TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL ART
Though comparable patterns and designs were once
created elsewhere in Australia, the surviving style of ground mosaics
appears to have been restricted to the people of the Centre - to
the majority (but not all) of those living in the major range country,
north from Alice Springs for about eight hundred kilometres and
west to south-west to the Western Desert country.
European settlement and the spread of Christianity very largely
destroyed the ceremonial life of our Arrernte group plus Pitjantjatjara,
Pitubi, Walpiri, Amnatjira and Warramunga tribes.
Ground mosaics are the most elaborate of our art works, but complementary
designs and decorations are applied to the bodies and specially
constructed head dresses of actors: to secret-sacred ritual objects
that are stored near the ceremonial grounds; and often to shields,
boomerangs and other weapons.
The design elements are not, in themselves, considered dangerous.
But in a ceremonial situation, when the correct secret-sacred chants
are sung, they are believed to partake of mythological forces, whose
essence they pass on to otherwise profane objects. Thus, the dancers
and the objects they use are thought to become imbued with supernatural
power. If not made unrecognisable in rituals, the decorations are
usually destroyed immediately afterwards, for most are not to be
displayed in secular situations.
The mythological beings, to which all Aboriginal people are totemically
and ancestrally related in one way of another, are regarded not
as really dead so much as at watchful rest. They still live in rock-holes,
caves, clay-pans and other natural features. Sacrilegious behaviour,
or casual regard for ancient custom and law, may so anger the supernatural
beings that death and destruction follow. Sacrilege tat is recognised
on the instant must be punished on the instant, so as to placate
the creative ancestors.
The artists creating the ground paintings are all men; inevitably,
they are well into middle age, for only after extensive and often
very painful ritual is one knowledge and competent enough to depict
the designs correctly. Younger but still ritually correct men are
sometimes employed as assistants (obviously, a period of introductory
instruction is required), but few men involved in making ground
mosaics are under forty. Women have similar styles of body markings,
have limited numbers of sacred objects and dances, and may mark
the sand with leaves, sticks or their hands in the telling of stories;
but they are not involved in making the decorated ground paintings.
No one man can create a ground design. In the complexity of Aboriginal
social situation, each site that is still 'living' has at least
two men who stand in a 'keeper-owner' relationship to it and two
men called Kutungulu ('inspectors' or 'policemen') who ensure that
their keeper-owners maintain correct protocol. Similarly, unless
given formal dispensation, men can create only those paintings over
which they are recognised as having authority: there is no concept
of total artistic freedom in the Western sense.
40,000 YEARS TO DESIGN
Each major secret-sacred ground painting represents both an individual
identifiable geographical locality and a mythological incident that
occured there, although is inevitable that related sites and incidents
will also be recalled. As there are hundreds upon hundreds of differents
sites in a tribal territory, ranging from individual tress or rocks
to mountains, the most learned old men may well know the details
of hundreds of paintings - even possibly, of more than a thousand.
The designs must be relatively static in composition and have persisted
over a great meny generations to allow for such feats of memory.
An indication of the ancient derivations of the ground art is that
identical designs elements occur in the rock engravings, some of
which are now known to be about twenty thousand years old. Plain
and concentric cirlces, straight bar-lines and sinuous lines and
animal tracks prevail in each art form. The major difference is
probably, the regular inclusion of arcs (representing seated figures)
in ground painting. There a similarity is the absence of the square
or rectangle, a design element that frequently occurs on woomeras
(spear throwers), hard-wood shields and other wooden objects. Despite
the similarities, however, the fragile nature and purposeful destruction
of ground paintings - presumably in ancient times as in modern -
makes it unlikely that we will ever know when this form of art became
All ground paintings, and the modern paintings on canvas or art-board
which are derived from them, are meant to be seen as plan views.
This is almost certainly influenced by the hunting and foraging
life-styles that the Aborigines once followed and, to varying degrees,
still do. It is a great asset, when travelling the bush, if the
slightest sign of a track - a scratch on clay or recognised as indicating
the time and direction of travel, and the type of animal that caused
it. Conservation of energy in the hunt is almost as essential as
the discovery of game. (The exceptional tracking skills of the Aborigines
have been successfully used for finding lost people or seeking out
criminals; Aboriginal trackers are employed by the police in all