Interpreting the Aboriginal Dot Paintings of Australia

The sound of the didgeridoo was part of aboriginal story telling in Australia (Credit: MCArnott)

The sound of the didgeridoo was part of aboriginal story telling in Australia (Credit: MCArnott)

Dots everywhere — Since I arrived in Sydney they follow me like curious eyeballs. They peek from every shop through vibrant boomerangs, didgeridoos and other crafts and souvenirs. Surely, there must be more to them than polka dots…

Back to School in an Art Gallery

The pictorial story of the Seven Sisters by Aboriginal artist Margaret Curtis (Credit: MCArnott)

Each painting conceals a message about the laws of the creation of the world according to Aboriginal tradition. As I try to understand the concept, I feel I am back in school learning to read again. I squint at the seemingly unruly dots that prick the canvases until I finally discern rows and columns of squares and circles. At times, they form symbols sometimes grouped into patterns.

Once I learn the basics, the pictorial language seems easy: A half-circle represents a woman, a vertical line a man, and a small circle a child.  The trilogy symbolizes a family and several families become a community. I am getting the hang of it: Rounded shapes with dots are campsites. Two parallel dark lines represent a river connecting camps. I move on to mountains, waterholes, and ants.

But it gets more complicated. Dots around a symbol involve a learning process whereas each dot represents a spirit. And it also gets more complex, with symbols that have multiple layers of meaning and association that lead to multi-layered interpretations. In reality, Aboriginal people learn the sacred messages during their entire life. Elders decide when to pass them on and to whom.

End of my initiation — I step back for an overview of the art: The secretive paintings seem more alive. The bubbly dots fizz, ready to drip from the canvases.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The evolution of the “dotting” art form is a source of income for impoverished communities.
  • It is an engaging art: Reading a (printed) story and identifying symbols.
  • Good for art lovers and collectors — and as a school project

An Aerial View of the Land

An aerial view of the Red Center reveals land markings similar to the dots and symbols on dot paintings (Credit: MCArnott)

I am daydreaming on the three-hour flight from Sydney to Uluru until a vibrant mosaic catches my eyes some 30,000 feet below. When I pull out my camera, magic happens: the lens frames the same earth-tone shapes I saw on some canvases. I clearly identify the black lines of rivers crisscrossing the land in a giant puzzle. In fact, the dot paintings are sketches of the scenery below.

How did Aborigines know what the land looked like from the air? The question hangs unanswered as we descend towards the solitary monolith: Ayers Rock, known as Uluru to the Aborigines.

Learning the Messages Beneath the Dots

The next day, our tour bus arrives at  the Aborigine-run Cultural Centre, where I am once again drawn to the paintings.

New Lesson: Each one reflects a story called Tjukurpa. It integrates two mythical concepts: the creation of the world, and life guidance passed on by ancestors. The concept is not precisely translatable, but is interpreted by non-indigenous people as the Dreamtime and the Dreaming— for a lack of better words.

One example is the Tjukurpa of the Seven Sisters. The women are running away from a man, Nyriu, who wants to marry them. They sit at a campsite with their food supplies. A bowl and a stick lay next to one of them. He tries to lure them by placing another bowl and stick nearby. At each campsite, they leave markings on the land as survival hints. They escaped to the sky and became the constellation of the Seven Sisters, still pursued by Nyriu, the brightest star. We know them as the Pleiades and the brightest star as Orion.

The History of Papunya Art: A Modern Art Form Indeed

In the background: Uluru aka Ayers Rock in Central Australia (Credit: MCArnott)

Aborigines have painted stories for thousands of years, but the dotted style is relatively recent.

In the sixties, Aborigines were trucked to remote camps and forced to adopt an alien lifestyle. But in 1971, a non-Aboriginal art teacher of the Papunya camp—in Central Australia—encouraged them to paint traditional motifs on the walls of the school. Inspired, the elders decided to revive their story-painting as a way to transmit their culture to future generations. Later, dots evolved to obscure sacred expressions for public viewing. Today, “dot painting” is called “desert painting” and might include icons of animals or plants.

Traditionally, painting took place around a campfire. The storyteller-painter depicted the story in the sand using natural pigments, flowers or feathers. They also painted on bark, rock walls, or as ceremonial body adornments. Men painted stories about hunting, secret water holes, or sacred concepts. Women were encouraged to begin their own storytelling. Because of their nomadic life, clans smoothed away the sand painting, and created new ones at the next campsite.

Today, painters roll their Belgian linen canvases and store them away.

About The Commercialization of Aboriginal Art

The pictorial story of the Seven Sisters in a home decor (Credit: MCArnott)

In the early fifties, elders were outraged when paintings started to leave the community. In the 1970s, a resurgence of interest (and the financial benefits of selling art) led these elders to support the dot technique which ensured that  sacred beliefs would not be freely exposed to outsiders. An overlay of dots concealed the iconic message to confuse the non-initiated. The issue remains controversial: Some elders still want early work to be retired from museums.

Foreign gallery curators had their own objectives: They considered the adaptation of sand painting into dot painting on canvas, with acrylic paint, to be too simplistic, too commercial, and devoid of authenticity.

Nonetheless, Aboriginal art is now exposed worldwide. Many artists command high prices. In fact, in 1986, a piece by elder artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye was the first to sell for one million dollars.  At a sentimental value of about $250 the unframed painting featured in this article was bought at Uluru Cultural Centre.

As for  the question of the aerial viewpoint of the landscapes, there is an answer:  Artists (still) sit on the ground overviewing their work, as they traditionally did. The result is a plan view—with no horizon line.

Last but not least: There is no right way to look at the art, or to hang it on a wall.

Practicalities

  • Purchasing from art centres benefits directly the artists and their community.
  • Art galleries and cultural centres are other outlets for authenticity.
  • You can take a dot-painting workshop at Uluru Cultural Centre.
  • Art is subjective:  Learn online from native art organizations about various styles. Check galleries’ websites for prices.
  • In Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has an extensive collection of native art.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this guide to a fascinating art form. I wonder if it’s one of the oldest in the world. Perhaps it is the oldest surviving, continually practiced form? At any rate, I enjoyed your explanation.

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  2. Jo Robinson says

    Very informative and well written. learned more here about the reasons behind the symbology of Aboriginal dot art than from many other sites i have visited, thank you.

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