The Sacred Art of Indigenous Australians: its history, philosophy and expression

Acknowledgments

Before I begin I would like to first offer my respects to the Indigenous elders of Australia, and of the world, and seek their permission to share some words in respect and admiration for their great and everlasting art forms, philosophy and culture. I would also like to thank Prof. Huber Robinson (Hanumatpresaka Swami) and the North American Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies (NIOS) for assigning me this task. I hope I can contribute something of value to the Solaris community and to this year’s Art and the Sacred symposium at the National Library of Peru, Oct 2018.

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Note: This paper is still being developed and is subject to change.

Introduction

In this article firstly we will briefly describe the history of the Indigenous Australian people who are decedents of the longest unbroken culture on earth. Part of their history is the arrival of the Europeans in the late eighteenth century, which not only crippled the population of Aborigines by way of disease and massacres but also caused them to be severely oppressed. Until the mid-twentieth century the Australian Aborigines were thought to be still classed as flora and fauna and they were looked at as not having any culture or knowledge of value to share with humanity. The reason for the sharing of this history first is to provide some context for just how important a role Aboriginal art has been in not only gaining Indigenous Australians the status of humans, but also in revealing just how advanced and sophisticated their worldview is. We will then move on to describe some aspects and styles of Australian Aboriginal art and how it contains embedded within it philosophy, ontology and spirituality with a sophisticated integration of the land, living beings and the universe. It turns out that, just like many indigenous cultures of the world, there is a great deal that the modern world can learn and benefit from understanding these ancient traditions. The passing on of this knowledge has been of the top most importance for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and it is because of this that art is a part of everything they do. For them art, education and living are closely linked and it is this linkage that has sustained their culture for tens of thousands of years. In this article we argue that modern humans can benefit greatly from this knowledge by understanding the messages shared within these art forms. These messages contain keys for finding meaning in all things because it describes in detail how all things have their place and importance. The modern hypo-technological world has given us quick access to information and therefore so much power to dominate nature, but if has also separated us from each other and nature. Clearly we are more connected than ever, through technology, but the experience for so many is of being lonelier and more obsolete than ever. Indigenous Australian art is all about unity in diversity and the interdependence of nature and living beings. People of the world can benefit greatly from Indigenous Australian art and culture because it not only inspires us to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives in harmony with nature but it also shows us how this is possible.

History and Context

Origins of Indigenous Australians

The history of Indigenous Australians is still being written, but it began a long, long time ago. According to the journal ‘Science’ the Aboriginal people of Australia are decedents of the longest unbroken culture on the planet, reaching back at least 65,000 years[1]. It is their storytelling and art that has kept their culture intact for so long. The origin of Australia’s Indigenous people remains a matter of debate and conjecture, but it is most widely accepted that they are believed to be among the earliest humans to migrate out of Africa some 75,000 years ago[2]. Theories of migrations from India have been given wind with genetic evidence confirming a group of Indian travellers landing and staying 4000 years ago and staying[3].

The arrival of Europeans

The first recorded European contact with the Aborigines of Australia was by the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606, who landed on the northern tip of Australia and chartered some 320km of coast line before leaving[4]. The most famous European expedition wasn’t until 1769 when the Royal Navy Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook, who after an assignment to make observations of the 1769 Venus Transit, followed Admiralty instructions to explore the south Pacific for the reported Terra Australis and on 19 April 1770 sighted the south-eastern coast of Australia and became the first recorded European to explore the eastern coastline[5]. Cook landed in a bay on the south east coast, which he named Botany Bay due to the thriving flora and fauna in the area. His landing marked the beginning of Britain’s interest in Australia and in the eventual colonisation of this new ‘southern continent’[6].

It was close to Botany Bay that the first European settlement was formed and that place grew to become the largest city in Australia, the city of Sydney. On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet and took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales, raising the British flag for the first time in Sydney Cove[7]. The objective of the First Fleet, which was comprised of 11 ships filled with between 1000 and 1500 convicts (including women), marines, seamen, civil officers and free people, was to establish a penal colony to help manage Britain’s overly populated prisons. There were many tribes residing in the area which is now know as Sydney and we now know there is archaeological evidence of an Aboriginal settlement in that particular location dating back 5000 years.

