Skip to main content

The Significance of Country in Aboriginal Art

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

Aboriginal art captured the utmost significance Country played within their spirituality. Beliefs of ancestors shaping the land along with the ties to Aboriginal identities, kinships, and culture, demonstrated the importance of Country. Artworks such as Painting by Welwi Warnambi explored these profound connections through techniques such as patterns and bir'yun.


Ground paintings such as Kooralia by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri were formed from the earth, indicating how ingrained the importance of Country is in Aboriginal art. Ancestral beings appeared within artworks including Tommy Watson’s Wipu rockhole, alluding to the importance of Country in art by drawing from the Dreamtime.


Art conveyed the beautiful connection between Aboriginals and Country through the straightforward expression of love seen in Land Home Place Belong by Pamela Croft Warcon. Undeniably, Country played a large role within the lives of Aboriginals, making it inevitable such an important factor would bleed into their art.

The Wonders of Aboriginal Australian Art

Context

Art captured the importance of Country in Aboriginal culture, community, and identity. Stemming 20 000 years ago, rock paintings conveyed cultural stories, knowledge of the land and beliefs through symbolism. Art continued to express indigenous identity which was significant especially in the face of displacement, the stolen generations and the invasion of European settlers. Tribes such as the Yolngu expressed this along with stories of Ancestral beings which shaped the land. Ancestral beings were creator beings that wandered and shaped the land within humanoid and non-human forms, forming humans and creating social and religious laws. Consequently, the importance of Country in Aboriginal art worked to preserve and express the Aboriginal identity, beliefs, and laws they maintained within their culture.

Painting

Figure One: Welwi Warnambi, Painting, (year unknown). Drawing, (Dimensions unknown). Reproduced: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545

Figure One: Welwi Warnambi, Painting, (year unknown). Drawing, (Dimensions unknown). Reproduced: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545

As Aboriginal art served as a channel of spiritual beliefs, it was inevitable Country would play a prominent role within Aboriginal art. Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina explains "Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self". This sentiment was demonstrated by the deep-rooted respect for the land expressed by Aboriginal tribes such as the Yolngu.


For instance, Painting by Welwi Warnambi of the Marrakulu clan represented features of the landscape to the north of Blue Mud Bay. As explained by anthropologist Howard Morphy, Country was explored metaphorically through internal subdivisions, cross hatching, geometric background patterns, figurative representations while cloaked with a tartan of clan designs associated with social groups and ancestral beings.


As substantiated by Morphy’s statement, it was clear the patterns such as the repetition of lines represented Country and the cultural identity of the Aboriginal people. This was linked inextricably with the Aboriginal spirituality as the aesthetic effect of Yolngu art was perceived as embodiments of Ancestral power.


Further techniques used within this painting include the concept of bir'yun (brilliance) which essentially were the fine cross-hatched lines on the surface. The insignia of the Aboriginal art accentuated the relationship between their art, identity, as the sacred images demonstrated a political battle for “recognition of their relationship with land".


Thus, the expression of land, Ancestral power and desire to embody the relationship with the land, the ideas captured within Painting highlights the importance of Country in Aboriginal art.

Kooralia

Figure Two: Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Kooralia, 1980. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 187.0 x 154.0 x 2.3 cm. Reproduced Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Figure Two: Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Kooralia, 1980. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 187.0 x 154.0 x 2.3 cm. Reproduced Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Country was a central theme within Aboriginal paintings as the focal point of their spirituality. This was especially present within Kooralia by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri which depicted the artist’s birthplace in Napperby Creek. The landscape presented from a symbolic birds-eye point of view where bands of colour “show the ripples of sand in the creek bed, surrounding which are a number of other sites” such as the Seven Sisters or Pleiades. The artwork was classified as a ground painting where the process of creation itself demonstrates a deep connection to the land.

Scroll to Continue


This included the ground being flattened by tribal elders, bloodletting and earth moulded three dimensionally. The use of the ground highlights the idea of art and the Earth being intrinsically tied together. As shown in this artwork, natural ochres are used, dotted on the ground to create circles, dots, semicircles, and wavy lines, thus delineating the desert landscape.


As scholar Aleksandra Łukaszewicz Alcaraz stated the painting has “a flickering character, shimmering like sand and stones in the burning sun”. This showed the artist’s reverence to Country along with the significance of connecting with Country to the artistic process. Hence, the artmaking process and portrayal of the land in Kooralia makes it clear how important Country is to Aboriginal art.

Wipu Rockhole

Figure Three: Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 180.8 x 173.4 x 3.5 cm. Reproduced Art Gallery NSW.

Figure Three: Tommy Watson, Wipu Rockhole, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 180.8 x 173.4 x 3.5 cm. Reproduced Art Gallery NSW.

