one big group, with a single system of beliefs, laws, language and ways of living. This however is far from accurate.
What are the first things that come to mind when you think about Aboriginal culture? Is it perhaps ‘dot paintings’, didgeridoos or boomerangs? If you answered yes to any of these, you might be surprised to learn that of these only boomerangs were historically found in all parts of Australia. Didgeridoos belong to northern Australia, whilst dot paintings are a relatively recent tradition from central Australia. These differences are just scratching the surface, hence the problem we’re dealing with in the media, and in schools.
Aboriginal art is presented to the world by the Australian media in an uninformed, sloppy and alarmingly negligent manner. It is an overwhelming lack of care which provides a vehicle for the mono-culture stereotype to be perpetuated around the world. It is also a major reason why Koori people throughout New South Wales and Victoria are more familiar with the art styles of other Aboriginal cultures, and have adopted them in place of our own.
Throughout South Eastern Australia canvases are commonly filled with dots, because for a long time we didn’t know any better. Many Koori people are only now just realising that we can access the artworks created by our ancestors which are held in major collections in Australia and abroad. We can tap into a treasure trove of knowledge and stories. Koori artists are connecting with the past, learning about our own traditional practices and reinvigorating them.
Artists are producing animal skin cloaks, tools and weapons, body decorations and many other aspects of traditional material culture, emblazoned with designs inspired by those created by our ancestors.
In South Eastern Australia our arts are unique. In fact, no matter where you travel on this continent, the arts of the First Peoples of any given area are unique. Painted works, carved timber artefacts, jewellery, or music from one region will generally contrast quite heavily with the styles, form and reasons found in another. Australia pre-invasion was a land blessed with great artistic diversity. Koori people in New South Wales and Victoria share many common threads in artistic expression, which contrast with the rest of the continent.
Koori visual art is traditionally dominated by concentric lines and geometric shapes interspersed with images of culture, country and daily life. From birth we would be wrapped in our mother’s animal skin cloaks. As children we would learn about our country, and as we transitioned into adulthood we would learn our sacred stories and aspects of culture through music, dance and visual representation. Even in death, our burials were often marked with artistic expressions of who we were. Dots rarely appear in our art, just as lozenges (diamonds), herringbone (zigzags) and chevrons (vee shapes) are rare in the artworks of Aboriginal people in other parts of Australia. Traditionally Koori people didn’t create X-ray style art as found in Arnhem Land, and we didn’t create the breathtakingly beautiful clan designs that were painted onto warriors shields in the rainforest country of Northern Queensland. Ours are works of art that help to define the many Nations of South Eastern Australia as distinct from the rest of the continent, whilst also serving to illustrate variances within the South East.
The shields displayed on this page give only the briefest snapshot of the cultural diversity found across Aboriginal Australia within Aboriginal art. There are many more styles, and a multitude of other ways in which such art styles were traditionally displayed. For a more thorough opportunity to examine Australia’s Indigenous art styles, consider a visit to either Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, or the South Australian Museum.