Aboriginal Rock Art Symbols

Aboriginal rock art symbols may be interpreted differently from tribe to tribe but as years passed and as the tradition has been seen in modern Aboriginal art, a lot were able to retain its meaning across regions.

The Aboriginal people value the meaning-making function of art more than its aesthetics and cultural implications to the extent that every art containing similar symbols are read in varying ways depending on the context. A circle within a circle may mean far differently to a painting that features clustered circles. Same set of circles can mean a campfire, hill, tree or spring when the element of color is introduced. This context dependent interpretation even occurs within the same tribe.

Interpreting Aboriginal rock art symbols

It goes to show that Aboriginal art is read in its entirety and not as sum of every symbol, icon or color combination the artist used. It does not even depend solely on the region where the artist originates. Every art holds a story conveyed in an elaborate fashion that only the collective meaning-makers can fully understand.

Outsiders may find using dots prevalent in Aboriginal rock art and wonder about the patterns and similarities in each of them when in fact, each art tells a unique story based on the tribe’s oral tradition passed on from one generation to another. For outsiders, these are mere paintings and the Aboriginal people do not intend to tell them otherwise. Meanings and stories are created solely for the so-called initiated as is the case in Papunya painting modern art movement which became popular in the 1970s. In Papunya painting, dots are not used in paintings just because it is tradition and it identifies the Aboriginal aesthetics. On the contrary, it has a specific purpose to obscure meanings and symbolisms from outsiders who view art as it is.

Usage of Aboriginal rock art symbols

Aboriginal art symbols are used in such an elaborate manner as seen in rock and cave paintings in various regions in Australia but not because the Aboriginal strives to achieve certain level of sophistication in craftsmanship. Function precedes tradition in the Aboriginal culture. Dots are used to obscure, colors are chosen not because of its essence but because they are available and practical as they can easily be mined from ochre pits and traded between tribes. Other pigments are made from clay, wood ash or blood.

The value of art for the Aborigines is likewise functional. It is a means to communicate their creation myth of what they call “The Dreamtime”. Essentially, it manifests in how they characterize deities. An outsider would notice the similarities of Aboriginal rock art based on the angle from which they are drawn. The Aboriginal people believe that the symbols in Aboriginal rock art are created through the artist by ancestral heavenly beings and that is why most paintings are drawn on an aerial perspective. As they say, it is how ancestral beings view the land during their journeys.

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