Aboriginal - Return To The Land


Aboriginal art is part of a living tradition, perhaps the oldest continuous art tradition in the world. It is the visual expression of a religion which has its origins in antiquity. Serious practitioners of the ceremonies have maintained the traditional art forms throughout the deserts of Australia and in the far northern areas.

Like all forms of cultural expression, Aboriginal art is constantly adapting and changing with time. Even the traditional arts - those that express the religion, land and Dreaming - revel the individuality of each artist, and constantly incorporate new ideas, patterns and materials.

There are many examples of early works now held in the collections of Australian museums and upheaval and they now emerge as exciting, innovative expressions of an ancient and continuous philosophy and belief in the Australian landscape itself. Hundreds of Aboriginal artists in Australia may not yet be known individually, but their work is of major importance and their skills and creativity are a significant part of the unique Australian heritage.

In Aboriginal society men and women have their own parallel expressive arts. The painted or decorated body becomes a living sculpture in dance. The same designs may be transferred to many different surfaces, for different purposes - to fibre, sand, wood, bark and stone. The separation of art and craft, traditional in the Western world, does not exist in Aboriginal art. The intricacies of spinning, weaving and knotting are integrated with shells, fibre and paint, while feathers and fibre can form part of sculpture.

Public perception and appreciation of the total context of creativity in the wider society have increased. Contemporary art exhibitions now include constructional performances, fibre works and combinations of natural objects such as feathers and shells - all elements that Aboriginal artists have always explored. It is hoped that the symbols that express the Dreaming continue as the living arts of Aboriginal Australia.

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Return To The Land

Throughout tribal Australia there has been a strong resurgence of traditional life and ceremony. Families have left government settlements and missions where their parents had lived since they were born and have established small self-reliant communities in areas from 40 - 4000 kilometres from the nearest main settlement. This has happened in the central and western desert regions and throughout the 'top end' of the Northern Territory including Arnhem land; a few have also begun in Cape York

As art is an integral part of Aboriginal life, the effect this has had on Aboriginal artists' creative output has been profound. The proximity of Dreaming sites had strengthened ceremonial activity. Associated dance and body decorations, ritual designs and sculptures have become not only more plentiful but also more carefully and elegantly executed, reflecting the joy of the artists in their homelands. The significance of this move is only clear when one considers the history of the interaction between the Aboriginal and European cultures in Australia.

Since the Dreaming, each Aboriginal clan group has owned or held in trust a series of Dreaming sites at which particular ancestors appeared, formed the landscape and produced children who became the human ancestors of the people. Periodically, at sacred sites on this land, the people re-enacted, in chant, mime and dance, the actions of their Dreaming ancestors. The older men initiated young men; the woman danced their own celebration of fertility and childbirth and the regeneration of all life. Each group continued the traditions of body painting, making weapons for survival, sculpting the ground for ceremony and painting images of the spirit ancestors and spirits of special places on rock and on bark.

The performance of these ceremonies was the core of the people's religious life. The ceremonies were essential, otherwise the annual cycle of life, the periodic reproduction of species, indeed the whole functioning of the cosmos, would not continue in the manner ordained by the ancestors. If a person were deprived of his homeland or if special sites on that land were destroyed, he would lose all connection with his ancestors and be left in a void. With the expansion of European settlement in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, an increasing number of people were encouraged to leave their homelands or were forced from them. As the concepts of Dreaming sites and sacred lore were alien and incomprehensible to the invaders, tribal lands were occupied without regard to traditional owners. When objections were raised, the results were often violent massacres.

The spread of imported diseases took an even greater toll. In the south-eastern areas of the continent, this dispossession was rapid and, for many tribes, final. In these areas ritual and ceremonial life ceased early this century and traditional art forms disappeared. By 1900 the Aboriginal population has been reduced from 300,000 to 50,000. In the more remote central desert, Arnhem Land plateau and coastal plains, in Cape York and in the Kimberleys, Aboriginal people continued to live their traditional lives, relatively ignored by Europeans in general.

It was believed the Aboriginals were a dying race and in an effort to 'smooth the pillow' of the doomed people, missions and government stations were established and reserves of land set aside for them. The government position of Protector of Aborigines was established and an era of welfare and protectionism began. From 1900 to 1960, with the coming of the missions and settlements, the tradition al economic foundations of Aboriginal society changed. Access to basic rations was offered, together with small amounts of medical care, education and housing.

The population began to increase again. Fewer children died under the age of five, women survived childbirth, and the elderly, who might otherwise have found survival hard, were nourished from local European rations. but in return for the benefits offered, the people on the settlements were expected to make profound adjustments to meet the objectives of the missionaries and settlement managers. The missions aimed at spiritual conversion and, consciously or unconsciously, a complete change in their 'charges'' basic pattern and values of life.

The settlement officers put into practice government policies of protectionism followed by assimilation. They saw their role as offering benefits, particularly those of education and social adaptation, which would assist Aboriginals to assimilate fully into the wider society. But these large communities had brought together groups of people who spoke different languages, often peoples who, only ten years previously, had been enemies. The psychological stress was great and talk of withdrawal from missions and settlements was commonplace, but, due to long-standing inertia and dependence on the supplies, it was seldom put into practice. Grievances concerned growing gaps between age groups, the erosion of traditional patterns of authority, the aimlessness and drinking problems in the young men and the general and all-pervasive disruption to the social organisation. There was more and more evidence that prospectors and tourist were trespassing on the land where sacred sites lay unprotected.

Bauxite mining that began at Gove (Nhulunbuy) in the early 1970s, only a short distance from the Yirrkala mission, became a catalyst. Despite a legal battle, the mine developed into a huge project with a large associated township. Almost simultaneously, in an attempt to protect their own land and sacred sites, Aboriginal people throughout tribal Australia began to move away from the missions and settlements to establish small remote communities known as centres, homelands or outstations.

Government support has increased for these Aboriginal moves towards self-management. Legislation now provides for 'land rights' or freehold title to traditional lands in the Northern Territory covering up to twenty-five per cent of the total area, with other states following. The dispossession of Aboriginal land is the injustice about which Aboriginals feel most strongly and the security of land for the future, or compensation for its loss, became the central issue for the 1970s and, so far, into the 1980s as other states begin to rectify the omissions of the past.

In the remote communities of the deserts and Arnhem Land, small and large groups have gathered close to water supplies and away from the social dislocation they felt at the government settlements. Australia is, in a sense, being repopulated. Tribal groups are keeping ceremonies alive and are living close to the earth and sacred landscape, while beginning to educate their children in bicultural and bilingual programmes.

Tribal men and women have retained full knowledge of the sacred areas in the land, together with extensive ceremonial cycles that commemorate their formation by the ancestral heroes. In these places, ritual life is not disrupted by competing priorities of work or other influences, and in the desert areas particularly, where people have moved vast distances, ceremonies associated with previously inaccessible sacred sites are being renewed. All facets of traditional religious arts flourish. to be continued...

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