C_ArthurPhillip.jpgImage: Captain Arthur Phillip raising the British flag at Port Jackson

Aboriginal Nations

Although it was known by some that there were native people on the land, when Captain Cook first came to Australia he had the idea that the land was Terra Nullius, “nobody’s land”[8]. He thought he could take this land with English laws because there appeared to be no settlements. This appearance of there being no civilisation might have been blatant disregard for the indigenous peoples but it is also possible that the nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginal people kept them well hidden or made them appear to be detached from the land. They did not build homes or villages; instead they lived in harmony with the nature and the land, sometimes making temporary huts or sleeping in caves, making seasonal movements following the flora and fauna food sources. Where ever they went they always took care of the land for future visits, never taking more than necessary or completely depleting a food source.

In the British history books, the arrival of the Europeans is called a settlement but over time people have changed their opinion of the event and now it is commonly accepted as an invasion[9].Before the European invasion the Indigenous communities in Australia were comprised of nation states and 200-300 autonomous languages that are usually referred to as ‘nations’ or ‘language groups’[10]. These nations were as different from each other as nations we see neighbours on continents such as Europe and Africa.

aboriginal-australia-map.pngsource: https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

Atrocities towards the Indigenous Australians

Genocide

Similarly to the arrival of Europeans in other parts of the globe, the event brought horrendous difficulties upon the Indigenous Australians. Immediately after the arrival of the First Fleet the Aboriginal population began to decline dramatically. In 1789, within one year of the arrival of the ships, ninety percent of the tribes in the surrounding area suffered from a small pox outbreak, killing thousands of the Aborigines[11]. Some scholars have argued that the outbreak was intentional, having found evidences in journals of small pox being carried over in bottles on the ships[12]. It did not end there for the Indigenous Australians. Groups of Aboriginal people were killed on occasions in retaliations between the start of the British colonisation of Australia in 1788 up to the 1920s. These reprisals were a fundamental element of the frontier wars[13].The English settlers used several mechanisms of terrorism and genocide against indigenous Australians, and justified them with a racist discourse. These mechanisms included shooting, burning, disease, rape, ethnocide, or cultural destruction[14].The most common estimates of fatalities in the fighting are in the region of 20,000 Indigenous Australians and between 2,000 and 2,500 settlers. However, recent scholarship on the frontier wars indicates that Indigenous fatalities may have been significantly higher.

1024px-Mounted_police_and_blacks.jpgMounted police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838 source: wikipedia

The Stolen Generation

Over the next 150 years the Indigenous Australians gradually integrated with the Europeans, but not by choice and not as free people. Those who either could not or did not move further away from the expanding European settlements were often captured and kept as slaves or servants. This slave keeping and camp raiding in general facilitated interracial breading, through the raping of indigenous women by the white men. Many children were born of an Aboriginal mother and a non-Aboriginal father. These mixed-race children were referred to as “half-caste”. During the period of 1905 and 1970 was one of the most horrific acts by the Europeans towards the Aborigines in recent history. The Stolen Generation (also known as the Stolen Children) was the removal of these mixed-race children from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies along with church missions[15]. These children were institutionalised or fostered by white families. The justification for this was that the white blood within the mixed-raced children fitted them for a better life then what was available in the Aboriginal camps.

Aborigines classed as flora and fauna

In todays societies we might be shocked to hear of the treatment of Indigenous peoples of Australia. We might think how was it possible to treat people in such a manor in the twentieth century. Since the time  of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967when Aboriginals attained Australian citizenship status there has been a wide spread myth that Aboriginal peoples were prior to that regulated under the Australian Flora and Fauna act. This turned out to be false[16]. It is believed that the misunderstanding came about from the difficult to decipher wording of the referendum before it was amended. Regardless of this myth the Indigenous Australia’s were treated like less, like animals and it was until after years of civil and military service as well as many years of activism, that Aboriginal peoples finally achieved their human status in the eyes of European Australians.

aboriginals-in-chains-australia.pngAboriginal Australians in chains. source: https://www.welcometocountry.org/australias-brutal-treatment-of-aboriginal-people/

Part of that activism was the revelation of Aboriginal art and philosophy as being highly significant for humanity. It turns out that these apparently “primitive” people have a very sophisticated and integrated philosophy and worldview, which actually matches up in some places with developments in modern science. This philosophy of the Aboriginal Australians has been maintained for tens of thousands of years through art, song, dance and storytelling, linking the people to the land and the sacred, and it is this art and philosophy that will be the main body of this article.

