OneWorld Magazine presents


A Very Brief Orientation
by Lauri Fiedler

Page 1 of 2

© Maureen Turner Nampijinpa

About 140,000 years ago a large amount of evaporated ocean water became locked up on land in the form of glaciers, resulting in a significant drop in sea level. This condition occurred intermittently throughout the next 90,000 years. At times of major glaciation, the Australian land mass could be reachedfrom central Asia by multiple 'one day' sea passages: a one day passagebeing 50 miles on a large raft, the probable vessel of the time. After global warming and the consequent rise in sea level, that same journey would have been almost impossible without modern navigational equipment.

Sometime during the glaciation human beings established themselves on the island continent. Radiocarbon dating nets this event at a minimum of 45,000 years ago. We do not know where they came from, although Asia is a good guess. Scientific analysis has failed to match them by blood or language with people from any area of the world. It has been demonstrated that as few as thirteen people could have generated the estimated Aboriginal population of the late 1700s (600,000 to 800,000). This means only one original migrant group would have been required -- not likely, but possible. More probable is that the current Aboriginal population is the result of several "waters of migration", and that groups may have come and, for whatever reason, become extinct during the process of population evolution.

© Jonathan Brown Kumunjara

In any case, Aboriginal society evolved virtually without outside interference until the brutal disruption brought about by the arrival of the English convict ships in 1788. This extended isolation was a unique situation, and the people who developed from it add their own special colour to the human rainbow.

The Aborigines were hunter-gatherers with an oral tradition. This tradition includes music, song, dance, and graphic expression -- all of which can contain rich symbolic meaning. A combination of forms may, in fact, be required for a concept to be fully expressed. Graphic expression played an important role in Aboriginal temporal communication as well as in tribal ritual -- how important was not understood outside of the aboriginal world until the latter half of the 20th century.

Prior to the 1970s the public image of Aboriginal art was restricted to painted or burned decoration on utility items and "bark paintings". These "barks" are strips of eucalyptus bark that have been flattened, dried, and smoothed prior to decoration with brown, white, yellow, black, and occasionally red natural pigments. Traditionally these were only created as part of a ritual and were usually destroyed during or shortly after the ceremony. However, they became popular with collectors during the 1940s and have been widely produced for sale. Obviously, they originate only in areas with an adequate number of suitable trees. The best known work comes from Arnhem Land (north central Australia).

© Tim Japurrula Kennedy

Something very important happened in 1971. Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher in an Aboriginal elementary school in Papunya (Central Australia near Alice Springs), had developed a close relationship with the local Aboriginal residents. He participated in ritual events usually prohibited to nonAboriginals and had seen the splendid designs used in body painting and ceremonial "ground paintings" (the Australian equivalent of Amerindian sand paintings). In an effort to strengthen his students' pride and identification with their Aboriginal heritage, he assigned them a project - to design and paint a school wall mural on the subject of the honey-ant, a key totemic animal to the region. The mural did not progress as quickly as anticipated, particularlyconsidering the childrens' love of drawing. What even Geoffrey Bardon didnot understand was that painting this story was in itself a ritual act andrestricted on the basis of personal heritage and degree of initiation intotribal law. Several local elders became involved. Through the new medium,they discovered a way to re-establish their connection with the land theyhad lost -- they again found a voice in the world. They were called the'Painting Men', and they gave the outside world a first look at Aboriginalart other than bark painting.

What emerged were pieces with an astonishing and vibrant aesthetic sophistication. This work gave the appearance of rapid evolution only because it was realized after millenia of development. Use of a complex ritual symbolic structure, widespread rock painting, body painting, and drawing in soft earth for communication and story telling were all well established practices in Aboriginal life. This "new" medium spread like wildfire across the country. The Australian government slowly came to recognize Aboriginal artistic expression as a national resource, and for this as well as humanitarian reasons, it began to support the art movement by providing materials, exposure to new techniques, and establishing authorized contact points for outback dwelling groups. Now, although this was not always true, these contact points are managed and monitored by the Aboriginal community itself.

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