Indigenous Body Painting and Ritual Decoration

Body painting and personal ornamentation holds deep-rooted significance in First Nations’ culture. For centuries Indigenous people have used the body as a transmitter of history, cultural stories and lore. The body, through decoration and dance, becomes a remarkable form of non-oral communication. This ancient practice of body decoration plays an important role in all Indigenous ceremonies and rituals, such as initiations. The specific designs and motifs used by different Indigenous clans reveal people's relationships to family groups, social position, ancestors, totems and country (Soriano, 2009).

Styles of painting and decoration used vary depending on the type of ceremony and the clan or region. There are two styles of body painting: figurative and geometric. Within the figurative style, the designs are realistic and feature elements that are easily recognisable such as boomerangs and snakes. The geometric style, as the name suggests, features geometric lines and patterns that can often only be interpreted by initiated people. There are also very strict guidelines about how body painting and adornment should be carried out, and the peoples must follow the traditional, respected patterns of their clan. To create the paint, traditionally red and yellow ochre, white stone, charcoal or clay are used. Each colour holds a different meaning, for example in Arnhem land white connect the peoples to their ancestors (Soriano, 2009).

Utopian women’s body painting ceremony called “Awelye.” Image sourced from Utopia Lane Gallery.

In Utopia, Central Australia, Awelye is one of the womens’ body painting ceremonies practised by the Anmatyerre and Alyawarr people (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2020). For this ceremony, women’s chest, arms and legs are painted in traditional designs. The process of applying the paint is also a part of the ceremony. To prepare, the women will sing ceremonial songs as each woman takes her turn to be ‘painted up.’ The Awelye designs use large sweeping brush strokes to create incredibly distinctive striped patterns across the arms and chest (as seen in image above). To help the paint last, the women cover their bodies with animal fat. This is a common technique traditionally used in all Indigenous clans. The step is highly necessary as many ceremonies often last for many hours, or even days (Worth, 2019). Through the Awelye ceremony, the women are ensuring the well-being of their communities. David Worth talks further about the meaning of these ceremonies: 

“The old women sing these ceremonies if people are sick; they sing to heal young girls, or children. If a child is sick in the stomach, they sing. The old women are also holding their country as they dance. The old women dance with that in mind. They teach the younger women and give the knowledge to their grand-daughters, so then all the grandmothers and granddaughters continue the tradition.” - David Worth, 2019

Djunga Yunupingu, Yolngu Elder. Image sourced from Artlandish.

Paint is just one of the many kinds of body adornment used within Indigenous ceremonies and rituals. Feathers, headdresses, jewelry and scarring are often used to adorn the body. There are many ceremonies of Central and Northern Australia which utilise ‘feather-down’ to create headdresses and to stick to the upper parts of the body. Scarring is also another notable form of body decoration used by First Nation peoples. Traditionally, scars would be carved into the body as a form of decoration or as a part of initiation rituals. The scars were produced by making cuts with a stone knife or shell, ashes, chalk or, in some cases, ants would then be rubbed into the cut to create a swelling wound and lasting scar. Scars were made on the chest, thighs, arms and back. Mens scars were more elaborate than womens. This custom has largely disappeared, however there are some clans that still practice this tradition in the Kimberley, North Queensland, Cape York and Central Australia (Soriano, 2009).

Dance has always been a crucial part of Indigenous life as it is an important medium for cultural expression and storytelling. In ceremonies, the style of body paint and meaning of the dance being performed are very much interlinked. Djakapurra Munyarryun, a dancer from Bangarra Dance Theatre talks further about this connection:

“We never dance without ochre on... because that's what we have been doing for a long time, like a thousand years. Body paint for us is really important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some people don't recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing. They can see when I am dancing, it's like they thought I am an old old man. Because when I am there, it's like my soul is very strong and I watch the audience. The paint makes me more older, older looking.” - Djakapurra Munyarryun (Courtesy of Australian Museum, 2018)

This shows how in our contemporary times the use of body paint and traditional decoration is something that continues to connect dancers to their culture and traditions. Grayson Luuli from Mornington Island Dance Company talks further about how body paint plays an ongoing role in the sharing of the Dreamtime and totems:

“Each family group carries one totem and if you see someone with the same body painting, you know they are part of your family. Dreamtime stories, like every body painting that we got on there, they relate back to the Island like a certain story place on the Island where that certain body painting is: it's part of our country and there is a story place there... it's important to us because we have to look after that certain story and the totem.” - Grayson Luuli (Courtesy of Australian Museum, 2018)

Laura Dance Festival, 2017

Body painting and decoration continues to be a strong part of Indigenous culture, they act as a connection between their history and future. Body painting is an incredible form of artistic expression, however, on a whole Indigenous people do not view body painting as artwork. It is seen as an important practice of its own, deeply connected to ceremony and the Dreamtime (Soriano, 2009).

Here at Bundarra, through the Laura Dance Festival we have had the privilege of witnessing some of these incredible body decoration and dance traditions. We love being a part of the preservation and celebration of Indigenous culture and the ancient tradition of body decoration.