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Australian Dreamings

Australia is a land of many shapes and colors. The wide range of geographic landforms and many types of animals provide inspiration to the Aboriginal artist.

For thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginal people lived alone in Australia. They believed that the land and heavenly bodies were the work of the great Ancestral Beings of the Dreaming. The Dreaming philosophy is central to the culture of the Aboriginal people and to their artistic traditions.

Rock art was one of the first creative expressions of the Aborigines. Paintings of Dreaming Ancestors, animals, and events in Aboriginal history are found on the walls of the caves and other rock formations. Many are painted in what is called X-ray style. Although rock painting is no longer practiced, traditional Gagudju and Kunwinjku bark painters continue to use the X-ray style, which shows the internal structure of the Ancestor or animal portrayed.

Bark paintings are created on peeled and treated gum tree bark. The Gagudju people from Arnhem Land in Australia’s Kakadu National Park create X-ray style paintings using the colors of the desert, usually a red ochre background with a white clay pattern. The Kunwinjku and related people from Oenpelli are also bark painters. They have added their own crosshatching pattern, known as rarrk, which they believe gives the painted objects the power of supernatural beings.

Intricate dot paintings are created by the Papunya people of Australia’s Western Desert. They, too, use the colors of the desert: red ochre, yellow ochre, browns, black, and white. People, objects, animals, landmarks, and events in their world are represented by designs made by many dots. A simple arc is sometimes used to depict a person—representing the imprint left by someone sitting. A wooden carrying dish is shown by a straight line, a campfire by a circle. Males or females are often identified by objects associated with them. For instance, a woman might be represented by a digging stick or a dish, while a spear or boomerang might be used for a male. Concentric circles usually depict Dreaming sites or places where ancestors passed on their journeys.

The dot paintings may look abstract, but this is because they are often done from an aerial perspective, as if looking down on at the landscape from above. They are like maps of the country, showing places where Ancestral Beings are believed to have traveled during the Dreaming. The dot painting style is also used to decorate functional items such as boomerangs, digging sticks, and didgeridoos.

Lesson Plan: Create a Dot Painting