Art in South America and the Pacific
Aboriginal Creation Myths and Art
The Aborigines have existed for approximately 40,000 years in parts of Australia. They boast one of the most ancient cultures in the world that is as varied as the people themselves throughout different regions of this continent. Due to the length of time that this civilization has existed, one would think that its traditions, cosmology and art would have a significant impact on the world. However, largely due to the fact that the Aborigines are a non-Westernized group of people and have never fully embraced technology, which is one of the principle Western markers of the “progress” of a civilization, most of its cultural manifestations are largely ignored by the outside world. As such, it is necessary to explicate one of the most integral aspects of this culture’s history — its conception of the creation of the world and everything in it — to fully understand the nature of many of its cultural manifestations and aesthetics (primarily art) in order to discern how the one is intrinsically related to the other.
The most important concept related to aboriginal art is the dreamtime, which has a multitude of definitions and uses within this civilization. Most often, the dreamtime is the notion of the creation of the world or of the afterlife. It is simultaneously a place and a time, one akin to both the afterlife and the prevalence of an existence that preceded the physical world. As the name implies, it is a time/place in which change is imminent, physical laws do not apply and external repercussions are able to manifest themselves with the action of thought. It is an extension of the notion of the dreaming, “a term used by the Aboriginal people to describe relations between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It relates to a period before living memory or experience — a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings” (No author).
The crux of the creation myths of Aborigines, which vary slightly depending on which particular Aboriginal group in a specific part of Australia is referenced, is that there were totem ancestors who existed in spiritual essence prior to the conception of the physical world. The world was then thought to have been made by a central creation figure, known to some as Altjira (No author), who created a barren, empty world before allowing these totem ancestors to enter it. These ancestors then, during this period known as dreamtime, created all of nature and the creatures existent within it through their interactions with one another, not all of which were peaceful. Certain Aborigines believe that conflicts between different ancestors resulted in the formation of the stars, the moon and the sun, while others believe that amicable interaction between the ancestors, such as simply walking a certain path for instance, left trails and hills and grass and other facets of nature.
The interaction of these creation myths with Aboriginal art is vital, since the art of the cultural was widely regarded as a means of propagating morals and aesthetic principles. Therefore, Aboriginal art was not readily released to the general public because of its sincerity and the integrity of the images it rendered, which had corresponding cultural values endemic to these people’s belief systems. As such, it had a definite social impact that helped to reinforce the codes of Aboriginal civilization. Their works of art contains symbols that are highly important and have religious significance. Although symbols may have more than one interpretation, the correct one usually hinges upon the context of the work of art.
An excellent of example of the usage of art to detail the dreamtime creation myths of aborigines is found in Janet Long Nakamura’s “Milky Way.” This is a relatively simple work of art that was created around the turn of the millennium that reveals much about the creation mythology conveyed in Aboriginal art. The stark rendering of the colors involved in this painting — black, white, and a dirty, auburn-tinged red — is definitely evocative of the realms of outer space as visible to the naked eye. In this respect, the work actually looks like the Milky Way. Outer space is represented by the strong dark background, while the white colors, bunched together as a series of dots, is indicative of the milky way itself, the light behind the stars and the very fabric of the galaxy. What principally separates this work from any Westernized conception of the milky way, of course (Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” comes to mind), however, is the prominence of the red colors and the shapes themselves. The red circles represent certain members of the totem ancestors, which appear to be trailed by a single dot, yet another ancestor. As the artist herself explains,
The seven circles are the Seven Sisters and the one on its own is the Jakamarraâ€¦Where ever the sisters went the Jakamarra would always be with them. One day the sisters wanted to get rid of the Jakamarra so they came down from the sky. They all walked together from place to place and the Jakamarra was always with them in the sky (Nakamaara).
