Defining us

Ngumbi-Ngumbi, Gordon Landsen Millyindirri

As a source of contemporary design, Australian Aboriginal art has an appealing sense of immediacy and purity. It developed in isolation prior to European contact. Post settlement, for a very long time, it held little interest other than to Aboriginal people themselves. In a tribute to the resilience of Aboriginal people and their societies, Aboriginal art is today a vibrant and diverse nationwide tradition of self and group expression, and identity. Through best practice collaboration, our hope is Australian designers will increasingly see the value in looking at the nation’s roots for inspiration, rather than to imported iconography.

The ancient source of Aboriginal art is enriched by thousands of generations of practitioners. They depict a unique view of the continent and the world around it. Their work has had no need to become slick or complex; its lyrical beauty has survived, unchallenged. But its simplicity does not mean it lacks dimension. The subtle layers of visual and interpretive meaning require observance of clear protocols and ethics. Relationships traditionally determined rights to use Aboriginal visual language: those within groups, and between groups. Ownership was rarely individual, and communication of meaning carried a heavy responsibility : to continue the truth of the world’s longest continuing culture. It still does.

Australian Aboriginal imagery translates well to design, as it has always had a communication function over and above the aesthetic. The Indigenous and Western approach to art differs. A Western artist might create a work to hang in a certain location, to be reviewed and assessed, judged and acclaimed. Traditional Aboriginal art making had no such aspirations. Whether gouged from rock on an inaccessible cliff face, scattered in ochre on the ceremony ground, or applied in river clay to an initiate’s body, patterns and symbols are about the meaning of the moment. Their spontaneous beauty lacks artifice or self-interest. The act of their creation is to give knowledge and re-enact process. Meaning passes in this way to each new generation.

Australia can be a fragile, difficult place to live. Vast distances, geographical and climatic extremes, and a delicately maintained balance of natural resources are challenging. Enduring knowledge of caring for this continent is enshrined in the symbols of Aboriginal visual language. It is handed down through both ceremony and daily life. Understanding the symbols, and the stories behind them, are the maps, the clues, to observing the Law. The benefit is life lived in harmony with the elements and the cosmos.

Culture, language and landscape inform Aboriginal art. Culture is the belief system that underpins social organisation and family networks. It dictates ceremony and significant life events. It upholds spirituality, and maintains a line of complex interconnections between families and clans. Landscape is the physical manifestation of the source of culture : the colours, textures and patterns of the land formed in the Dreaming, by Spirit Ancestors. It is when they crossed the Land, sang the songs for those places, called out the names.

Like words lost once uttered, traditional Aboriginal imagery is often ephemeral in nature. When ceremonial body paint is applied by firelight, it must be removed without trace of colour or sweat by sunrise. Days of assembling ochre sands in motifs on the desert ground conclude with erasing them. Pigment applied to a rock face will gradually drain away in successive wet season rains. Etchings chiselled into stone landforms await the next generation of artists who will re-mark the artwork. Their physical act of doing so ensures the continuation of life’s seasons and the procreation of the species. There is powerful communication in fleeting images created to be erased. And in acts of art that reinforce the rhythms of ordinary life.

A culture where imagery is distilled to such a satisfying level of simplicity says much about good design. The temporary and oral nature of such a communications system renders it vulnerable. With the deep meaning of much of this iconography passing on, as its custodians pass on, opportunity calls to embed an Aboriginal sensibility in places that matter to us, and in communications that define us.

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