Aboriginal Art Introduction

Translation of Dreaming

Dreaming is an approximate English translation of an Aboriginal concept, which has no equivalent in the English language. Groups each have their own words for this concept: for example the Pitjantjatjara people use the term Tjukurpa, the Arrernte refer to it as Aldjerinya and the Adnyamathanha use the word Nguthuna.

The Dreaming

Dreaming does not convey the fullness of the concept for Aboriginal people but is the most acceptable English word to Aboriginal people. The word is acceptable because very often revelations or insights are received in dreams or recurring visions. The Dreaming refers to all that is known and all that is understood. It is the way Aboriginal people explain life and how their world came into being. It is central to the existence of traditional Aboriginal people, their lifestyle and their culture, for it determines their values and beliefs and their relationship with every living creature and every feature of the landscape.

Journey of the Creator Ancestors

The Dreaming tells of the journeys and deeds of creator ancestors. The creator ancestors made the trees, rocks, waterholes, rivers, mountains and stars, as well as the animals and plants, and their spirits inhabit these features of the natural world today. Good and bad behaviours are demonstrated in Dreaming stories as ancestors hunt, marry, care for children and defend themselves from their enemies.

Concept of Time

The Dreaming is often understood as a period of time, but this European concept of a unit of time in past does not contain the full meaning. The Dreaming is not some long past era but a continuous entity, from which people come, which people renew and which people go back to. Art is one to the ways through which Aboriginal people communicate with and maintain a oneness with the Dreaming. When people take on the characteristics of the Dreaming ancestors through dance, song and art and when they maintain sacred sites, the spirits of the creator ancestors are renewed.

Our "Country"

It is the natural world, which therefore provides the link between the people and the Dreaming, especially the land (or 'country') to which a person belongs. Aboriginal people see themselves as related to, and part of, this natural world and know its features in intricate detail. This relationship carries responsibilities for its survival and continuity so that each person has special obligations to protect and preserve the spirit of the land and the life forms that are a part of it.

Obligations to Our "Country"

These obligations may take the form of conservation practices, obeying the law, observing codes of behaviour or involvement in secret/sacred ceremonial activities, but the influence of the Dreaming is embedded in every aspect of daily life. The Dreamings permeates through song, dance, storytelling, painting, artifacts making, hunting and food gathering activities as well as through the social (kinship) system because it provides the framework for living.

The Individual's Link with the Dreaming

For Aboriginal people who follow traditional beliefs, the Dreaming is intensely personal. Each person is linked to it by his or her individual Dreaming (or totem), this belief involves the idea that the creator ancestors who were physically alive in the natural features of the landscape in which they once moved.

Unborn Child's Dreaming

At the very earliest stage of life, during pregnancy, each fetus is believed to be activated by one of these 'spirit babies'. Their presence enters the mother's body from one of the places where spirit babies are in hiding, waiting for an opportunity to enter a fetus. Usually the mother associates this event with the place where she first becomes aware of carrying her child. Because each part of the landscape is clearly identified with a Dreaming spirit ancestor there is usually no doubt as to the actual Dreaming to which the unborn child belongs.


Some earlier writers assumed that Aboriginal people did not know about physical conception. This is not so. It is simply a matter of emphasis. Traditional Aboriginal people tended to stress the gaining of a spiritual identity as the vital aspect of conception. This belief reinforces the spiritual and physical ties that Aboriginal people have with the land.

Links with the Land

Whenever a traditional Aboriginal person looks at the landscape, he or she always sees much more than just the physical features. There is a deep awareness of the presence of the Dreaming ancestors. All around are signs of their presence, their tracks, places where they had dug out valleys, split rocks or disturbed the ground in their passing. Sometimes too, their bodies or those of their enemies are perceived in rocks, boulders and trees. Their actual spirits are also there, not dangerous or unfriendly, living on in the world they made. It is possible to communicate with ancestor spirits. The bond that this creates is one of enormous strength. Overall, the earth is a 'mother' in a real sense.


This interpretation of landscape confers responsibilities of the highest order. In many lonely places in Australia today there are quiet, sacred places that are regularly visited and cared for by the Aboriginal man or woman who is the guardian of the place. Their responsibilities usually defined the territory occupied by each group. They also from a basis for land rights claims today.

Cultural Heritage

The Dreaming is as important to Aboriginal people as the Christian Bible and the whole ethos of Christian belief is to the devout Christian. The Dreaming is still vitally important to today's Aboriginal people. It gives a social and spiritual base and links them to their cultural heritage. Many Aboriginal people are Christian as well as having a continuing belief in their Dreaming. In some areas, where Aboriginal people may no longer have the full knowledge of their Dreaming, they still retain strong spirituality, kinship practices and traditional values and beliefs.

Everyone is an Artist

Like European art, Aboriginal art represents and symbolises the world and the beliefs of people. Traditional Aboriginal art represent the Dreaming but is often also a vital part of ceremonies.

Concept of Art in Traditional Aboriginal Society

The concept of art in traditional Aboriginal society is very different to the concept of art in European society. In traditional Aboriginal societies, activities like dancing, singing, body decorations, sand drawings, making implements or weaving baskets were not considered to be separate activities called art and design. All of these activities were a part of the Dreaming and a part of normal daily life. There was no concept of a special type of person, artists, because, in a sense, everyone was an artist. This is changing as tradition-oriented communities adapt to aspects of western culture although the number of 'artists' in any Aboriginal group would generally be far greater than in non-Aboriginal communities.

Art Forms

Aboriginal people traditionally used the materials available to them to symbolise the Dreaming and their world. As a result, art forms varied in different areas of Australia. In the central desert, ground drawing was a very important style of art and throughout Australia rock art as well as body painting and decoration were common although varying in styles, method, materials and meaning. There is and was a wide range of traditional Aboriginal art forms.

Contemporary Art

Communities today throughout central and northern Australia still produce traditional art, which has traditional content and meaning. However, some methods of producing the art may be contemporary, for example, the use of acrylic paint on canvas or commercial fixatives on bark.

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