Heather Bailey - "Dreamtime" Sculpture & Article

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Toy Sculpture and packaging project

In the beginning, the Dreamtime, Wandjina roamed the unformed earth. These creatures were divided into two groups, "the originators of all human customs and the inventors of all implements." (Bradshaw) At will, they could transform from human to animal and back again, and were responsible for forming the earth. The most revered Wandjina, the Rainbow Serpent, created waterways, mountains, and valleys on the land by "writhing" its body, then gave birth to many life forms. The birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, the mammals on the land, all of the reptiles, and even humans descended from the Rainbow Serpent. (Usher) The name, Rainbow Serpent, is the English equivalent for this particular Wandjina, but it is known by many other names throughout Aboriginal Australia. The Dreamtime is the creation myth, describing a process and a period, that began in prehistoric times, and has never ended. (One World) According to Aboriginal stories, the Wandjina found secret places to reside after their initial creation of the earth, and they continue to watch over their creations. Some live in rocks, trees and waterholes, while others watch from the sky. Still others became the natural forces of nature, "such as wind, rain, thunder, and lightening." (AAO-Dreamtime)

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A rainbow in the sky is thought to be the reflection from the Rainbow Serpent. In the landscape of Australia, Wandjina can be seen. They can be witnessed in the changing weather, and experienced in ritual and ceremony. They also manifest themselves, as consequence, to the individual actions of the Aborigine. Tribal laws, customs, and appropriate human behaviors were also appointed in the Dreamtime. These complex systems of kinships, marriage, and social order, along with rules for ceremony, ritual, food distribution have sustained this ancient culture for approximately 30,000 years or more."Therefore, Dreamtime is a period on a continuum of past, present, and future." (One World)

"Aboriginal religion and spirituality is the Dreaming," (Stewart) and every tribe carries on a collection of these Dreamtime stories. The diversity of the stories, are as varied as the landscape of Australia, and partial to the indigenous region of the tribe. There are "desert, mountain, alluvial plain, and seacoast stories." (AAO-Dreamtime) Some of these stories are common throughout the land, traded over time, between tribes. The Rainbow Serpent is a popular Wandjina in many tribes, and may vary slightly in detail and depiction. For example, some believe that it's appearance is that of a "long mythical creature made up of parts of different animals," with the head of either a kangaroo or a flying fox, the tail of a crocodile. All located on the body of a python, and decorated with yams and waterlillies. In other areas of Australia, prehistoric paintings in caves show the serpent to only have the appearance of a snake. (AAO-Rainbow Serpent and Dreamtime)

The rock images and cave paintings in Australia, are considered to be the oldest existing religious art to date, the oldest being the Rainbow Serpent. (AAO). The materials used on cave walls by these ancient artists, to stencil handprints and paint images, no longer exists. (AAO, Art and Artists) However, the images themselves have been kept alive by the artists of modern day Aboriginal society. In prehistoric Australia, caves were most likely the primary shelter for the primitive people. Later, as Aboriginal culture developed, the art found other mediums. Painting moved from the walls of caves to bark shelters. Bark paintings were also created for ritual and destroyed when their purpose was finished. Of course, this was only practiced in regions with an abundance of proper trees, preferably Eucalyptus. (One World) In the 1940's, the world got it's first good look at Australia's native art, as the bark paintings became the first commercially marketed product of the Aborigines. Traditionally, Aboriginal art found a variety of mediums. Painting, the most prolific, was first used on shelters. Ceremonial ground painting and body painting were temporary art works, destroyed due to the sacred nature of knowledge imparted during group rituals.(One World) Paint also decorates other sacred objects, weapons, baskets, and musical instruments such as the Didgeridoo. Carving is used on these objects as well and sometimes in conjunction with painting, not excluding scarification of the body. (Bradshaw, Oz)

Aboriginal artworks are called "Dreamings," and are considered to be sacred on many levels. Each Dreamtime story, belongs to an individual or a clan, depending on the particular tribe. The stories descend from parent to child. (AAO-Art and Aboriginal Society) Dreamings are introduced to children as narrative stories. (AAO) As they grow, they receive they receive knowledge during ceremonial initiation. Sometimes they involve scarification, tooth extraction, deflowering, and genital manipulation. (Bradshaw, Oz) Then through these rights of passage the initiated achieves the Dreaming, and is able to express it in art. The act of painting, as with any other form of creation, is thought to be a ritual act in itself. Because only initiated artist have the knowledge to create the paintings, they are the only ones that can understand the deepest meanings present in the highly symbolic artwork.

