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Storytelling with Australia’s Aboriginals

Words:

Edd Norval
July 31, 2020

Australia’s original inhabitants, the aboriginal people, have a deep connection to their land. Few groups on earth understand their history as intimately as they do. This understanding, born from necessity as well as interest, is a key part of their survival. Through the people’s primitive and profound art, their stories have become immortalised.

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Wandjina, cloud and rain spirits, are common symbols, ghoulish entities that are the physical incarnation of natural occurrences and behaviours - a part of life deeply interwoven with aboriginal tribes. With many ancient cave depictions of these figures being dated up to 4,000 years ago, it’s staggering how familiar the aboriginal people have remained to their core beliefs.


Anthropologists termed the aboriginal worldview as Dreamtime or The Dreaming, a mystical concept of Earth as inhabited by ancestral Demi-Gods, revered by aboriginal communities as sources of wisdom and individually as guiding forces. A dreaming is a totemic symbol to many, much like the spirit guides common in Native American culture. 


Covering sacred sites, but also art created independently of a particular realm, the works of Aboriginal Australia functions decoratively too. Largely confined to within Australian culture, Wenten Rubuntja is an Alice Springs born artist whose intricate styles are typical of the country’s native works and one of the few whose name has transcended his culture. His work is unique in that it incorporates landscapes - a hostile, yet sacred, environments in the very centre of the country - into his portfolio.

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Paddy Japaljarri Stewart’s works are more traditional, a classical example of dreamscapes that draw heavily on species of flora and fauna that are important to indigenous life. Although his works draw on native traditions - he is widely considered one of the pioneers of the modern Aboriginal art movement, an export that enjoyed a mainstream crossover at a time when Australia was beginning to acknowledge their history of oppression and taking steps to try and consolidate Aboriginal people into society, as well as work to preserve their sacred lands. 


The movement served a dual purpose - to weave the story of Australia’s original inhabitants together with their colonial settlers and to bring the ancient stories and traditions to the masses, believing that education will prevent the eradication of their way of life.


Even beyond the visual language, the story of their land comes through in the colours used - all naturalistic, derived from the scorched clay and sand of the barren lands of the Australian outback. Ochre is most commonly used, derived from the clay earth, it represents the people's bond to it.

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Through their modest means of primitive visual storytelling, Aboriginal Australian’s are using art as a last stand against the Empire that took their land. Integration often doesn’t go well, with a genetic weakness for alcohol, many Aboriginal people hoping to make a life in the larger cities end up addicted and homeless. 


Many kick back, generating a silent tension between themselves and other groups. With art, the conversation is far more subtle and bi-directional. The anger felt by Aboriginal people is understandable, reasonable, justified. The reality is though, none of those facts will positively influence the way the two can move forward. Many campaigns and initiative have been tried, Most of them failed. 


If the rest of Australia begin to understand the history of those who called their vast lands home first, then, under the right conditions, the two could finally come together. One of the best ways to understand that history is through the art, made by the very materials of the beautiful land that they both share. 

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