The importance of Country in Aboriginal art was communicated through the portrayal of Ancestors. Their art would invoke Ancestral Beings who created the land with their actions, such as the "Rainbow Serpent". For instance, Tommy Watson’s Wipu rockhole depicted the Watson’s grandfather’s Country where the rockholes were formed by an ancestral snake. The ancestral activity was portrayed by the snake-like lines and black rockholes on the right. Dots of numerous colours such as yellow, red, white, and black within abstract-like forms show his Country. These factors demonstrate the importance of the land within Aboriginal art through the portrayal of Country and the role it played within spirituality.

Land Home Place Belong

Figure Four: Pamela Croft Warcon, Land home place belong, 2009. Acrylic On Canvas Painting, Dimensions approx. 180 x 180cm. Reproduced: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545.

Figure Four: Pamela Croft Warcon, Land home place belong, 2009. Acrylic On Canvas Painting, Dimensions approx. 180 x 180cm. Reproduced: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545.

Nationalism amongst the Aboriginal community and pride for Country was also documented within their art. Historian Benedict Anderson considers nationalism as a “love of country,” whereas Banjo Woorunmurra stated on the behalf of the Aboriginal community, 'Our spirits are in our land. Our old people are still in the land, our motherland, our dusty old land'.


These sentiments were carried within Land Home Place Belong. For instance, pride for Country was expressed through symbolism such as the Aboriginal flag on the shape of the country, the snake which referred to Ancestral beings, the words “Land home place belong” in yellow, and the use of bright colours to create a positive message. The focus of Country in this artwork was supported by the artist’s intention to make the viewer consider their connection to Country and its future.


The artwork demonstrated the recognition of ancestors through the snake, spiritual expression and a sense of belonging in which tied together with the “love of country” expressed by Anderson’s nationalism. Subsequently, the nationalism ingrained within Aboriginal Art portrayed the significance of Country.

How Does Aboriginal Art Create Meaning

To Conclude

Aboriginal art itself was proof of the profound connection between Country and creative expression. The belief of Ancestral beings integrated into Aboriginal art demonstrated the importance of Country since the dawn of Aboriginal art history. Artistic techniques such as internal subdivisions, cross hatching, geometric background patterns and figurative representations highlighted the way art portrayed Aboriginal identity in relation to Country. The process of artmaking of ground paintings such as bloodletting and moulding the ground demonstrated the intense connection between Country and Aboriginal art. Focalising the ancestral activity of Watson’s grandfather’s Country through techniques such as dot painting illustrated the spiritual role Country played in Aboriginal art.


Aboriginal nationalism depicted in Land Home Place Belong, from the symbolism to the words written on the painting spotlighted the prominent sense of belonging and spiritual expression regarding Country. Therefore, the love of the land within Aboriginal culture will serve to inspire countless artworks for years to come.

Bibliography

Alcaraz, Aleksandra. 2019. “Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Australia᾽s Desert: Context, Debates, and Analysis.” Athens Journal of Humanities & Arts (6: 4): p 345-366.

Art Gallery of New South Wales. 2004. “Wipu rockhole”. Art Gallery of New South Wales. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/256.2004/#about.

Artlandish. 2021. “The Story of Aboriginal Art”. Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery. https://www.aboriginal-art-australia.com/aboriginal-art-library/the-story-of-aboriginal-art/.

Australian Human Rights Commission. 2021. “Track The History Timeline: The Stolen Generation”. Australian Human Rights Commission. https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/track-history-timeline-stolen-generations.

Coleman, Elizabeth. 2004. Appreciating "Traditional" Aboriginal Painting Aesthetically. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (62. 3): pp. 235-247. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1559089.

Fredericks; Warcon. 2009. “How the knowledge within country informs Aboriginal arts practices and affirms and sustains identity.” Innovation for Sustainability. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/27476981_How_the_knowledge_within_country_informs_Aboriginal_arts_practices_and_affirms_and_sustains_identity.

https://doi.org/10.30958/ajha.6-4-4.

Korff, J. 2021. “Meaning of land to Aboriginal people.” Creative Spirits. https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people.

Martinez, Julia. 1997. “Problematising Aboriginal Nationalism.” Aboriginal History (21. 1): 133-147. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24046341.

Morphy, H. 1989. “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (24. 1): pp. 21-40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545.

National Gallery of Australia. 2000. “World of Dreamings: Traditional and modern art of Australia”. National Gallery of Australia. https://nga.gov.au/dreaming/index.cfm?Refrnc=Glossary.

National Museum of Australia. 2021. “The Yolngu”. National Museum of Australia. https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/yalangbara/yolngu.

Patel, Samir. 2011. “Reading the Rocks: Aboriginal Australia's Painted History.” Archaeology (59. 4): pp- 385-402. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41780649.

Related Articles