Friday, October 22, 2010

Contextualized Australian Aboriginal Art

In my 10/10/10 post, I mentioned the theology in the book Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology, and the artwork in The Rainbow Spirit in Creation.  In today's post, I'd like to explore Australian Aboriginal art further and one example of contextualizing it. The concept of art in traditional Australian Aboriginal society is very different to the concept of art in European society. In traditional Aboriginal societies, activities like dancing, singing, body decorations, sand drawings, making implements or weaving baskets were not considered to be separate activities called art and design. All of these activities were a part of the Dreaming (or Dreamtime) and a part of normal daily life. There was no concept of a special type of person, artists, because, in a sense, everyone was an artist. This is changing as tradition-oriented communities adapt to aspects of western culture although the number of ‘artists’ in any Aboriginal group would generally be far greater than in non-Aboriginal communities (for more info see

Traditional Aboriginal arts typically represent the Dreaming or Dreamtime. Dreaming/Dreamtime is defined by a quote from Australian film directed by Peter Weir on Wikipedia as

"...two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the 'dreamtime', more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime."'

The Wikipedia article goes on to state that “...'The Dreaming establishes the structures of society, rules for social behaviour, and the ceremonies performed to ensure continuity of life and land. The Dreaming governs the laws of community, cultural lore and how people are required to behave in their communities.”

Moving on to today's specific example, the Warlpiri are one of the Western Desert peoples. The aboriginal art of these peoples is the most abstract of aboriginal art in Australia. It consists largely of patterns of tracks, concentric circles and lines. Warlpiri art is traditionally used in ceremonies to release the creative powers of the primal spirit beings in the present and to communicate this with other people.

Warlpiri symbols are iconic-- their likeness represents the object to which they refer. Most of their symbols are the patterns or imprints left by the people or animals in the sand. The perspective is from above, not the side. Their illustrations represent the movement of people and animals. Several sequences of events can be represented in one illustration. The particular meaning of an illustration must be derived from the narrative context of its use.

The use of Aboriginal art motifs to communicate the Gospel among the Warlpiri began in 1975 after Baptist missionary Ivan Jordan read an article by another missionary that explored the idea. Over time, the symbols used were modified and expanded. The symbols are used to illustrate Bible stories.

In 1988, anthropologist Tony Swain wrote that the style of graphic symbols used by the Warlpiri Christians was identical to the ones used traditionally for telling dreaming stories. It is to be noted, however, that the traditional religious symbols aren't used.

Swain found in his studies that the Warlpiri were thoroughly orthodox in their beliefs, though some men believed that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were contemporaries. This goes back to the aboriginal view of time, in which the past is the present is the future. So, they view people who lived in different time periods as living contemporaneously in a different location.

For my next post, I plan to explore a type of Aboriginal dance called a corroboree, and how the Warlpiri have adapted its use for portraying the Gospel.

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