“Medicine Leaves”, Artist: S. Numina, source: http://www.aboriginal-art-australia.com/artworks/sharon-numina-napanangka-medicine-leaves-12a/

Ontology, Philosophy and Spirituality

It was the sophistication and depth of their philosophy and world view, which is written all through their art forms, that help them attain not only status as human beings but also has them now greatly respected and valued all around the world. Although we have only just scratched the surface, we would now like to share some interesting finding with regards to the information contained in Indigenous Australian art. Their art has embedded within it their myths of the creation of Earth and the origins of life. The main theme found through all their art is the interconnectedness of living beings and nature. This knowledge has been passed down generations for thousands of years through song and dance, and art and crafts.

Storytelling and modern science

Modern research into these ancient myths has discovered some very interesting connections that coincide with the development of our understanding of the evolution of the earth and the cosmos. For example, the Aboriginal people in their ancient creations stories will say that a mountain was formed by a turkey spirit or a sea bead formed by shark spirits, and through the developments of geological and evolutionary sciences we latter find out that the particular geological formation was formed during the period that those particular animal species arrived on the planet according to what is academically accepted in terms of evolutionary theory[17]. Another example of this will be shared below when we discuss about water and consciousness. These stories, the Aborigines, found written in the sky, in the stars, and they coincide with the forms and formations of the local land throughout geological history. So for the Aborigines, the Earth, language and the laws, are all linked together and each section is linked to the stars in a way that really demonstrates the phrase “as above, so below”. It is this deep integration between living beings and the universe that is the great wealth of Indigenous peoples of the world.

source:https://starlore.com.au/2016/05/24/lore-descended-from-the-stars/

 

Dreamtime

Indigenous Australians call their mythology “Dreamtime”. Dreamtime stories vary among tribes across the continent of Australia. There are similarities between their creation stories and mythology and those from around the world. For example, according to the Indigenous Australians, before the creation, the earth was like a flat plain without life forms and with no earth formations. It was void-like, but the gods of creation lay under the earth in an inactive state without form, before they rose up and created life forms and land formations. We find similarities with other creations stories from around the world. In fact it is almost universal that in the beginning there was some kind of void before the consciousness of spirit enters and generates forms. For example, in Genesis 1:1-2 we find “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”In modern cosmology also we find some theories postulate a void-like nothingness before the universe suddenly came to be.

“Dreamtime Sister” by C. W. Nungari. Source: http://www.aboriginalartstore.com.au/

Skinlore, water and consciousness

The Aborigines made distinctions between entities based on their skin type, but it is what is held within the skin that unites all. Different tribes, animals, plants etc. are all classified according to the kind of skin they have, a classification called “Skinlore”[18]. In Aboriginal language the word used for “skin” is synonymous with the word used for “form”, but the form is just a shell for the life inside. According to these ancient stories, what fills the skin is mostly water. Today it is common knowledge more than half of our body mass is indeed made up of water, which is another example of Indigenous knowledge matching up with modern science.

For the Indigenous Australians, water is closely linked to life and consciousness and in a way they all mean the same thing. The water that runs through all life forms is called “clever water”. It is this water that unites all living beings as one. Indigenous Australians believe that this life-giving water that fills up all the different forms comes from the great spirit of the cosmos, from God. Cosmologists and quantum physicist now know that water is in fact created in massive supernova explosions deep in space and some of this water arrives on planets including earth[19]. This can be seen as another example of an ancient Indigenous philosophical idea later being confirmed by science.

“Water”. Source: https://japingkaaboriginalart.com/

The theme of water in models of cosmology and origins of life is common in ancient knowledge. The first western philosopher, Thales of Miletus, who lived in what is now known as Turkey, held water in high regard thinking it to be the originating principle of nature. In the ancient Vedic text, the Bhagavat Purana, which is accepted by many to be 5000 years old, we find the following passage…

 “The entire cosmic manifestation has emerged from water, and it is because of water that all living entities endure, live and develop. This water is nothing but the semen of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore, may the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has such great potency, be pleased with us.”[20]

The Pima Indians of Arizona, USA, have their Song of The World, “Chuhwuht”,in which creation from water is described.

“In the beginning there was only darkness and water. The darkness congealed in certain places and it is from this that the Creator was made. He wandered aimlessly above the water and began to think. He became fully conscious of who he was and what he was to do. He then reached into his heart and pulled out a magic creation stick.”[21]

Water has a very important place in the worldview of the Aborigines due to the connection between pure water and pure consciousness. The lands that purify the water, such as those that are volcanic and contain crystals deep in the subterranean waterways, are considered sacred lands. We see that lands such as these are coveted, consciously and unconsciously, by human beings from all around the world, for they are usually rich in natural resources and are aesthetically beautiful.

