How common symbols help (and don’t help!) you to understand Aboriginal art

How common symbols help (and don’t help!) you to understand Aboriginal art

Do you know what a ‘U’ shape can represent in Aboriginal art? Wavy lines? Concentric circles? Brown ovals with lines through them?

These common symbols started as a convenient way for traditional artists to adapt to new ways of painting using acrylic paints, canvas and boards, and connect with new, non-Aboriginal audiences.

Australian Aboriginal art for western galleries took off in popularity through groups like the Papunya Western Desert artists in the early 1970’s. These artists came from a number of different language groups. So they agreed to share some symbols, and not share others that were restricted to particular ceremonies of their mobs.

The ‘public’ symbols expressed traditional designs and stories, rather than art that copied western styles. They unleashed a surge of creative energy, and the same symbols influenced Indigenous artists in a wide area across the Western desert.

Damien and Yilpi Marks are second generation desert artists, who were taught by some of those first Papunya artists. They have provided a useful detailed key to the symbols one of their ‘My Country’ series of paintings.

They include symbols that are common to many artists, such as:

  • a U with a stick shape to represent a woman with a digging stick
  • brown ovals for Coolamon bowls
  • ringed circles for waterholes and
  • concentric circles for meeting places

However there are other symbols which are their own work, such as a strip of blurred black ribbon representing burnt country.

They show water as a strip of blues with a dark border, which is different from the wavy lines symbol commonly used in other works by desert artists.

So, knowing these common symbols can take us part of the way, but we also need to understand and appreciate the individual artists.

You will often see charts that suggest these symbols apply to all Aboriginal art, but that is not true. They can’t be treated like emojis or hieroglyphics. They don’t look or mean the same from work to work, or in different places. Artists bring their own stories and creativity to them. 

As educators, we need to convey this richness to children. Indigenous art is one of Australia’s most significant contributions to world culture. Wherever possible, try to have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist or mentor to explain a work themselves. Do your own research, and always acknowledge the artist, and the area and/or tradition they are from.

Here are some video resources where artists or curators explain symbols:

Mawallan Marika ‘Milky Way’ 1963 explained by his daughter

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri 'Sunrise chasing away the night' 1977

Emily Kam Kngwarray 'Ntange Dreaming' 1989

Rare footage of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri explaining one of his ‘Possum Dreaming’ paintings 1994 (starts at 1 minute 43 seconds in).

Lorna Brown Napanangka 'Grandfather's Country at Warren Creek' 2005


The Australian Gallery and ICTV (Indigenous community videos) have many useful videos.

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