Before Farming

Transformations - rock walls to canvas: representations of the totemic geography in Aboriginal Australia

Before Farming (2003), 2003, (2), 1–13.

Abstract

Within Australian Aboriginal cultures there are strong connections in artistic traditions that are linked spatially to sacred places and stylistically to encoded meaning. Artistic traditions draw heavily on mythologies, place-based narratives and representational techniques embedded in indigenous religious knowledge. The wealth of ethnographic data shows that rock-art imagery can hold a multitude of layered meanings. However, one of the keys to comprehension is that the art is placed in the landscape, part of its meaning is encoded in its location. This can be seen in rock-art, with the portrayal of prominent Dreaming figures that are connected to broad cultural traditions and with the significance accorded specific places. Knowing the Dreaming traditions and sacred places allows an understanding of the images portrayed. In Aboriginal Australia, creation of art is controlled by cultural tenets, including kin affiliation and clan relationship to sites of sacred significance. However, within the corpus of recent non-rock-‘art’ production there has been a shift in the representational mode, primarily because modern acrylic art is removed from the landscape. Rather than depiction of the mythological narrative in place, by necessity the canvas and art-board become a plan or map. Acrylic art has to explain not only the Dreaming but also the country, whereas art in the rock shelters is linked directly to place. The way sacred information is presented shifts from a pictorial representation of mythological figures to a landscape within which mythology is encoded. The contemporary canvas art affords an alternate perspective of the totemic landscape. Focusing on the artists resident in the Kununurra area, Western Australia, this transformation is explored.

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Mulvaney, Ken