The Rainbow Serpent

The Rainbow Serpent or Rainbow Snake is a common deity often seen as a creator god and a common motif in the art and religion of Aboriginal Australia. It is named for the identification between the shape of a rainbow and that of a snake. Some scholars believe that the link between snake and rainbow suggests the cycle of the seasons and the importance of water in human life. When the rainbow is seen in the sky, it is said to be the Rainbow Serpent moving from one waterhole to another, and the divine concept explained why some waterholes never dried up when drought struck.

“Rainbow Serpant” Source: https://www.aboriginal-art-australia.com/aboriginal-art-library/rainbow-serpent/

There are innumerable names and stories associated with the serpent, all of which communicate the significance and power of this being within Aboriginal traditions. It is viewed as a giver of life, through its association with water, but can be a destructive force if angry. The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most common and well-known Aboriginal stories, and is of great importance to Aboriginal society. The Rainbow Serpent is one of the oldest continuing religious beliefs in the worldand continues to be a cultural influence today. One cannot help but notice similarities with other ancient traditions such, for example, for the Hindus one of the primal beings of creation is the many-headed Serpent Ananta Shesha who rests on the ‘casual ocean’ from which all creation arises.

“Ananta Shesha” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shesha

Two Philosophical Axioms

The following axioms are adapted from a journal article by Mary Graham[22].

The land is the law

The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity. The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living. The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first. The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.

You are not alone in the world

Aboriginal people have a kinship system which extends into land; this system was and still is organized into clans. One’s first loyalty is to one’s own clan group. It does not matter how Western and urbanized Aboriginal people have become, this kinship system never changes. Although this group identification has been damaged by, for example, cultural genocide/Stolen Children/westernization etc, it has not been altered substantially. Every clan group has its own Dreaming or explanation of existence. Aboriginal people believe that a person finds their individuality within the group. To behave as if you are a discrete entity or a conscious isolate is to limit yourself to being an observer in an observed world.

Art by D. Woolagooda, tribe: Worrora, Kimberlys NT

Aboriginal Spirituality

The following summary is adapted from “Aboriginal Spirituality” by Viki Grieves[23].

Aboriginal spirituality derives from a philosophy that establishes the holistic notion of the interconnection of the elements of the Earth and the universe, animated and inanimate, by which people, plants and animals, geographical and celestial bodies are interrelated. These relationships and the knowledge of how they are interconnected are expressed, and why it is important to keep all things in a healthy interdependence is codified, in sacred histories or myths. These creation stories describe the shaping and developing of the world as people know it and experience it through the activities of the powerful creator ancestors. These ancestors created order of chaos, form of it, life out of Slack, and, as they did, they established the ways in which all things must live in interconnection to maintain order and sustainability. The ancestors of creation thus establish not only the foundations of all life, but also what people had to do to keep their share of this interdependence — the law. The law ensures that each person knows their connection and responsibilities for other people (their relatives), for the country (including watercourses, geographical, species and Universe courses), and for their ongoing relationship with the ancestor spirits themselves.

The Seven Sisters Dreaming – appearing in the Milky Way

Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi – Grandmothers Country, Seven Sisters Dreaming

Source:https://japingkaaboriginalart.com/stories-of-land-and-sky-by-the-possum-sisters/

 

Art Forms

Rock art

Australia has some of the oldest and largest open-air rock art sites in the world. You can find Aboriginal rock art sites in many rural, remote and even urban environments. They offer insights into extinct species, spirituality and relationships[24].

Aboriginal rock art is made in a variety of ways. The most ancient would be rock paintings, some of which have been estimated to be 40,000 – 50,000 years old. The paints were colored ochers made from crushed up clay, rocks or charcoals mixed with water. The paintings depict people, animals, and spirits, and in more recent times ships of early voyagers and even World War 2 planes.

The Bradshaw Paintings (or Gwion Gwion) are thought to be between 40,000 and 60,000 years old. source: https://completecampsite.com.au/aboriginal-rock-art-sites-of-australia/

Another rock art for that is also very ancient very are the rock engravings, with some being confirmed to be 35,000 years old. Rock engravings display shapes of humans and animals, which are chiseled into large rocks by either carving out lines that form the images or by drilling holes by chiseling into many spots to make a dotted outline and then carving lines to join the holes.

Petroglyph of male and female dancers, in Ku-ring-gai National Park NSW, source: https://completecampsite.com.au/aboriginal-rock-art-sites-of-australia/

For modern humans it is easy to look at these works of art as individual works; we admire their beauty and intricacy as one would in a museum and then move on to the next one, but this is not the case with Aboriginal rock art. Each piece of art tells an important story and is linked to other artworks in the area, forming an interconnected grid of stories. Some works are a few hundred meters away where as others are long distances apart. This sites all link up to telling the dreamtime stories of creation of life and the land. This made the earth full of meaning and link the people to the sacred as they walked the land.

