Most forms of traditional artistic expression in Australian Aboriginal life have been related to the religious myths and beliefs of the Dreamtime. Ceremonies and rituals were the venue for music, song, dance and the visual arts. Ceremonial and sacred sites contain paintings and carvings, some of which are thousands of years old.
The arts have been divided into the performing arts of music, song and dance, and the visual arts of painting, carving and incising, and fibrework. As there was no written language, "literature" was an oral tradition, usually in the form of sung or chanted poems or stories. The importance of recording oral history has now been recognised as has the need to record and videotape singing and dancing. The traditional arts of painting, sculpture and carving are now protected by law in each state of Australia.
Aboriginal music consists mainly of singing and chanting. Songs were usually accompanied by the tapping and clapping of sticks or weapons and the slapping of the body and stamping of feet. There were not many specially constructed musical instruments except in the north, where the well-known didgeridoo or didjeridoo, was used and drums were made from open-ended hollow logs and hit with hardwood beating sticks to produce a resonant bell-like sound. The didgeridoo, originally found only in the Northern Territory and Kimberly region, is a wooden tube, 1-2 m long and with a diameter of 5-10 cm, often with a mouthpiece of wax or hardened gum attached to one end. Skilled players are trained from childhood; they can vary the droning tone of the instrument and produce short, sharp overtones pitched a major tenth apart. The didgeridoo is known to different tribes by various names, such as magu, kambi and yiraga. Another song style from the Pilbara district of Western Australia incorporated the distinctive sound of a rasp by scraping a stick across the notched edge of a spearthrower.
In the north a didgeridoo player accompanied by a songman would perform to different groups. The songman's repertoire consisted of songs taught to him by preceding generations of his family and new songs composed for accompaniment. This introduced into the music of the north a variation known in the south and centre of Australia, where rhythm was provided by foot stamping, beating sticks or boomerangs together or on the ground, or the clapping of cupped hands on the buttocks or inside thigh.
Public singing and dancing took place at a corroboree, known by various names to Aborigines. The corroboree can include serious religious ceremonies as well as more "secular" music. Traditionally, corroborees took as their theme the habits of animals, birds or people but following contact with Europeans they included references to European cultures and settlement. Most musical performances incorporate some form of dance. Singing and dancing are sometimes performed by both men and women but certain songs are performed only by one sex. If the men are performing at a ceremony for initiation rites or for the death of a member of the tribe, the occasion has a special name, and is not a corroboree. Other songs and chants are for women only.
The revival and development of Aboriginal music has been encouraged by Aboriginal leaders and groups performing both nationally and internationally.
The earliest known Aboriginal rock engraving is a pattern of grooves incised on the walls of Koonalda Cave, South Australia, believed to be about 20,000 years old. Ancient rock engravings are found throughout the continent. In Tasmania and some areas on the mainland abstract linear or curved patterns are found. Around Sydney and the Hawkesbury River large figures of animals, birds, fish and spirit beings have been engraved on sandstone. There are no rock engravings made today; many Aborigines believe the engravings come from a very early period, probably belonging to earlier spirit inhabitants.
Probably the best-known Aboriginal art form is that of rock painting. These can be found in vast galleries in the Laura district of Cape York, in the Kimberlys and in Arnhem Land, with smaller collections in Central Australia and New South Wales. Because many of the paintings were regarded as sacred, women and uninitiated men were not permitted to view them.
In the Laura district of Cape York rock paintings represent animal totems and magical figures such as the stick-like quinkans, believed to be night spirits. This collection of rock paintings also includes a large work of what is said to be a European with a horse.
In Arnhem Land the skeletons and organs of animals, fish or birds are painted on the rock faces. Known as X-ray paintings, these are similar to bark paintings from the same region. Also from this area are huge representations of the Dreamtime, including the Lightning Brothers and the delicate mimi - benevolent, though sometimes mischievous, spirits.
Immense Wandjina figures are characteristic of the Kimberly region. These figures are believed to represent the ancestors who formed the local landscape and who have the ability to control the elements.
Carving of trees and logs for ceremonial purposes, figure carvings of wood and wood sculptures are another form of Aboriginal art. Tree carving marking ceremonial grounds was practised in the region of the Darling Basin, New South Wales, where about one thousand of these carvings have been found. Burial poles made by the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands are elaborately carved and decorated and show some influence from contact with the Melanesians. The poles are up to 6 m long and are carved from a single eucalyptus trunk. The designs are symbolic and abstract. Tiwi carving and sculpture today includes bird and figure sculptures in wood which are first carved and then painted with intricate abstract designs. In eastern Arnhem Land ochre paintings with totemic significance decorate hollow cylindrical wooden containers for human bones. The Pitjantjatjara of the western desert are also well known both for their traditional wood carvings and the carved animals produced for sale today.
Bark paintings appear to have more recent origins than the other art forms described. There is, however, some early ethnographic evidence of its use in rituals and in the decoration of the interior of bark huts. Bark from the stringy-bark tree was prepared by removing the outer layers of the bark until the thin, smooth inner section was left. The next step was to uncurl the bark over a fire, and then keep it flat by placing stones around the edge. The design was painted with natural ochres of reds and yellows and other pigments mixed with fixatives made from wild orchids or other plants.
There are four areas where bark painting was highly developed. At Bathurst and Melville Islands there was a tradition of painting abstract designs on bark for baskets. On Groote Eylandt traditional figures and shapes were painted. A more detailed style of painting was developed in eastern Arnhem Land. These bark paintings were finely executed with patterns of cross-hatching in yellow, black and white. The paintings depicted the myths and legends of the area.
Another artistic use of bark was the objects made by bunching, wrapping and tying paper-bark with fibre to create figures of birds and animals. These mostly sacred figures are known as rangga and are found in Arnhem Land.
Basket weaving and twined bags from pandanus and other fibres were traditional arts practised by the women in most parts of Australia. The spun fibre and finely split pandanus leaves were dyed by boiling the strips in a mixture made from plant roots. Then baskets, string bags, dilly bags and mats were woven, forming striking patterns of different colours. Most mats today are woven in circular form. Weaving and basket making were used for carrying objects as well as for ceremonial purposes.
The Australia Council's Aboriginal Arts Board is funded by the Federal government and has undertaken to assist individuals and groups in the development and preservation of Aboriginal culture, the arts and crafts. The board of ten Aboriginal members decides which projects to assist with grants. The Aboriginal Arts Board is at the forefront of the numerous organisations involved in the promotion of Aboriginal culture.