Aboriginal body art is a very old tradition among the Australian aborigines. Aboriginal cultural practices vary between Aboriginal tribes and their geographic location. This is also true with regard to body art or body painting. Body art among the aborigines have different meaning and significance as well as distinct forms.
Types of aboriginal body art
Some different types of Australian Aboriginal art that are particularly used to decorate the body include scars, feathers, ornaments, face paint, and body paint. Symbols are heavily used and can denote many things about the person who uses it. Body painting is often used to tell a story.
Besides body painting, Australian aboriginals also embellish themselves with ornaments such as necklaces made out of feathers, bones, teeth, and shells. The latter is used by coastal communities. Scarring is often done by males to denote their social status. Sharp shells or rocks are used to cut the skin, after which they are rubbed with ash or other irritating material to inflict a permanent scar and skin discoloration.
Color also varies between different regions and tribes. Clay is widely used as s color source, as well as ochre, if available. Some tribes use specific color pairing such as pink and red or yellow and white. Animal fat is often mixed with paint so that they stay longer on the body because most ceremonies last for days. Such ceremonies involve storytelling, singing and dancing.
Functions of aboriginal body art
Aborigines do not consider body art as artwork per se. Instead, every type of painting and decoration corresponds to some law, regulation or convention, as well as religious functions. They can also be used to denote a particular region or tribe. Symbols are used to communicate the social status of a person, his or her age, totemic responsibilities, and the role or position he plays within the family group.
According to aboriginal art history and customs, body painting cannot simply be arbitrarily changed or altered by the person who wears it. The task of painting a person is borne by his or her relative.
Being an important aspect of religious rites and ceremonies, aboriginal body art have deep spiritual meaning. When combined with aboriginal dances during significant ceremonies, body art denoted the tribal people’s relationship with the environment, the animals, their ancestors, the land, and with nature as a whole.
Each traditional aboriginal art symbol being painted on the body is exclusively used in a particular cultural or religious ceremony. The ceremony will only be carried out once the seniors among the males have ensured that all those who are participating have fulfilled all requisites and obligations. Preparations and training for ceremonies typically last for several hours or up to several days, depending on the ceremony.
Some examples of ceremonies that involve body painting include circumcision ceremonies for boys, hunting ceremonies, as well as ceremonies that involve women undertakings. For example, boys from Arnhem Land wear specific painting on their chests and the men who perform their rite-of-passage ceremony are also painted. As for young girls, specific symbols are painted on their body to encourage the growth of breasts.
Aboriginal body art has shown that the culture of Australian aborigines has flourished for thousands of years, and despite social and environmental issues concerning the survival of Aboriginal culture, all indications point to the continued healthy existence and perpetuation of their unique way of life.