Australian Indigenous artists are renowned for their use of symbolism. Every artwork tells a unique story and often holds deeper meaning than many of us may initially realise. Without a written language, First Nations people have passed on stories and knowledge for thousands of years to the younger generations through symbols and iconography. Even in today’s modern society, Indigenous art continues to be a significant, crucial part of storytelling and knowledge transmission.
Aboriginal artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painting with acrylic. Courtesy of Invaluable, 2018.
The exact meaning and significance of particular symbols varies from region to region, depending on language groups and family clans. Throughout Arnhem Land and in far northern NT, many clans have their own ceremonial patterns. These patterns are made up of fine lines drawn in specific ochre colours, which represent elements such as fire and water. The use of symbols also varies between artists who each have their own stylistic and technical approach as to how they utilise spatial composition, colours and symbols. Different combinations of symbols come together to tell a particular story, often about the Dreaming. The Dreaming is First Nation peoples understanding of the world and its creation. Dreaming stories are closely connected to the country and often teach rules for living, such as social regulations, ethics and morality (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
Central Desert artists are well known for their use of symbols. Traditionally, rock and sand paintings were used, but nowadays artists will often use vibrant coloured acrylic paints on canvas (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
So, to help you understand what some of the symbols in Indigenous paintings mean, we’ve provided a list of a few symbols that are commonly used in Central Desert and Western Desert regions:
The ‘U’ shape represents a person sitting cross legged on the ground, usually around a campfire. This symbol can represent a man or woman. If the symbol represents a woman, it is usually accompanied by an oval-shaped coolamon and digging stick, which are her tools used for gathering food. If it is a man, the U shape will be accompanied by a straight line which depicts a spear or other hunting weapon (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
‘Minyma Tjukurrpa’ by Marlene Young Nungurrayi. Courtesy of Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021.
Coolamon are a traditional multi-purpose tool. They have a bowl-like oval shape and are primarily used as a gathering tool or utensil to hold food. Cut from the bark of trees, deep coolamons are typically used to carry water or to rock babies to sleep. In artworks, they are represented by oval shapes with a dash in the middle (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
Traditional decorated Coolamon (1970) by Billy Stockman. Courtesy of Museum Victoria, 2021.
People coming together
A space where people come together is usually marked as a circle or set of concentric circles. These circles can represent a meeting place, such as a campsite or waterhole. Routes between a series of locations can be shown as straight parallel lines linking the circles together (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
Ngayuku ngura – My Country, by Wawiriya Burton. Courtesy of Daily Review, 2018.
Desert artists depict animals with the tracks that they leave behind in the sand. Some common animal tracks include emu, kangaroo and possum tracks. Emu’s leave behind an arrow shape and possums an ‘E’ shape. Whereas, the kangaroo tracks resemble two mirrored lines with upwards flicks at the end, similar to the tick shape, and its reverse image on the left side. When you see a straight line between these tick shapes, it represents the kangaroo’s tail bouncing along the sand as it bounds through the desert (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
Jaganpa (Possum) Dreaming by Jorna Napurrurla Nelson. Courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists, 2021.
Since much of Central Australia is dry and arid, running water is something that is treasured in many communities. Sometimes, these flowing lines in the artworks portray storms that bring much needed water to dry creek beds (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).
‘Water Dreaming’ by Marissa Napanangka Anderson. Courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists, 2021.
We hope that this list has opened your eyes up to the realisation that First Nations artworks are not just pretty paintings; they are paintings steeped in the ancient knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous peoples’ connection to Country and culture.
If you would like to learn more about the incredible diversity of Indigenous art across the nation, check out our previous article Indigenous Artistic Styles.