Symbolism is the basic constitution for all Aboriginal art. Not only does it communicate sacred stories, it conveys the law and life in the culture. The symbols are also a method of communication between tribes of over a hundred different languages, and a few that are predominately non-verbal. (Oz) Due to the complexity, of the symbolism present in the art, it is indecipherable to an outsider. The medium itself can be part of the message, symbolic in shape, derivation, or application. The natural materials directly connect the art with the land, or specific region, and in turn the artist. The Tiwi tribe believes that "to sing is to dance is to paint." They use body painting and the symbols on the body become more significant in motion. The medium is also the source of color, and the coloring may have some bearing on the interpretation of the symbol. (Ryan, 81)

Symbols of Aboriginal art can have many different interpretations, depending on the context. For instance, the simple symbol of the dot can fulfill many purposes in a Dreaming. A dot may be a star, campfires of ancestral beings. Groups of dots, or stars, may be a particular being or objects belonging to that being. Along with the many tribal cultures that have walked the Earth the Aborigines also used the stars as a navigational tool. (Stewart) Dots may also indicate sparks, burnt ground, or yam plants bursting forth from the ground.(AAO) Some cultures in Central Australia, use a dot style to create all figures. (Yunupingu, 65) Other tribes have adopted the use of dots to conceal sacred knowledge in the artwork from non-Aboriginal viewers. (AAO) Body painting is sometimes done to conceal the identity during ceremony. At other times it is a form of identification. (Ryan, 77) Dots can mean something entirely different, especially in "dot-style" paintings, if a row of dots form a circle. Circles could be spinifex grass, waterholes, camping or ceremonial sites. (One World) It also echoes many other cultures idea of a circle of life. (Stewart) Most symbols can have multiple meanings, based on the location of the tribe and the context of the symbol within the story.

Depictions of characters in many native stories can be symbolic also. Besides the Wandjina, there are other Dreamings. Totem animals and people are many times allegorical in nature. (Usher) They can be representative of a human condition, exemplifying human behavior and laws, or the personification of good an evil. Tribal stories deceptively simple and so seem to the symbols of the uneducated, or the uninitiated eye. (Stewart) "Today, it is common for artists to refer to the 'outside' story which they provide for the general public, while the painting retains an inside story accessible only to those with appropriate level of knowledge." (AAO) We, like aboriginal children learn only the narrative story.

All though the symbolism has been in existence for a long time, the art is progressive. Every Dreaming is an individual expression, not an imitation of another artwork. New stories in art have made their way into Aboriginal art. They describe the destitution of the people and the land due to modern influences. Subjects that include mining and nuclear testing. (Tuckson, 55) Aborigines have a new cause for their art that speaks volumes. Their land was settled by white European settlers in 1788. This has left them in the same sad plight as the Native American. The people fallen into poverty, welfare, and forced assimilation. Their lands, ways of life, were lost to deeds and contracts in English characters that they did not understand. Painting, in particular has become their political voice, and documented proof to their ownership of the land.

Bark painting brought the interest of the outside world to the culture of the Aborigine, since then aboriginal communities have realized the value of their art as a means to help preserve their culture and their land. (Yunupingu, 65) The art has moved into newer mediums and form, catching the eye and the respect of museums all over the world. In the words of Judith Ryan, in her article "Abstraction, Meaning and Essence in Aboriginal Art,", a seemingly abstract iconography of signs, marks, patterns and symbols lies at the center of much of the Aboriginal art produced today. Far from being non-representational, however, the abstract lines, cross-hatched geometry and markings together encode many layers of meaning and reveal the inner or spiritual power, the essence, of the artists country and cultural identity."


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