Dot and cross hatching

Dot art is now world famous and recognized a unique and integral to the Australian Aborigines. One can now easily purchase one of these works on a canvas as they would any painting and hang it anywhere in the world. Although the Australian Aboriginals have used dots and cross hatching designs in their art for thousands of years these works were not so easy accessible. They would draw these dot designs in the soil with sticks and through it were told stories, which carried their knowledge. After the story was told the soul was smoothed over so the art was gone. This way the knowledge was kept secret within tribes and uninitiated people never got to see it.

Source: https://www.aboriginal-art-australia.com/aboriginal-art-library/aboriginal-art-styles/

The dot art form was practically unknown amongst non-Aboriginals until 1971 when Geoffrey Bardon got children to do art work and he saw them all making these dotted designs[25]. He then asked the adults to do it and from then on it became a world famous style of art. The secrets of Aboriginal culture, philosophy and spirituality are still told in these dotted works, but the artists have hidden them by abstraction. In order to learn theses secrets the works must be decoded by someone who has been initiated into the science.

Source: http://safwanboussema.unblog.fr/2015/01/02/third-week-in-an-aboriginal-village/

Music and Dance

Music song and dance was and is still today a very important part of Aboriginal life and customs. They have songs for every occasion, hunting songs, funeral songs, gossip songs and songs of ancestors, landscapes, animals, seasons, myths and Dreamtime legends[26].

Dance forms contrast in different territories and regions and are an important part of the education of the young. Some ceremonies were a rite of passage for young people between 10 and 16 years, representing a point of transition from childhood to adulthood. Most ceremonies combined dance, song, rituals and often elaborate body decoration and costume. The Elders organized and ran ceremonies that were designed to teach particular aspects of the lore of their people, spiritual beliefs and survival skills[27].

Contemporary

The rise of contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art has been described by critic and writer Robert Hughes, as “the last great art movement of the twentieth century”[28]. The contradiction of the modernity of this art movement lies in the fact that Aboriginal culture is counted as the oldest continuous living culture in the world. Forty years ago, we would have viewed the material culture of Aboriginal society in Australia in ethnographic museums, and now we view it in museums of contemporary art. There has been a transformation of the perceptions of what Aboriginal culture has attained during its 50 – 60,000 years of occupation of the oldest continent on earth[29].

source: https://japingkaaboriginalart.com/articles/contemporary-aboriginal-art-in-australia/

 

Conclusion  

Modern-day Indigenous Australians are members of the oldest continuous culture in the world, being descendants of the first migration out of Africa some 65,000 years ago. Passing down from Africa, through India and Indonesia while these lands were still joined, allowed them find a peaceful home Australia. Migrations from India occurred again at least 4000 years ago but there may have been more. Living almost completely isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years allowed them to live and maintain their culture without any major disruption. In the late 18thcentury European settlement began and the Indigenous Australians experienced a major disruption in their way of life, with extreme depopulation through disease outbreaks, genocide and discrimination. Somehow, through years of political activism they have survived the westernization of their land but not without being severely crippled as a people. One of the most important tools used to gain the Indigenous Australians human rights and the status of importance in the modern world has been through the education of the depth and sophistication of the philosophy, ontology and spirituality that their culture sustains through their art forms. We find many similarities in Aboriginal Australian philosophy with other ancient traditions of the world and just like with these other traditions we find instances of science only catching up to what has already been told by these ancient philosophies. It is not only due to the unique and beautiful styles of Australian Aboriginal art, but also due to its ability to profoundly connect the viewer with the world spiritually, that it is becoming increasingly appreciated world-wide, in its traditional and contemporary forms. Similarly to many indigenous cultures of the world, Aboriginal philosophy is based on the interconnectedness of all living being and nature. The modern world has provided the human race with incredibly powerful technology, but our extreme dependence and addiction to these technologies, and the modern lifestyles in general, has disconnected us from what is most integral to the human experience. What is most important for the human experience is to find ones place in unity with all other lifeforms and nature, because this is what provides us with the most value and meaning. the Aboriginal Australian art is extremely powerful in transferring this understanding of unity and the sacredness of life. We therefore encourage the further appreciation and study of Indigenous Australian art forms, as well as others from around the world, for we believe that this reconnection of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ is essential for the complete human experience and this connection can be learnt through these artistic expressions.

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