This quotation demonstrates the fact that this work of art is used to explain a very particular aspect of creation, the westerly progression of celestial bodies. The phenomena of several supernal bodies such as the sun, moon, and the stars travelling across the sky from the east to the west is succinctly explained by the work’s implied sense of motion in which the sisters can be seen leading Jakamarra to the painting’s left, which represents west. This facet of life which is easily observable is now effectively explained through Aboriginal art that reflects creation mythology.
Another work by the same artist, “Stars,” underscores the nature of what many westerners may regard as ambiguity in the interpretation of Aboriginal creation myths and the art work that represents them. There is a distinct likeness between this work and “Milky Way”; each utilizes the same colors and symbols — the red, black and white and the large, circular dots. Again, the dark background represents space while the faint white dots (which are somewhat difficult to see) are representative of the presence of the Milky Way. However, these symbols and colors are joined by the presence of large center circles, which are emblematic of Willy Wagtail, a type of bird that has immense cultural significance in Aborigine tradition. The shape of the smaller dots, those that represent the stars, around it is evocative of dreamtime, as the following quotation from Nakamaara illustrates.
This icon tells about the stars. The three symbols represent the meaning of the stories about the stars. Some stars tell stories of the Dreamtime.For example there’s a willy wagtail who made a humpy. As you see in the sky a big ‘U’ shape and that’s the Willy Wag tails hump. Each of these stars have long stories and meanings and for different family groups with skin names (Nakamaara).
The ambiguity of the different “meanings” of the stars in this painting is actually reflective of a very important aspect of Aboriginal art that pertains to creation mythology. Many artists will create works and offer an “outside story which they provide for the general public while the painting retains an inside story accessible only to those with an appropriate level of knowledge” (Bardon).
What is most notable about many of the creation myths depicted by Aboriginal artists is the level of conviction these artists have regarding the meaning of their work. The stories detailed within their art are not myths to these artists; many times, the artists actually believe that these are sacred explanations for how various things came to be in the world today. Such conviction is found in “Bungalung Men Dreaming,” which was painted by Johnny Warangkula in the 1970’s. This work of art depicts a struggle between two ancestors, the Bungalung man and a Tingari man, the latter of whom was trespassing on sacred land (No author). The copious quantity of dots, particularly the white ones, evinces the full force of the elements invoked by the Bungalung Man to beat his opponent into submission. The power of the Bungalung man is evinced by the fact that he leaves tracks in his wake when walks, which record permanent imprints on the earth. The setting in which this painting takes place, Tjikarri, is a common location in the artist’s paintings.
Aboriginal art reflects the sacred elements of the stories of creation for these people. It incorporates a variety of symbolism that is representative of dreaming, which is a means of ascertaining power and hearkens back to dreamtime, in which Aboriginals believe the world and all of its creations were made. Many of the symbols used to reflect the myths regarding creation seem ambiguous to untrained westerners, since they vary according to the context of the work in which they are employed. The explanations themselves either account for observable, physical phenomena or more esoteric sources of power and hegemony, such as found within “Bungalung Men Dreaming.”
Bardon, Geoffrey. “Aboriginal Art and Use of Symbols.” Aboriginal Art Online. 2004. http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/culture/symbols.php
Nakamura, Janet. “Milky Way.” Aboriginal Dreamtime. No date. Web. http://www.jintaart.com.au/iconography/milkyway.htm
Nakamura, Janet. “Stars.” Aboriginal Dreamtime. No date. Web. http://www.jintaart.com.au/iconography/starsico.htm
No author. “About the Artist.” Original and Authentic Aboriginal Art. 2004. Web. http://www.authaboriginalart.com.au/Artist.asp?Artist=Johnny%20Warangkula%20Tjupurrula
No author. “Art, Land and the Dreaming.” Aboriginal Art Online. 2004. Web.
No author. “Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime.” Crystalinks.com. No date. Web. http://www.crystalinks.com/dreamtime.html
This is a replica of Bungalung Man Dreaming (above).
This is a replica of “Stars” (above).
This is a replica of “Milky Way.”
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