Western Desert Art
For tens of thousands of years the original inhabitants of Australia possessed not only extraordinary survival skills, but a profound aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity. The designs and motifs that appear on cave walls, artefacts, ceremonial body painting and petroglyphs, reveal intimate knowledge both the physical landscape and a deep spiritual essence of their own origins.
Australia’s western desert environment, while starkly beautiful, experiences extremes of temperature. These resilient desert dwellers endured bone chilling winters of down to -10℃ and scorching summers with daytime temperatures reaching up to 45℃ under cloudless azure skies.
Aboriginal culture at first glance was simple; however in reality it was incredibly complex. An intimate symbiosis with their surroundings coupled with an incorruptible social structure not ruled by greed, helped them survive. Ownership was non-existent. No royalty or governmental structure, no armies or material wealth existed, and in the absence of villages, each tribe had its own recognised territory. They successfully devised a way of life well suited to the country they inhabited and their social structure guaranteed the continuity of the their race.
The elders, with their profound wisdoms maintained order. They knew the tribal laws and the accepted code of behaviour; they were living store houses of knowledge; they were well respected, their counsel was heeded and their word was law.
Aboriginal people were nomads, entirely dependent on their surroundings, they were constantly on the move in search of food and water. Food groups were seen as a provision made by ancestral beings. Kangaroos, emus, goannas, grasses, and bush vegetables are regarded as having sacred significance and were depicted as symbols in cave paintings and ground designs. Fire was used as an effective hunting method, redesigning the environment and creating patterns in the landscape. Paintings depict these aerial views and in effect, represent a “map” of the artist’s country while providing a link to an ancient past.
They also had a deep spiritual connection with the land. The song lines, those invisible tracks weaving across land travelled by ancestors are musical maps that revealed the truth of the landscape and forged its story. Each generation inherited an ever accumulating body of knowledge about the water and food sources within their region. In simple terms, If you don’t know the stories and the song you perish in the desert.
Initiations provided an ancestral story of which the initiate took ownership, this identifies their connections to their origin and environment. They are permitted to produce those stories as paintings. An artist would not paint the “TJUKURRPA” or story of a different skin name, and to do so would be punishable.
During tribal ceremonies the ground is cleared and prepared for a large design using ochre, plant fibre, feathers and charcoal. The content of the design is sung by the participants and the materials are meticulously placed to form the finished image. Ground designs can be in excess of 30 to 40 square metres across, and when the ceremony is complete, the materials are brushed away, leaving no trace of the masterpiece created and nurtured through its short existence.
TJUKURRPA stories are not simply metaphors; they are part of a complex belief system which has sustained Aboriginal existence. Paintings are characterised by compositional complexity, subtlety of tone and an innate understanding of colour and composition. Using the dotting technique and lines to carefully depict specific sites located in their ancestral country and the environmental and geographical features associated with those sacred places.
The eyes of the world are now viewing and appreciating exhibitions of Indigenous paintings in a broad range of media. Styles and characteristics vary throughout Australia, however the western desert imagery retains a particular spiritual content that can be appreciated both visually and emotionally. There is also a sacred content to the artwork. This is referred to as “MILMILPA” the artist instills the painting with an element of secrecy. This ensures that the custodianship of the symbolism remains sacred and personal.
The paintings produced by the western desert artists provide a unique connection to a civilisation recognised as one of the oldest on earth, and in the western desert, this intriguing primeval culture remains deeply embedded in the land and its people.