ABORIGINAL ARTS LONDON UK
 

 
Australian Aboriginal Culture


Australian Aboriginal culture is one of the world's longest surviving cultures, which if one accepts the most recent dating of occupational remains at the Malakunanya II shelter, this period commences at least 50,000 years ago! Amongst the cultural items recovered from the site's lowest levels were used pieces of haematite which had been used in the preparation of paint, as well as yellow and red ochre. This period ended with the rise of the sea following the last Ice Age and the development of an estuarine environment 8000 years ago.

All of Australia's Aborigines were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, with each clan having its own territory. Those communities living along the coast or rivers were expert fishermen. The territories or 'traditional lands' were defined by geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes and mountains. All Australian Aborigines shared an intimate understanding of, and relationship with, the land. That relationship was the basis of their spiritual life and shaped the Aboriginal culture. Land is fundamental to the well-being of all Aboriginal people. The 'dreamtime' stories explain how the land was created by the journeys of the spirit ancestors. Those creation stories describing the contact and features which the spiritual ancestors left on the land are integral to Aboriginal spirituality. 'Ancestor Spirits' came to Earth in human and other forms and the land, the plants and animals were given their form as we know them today.

The expression 'Dreamtime' refers to the 'time before time', or 'the time of the creation of all things', while 'Dreaming' is often used to refer to an individual's or group's set of beliefs or spirituality. For example, an Indigenous Australian might talk about their Kangaroo Dreaming, Snake Dreaming, or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their 'land'. However, many Indigenous Aborigines also refer to the creation time as 'The Dreaming'. For Indigenous Australians, the past is still fervantly alive in the present moment and will remain so into the future. The Ancestor Spirits and their powers have not gone, they are present in the forms in to which they changed at the end of the 'Dreamtime' or 'Dreaming', as the stories tell. The stories have been handed down through the ages and are an integral part of an Indigenous person's 'Dreaming'.

It was this harmonious affinity with their surroundings that reveals to us how Australian Aborigines survived for so many millennia. Indigenous Aborigines understood and cared for their different environments and adapted to them. It is the intimate knowledge of the land, its creatures and plants that sits at the core of traditional Aboriginal culture. From this deep and intricate understanding of their environment, Aboriginal Australians have developed many plant and animal based medicines.

By the aquisition of knowledge, rather than material possessions, an Aborigine attains status in Aboriginal culture.
Art is an expression of knowledge and it is therefore a statement of authority. Through the application of ancestrally (wangarr) inherited designs and ceremonial initiations, Aboriginal artists assert their identity, their rights and responsibilities. The paintings and the ancestral beings within them are as much the property of clans as the land itself.

Traditional Aboriginal society is structured by systems which organises all aspects of Aboriginal life and perceptions. The systems have a foundation of skin groups and moieties which determine an individual's rights to marry in to particular groups. The ideology of the clan system is based on a patrilineal descent with the male and female off-spring belonging to the clan of the father, which is a clan of opposite moiety to their mother.

However, in 1770, the Australian Aboriginal's culture and way of life dramatically changed when Lieutenant James Cook took possession of the east coast of Australia and named it New South Wales. The British colonisation of Australia began 18 years later, which was a catastrophic event for indigenous Australians. The Europeans spread epidemic diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles.

The British settlement then appropriated land and water resources from the Australian Aborigine, and were ignorant in their assumption that the semi-nomadic Aborigines could be driven off and made to live somewhere else. In fact, the loss of 'traditional lands,' food sources and water resources was a fatal blow to the Aboriginal communities, who already weakened by disease, were then forced to relinquish their deep spiritual and cultural connection to their land. As a direct consequence of the 'invasion,' the enforced move away from traditional areas adversely impacted upon Aboriginal cultural and the spiritual practices which had been necessary for maintaining the cohesion and well-being of the tribal group.

Settlers also brought venereal disease (which greatly reduced indigenous fertility and birthrates) and introduced alcohol to the indigenous Aborigine and to which the Aborigine had no tolerance and the Aboriginal community had no prior experience in dealing with such issues. Substance abuse has remained a chronic problem for indigenous communities ever since. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence culled the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900.

It wasn't until many years later that a referendum gave Aborigines full legal status as Australian citizens, where up to that point they had no legal rights as citizens at all! In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act gave nearly 36% of Northern Territory back to the Aborigines. Aboriginal protest movements also began and developed strength in the 1960's. One Aboriginal protest group declared Australia Day (the celebration of the day Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay) to be a Day of Mourning in 1938. This became something of a tradition.

Most recently, the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal children in 1997 was a major acknowledgement of the wrongs inflicted on Aborigines during the 'protection' era. The National Inquiry was conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in an attempt to assess the damaging effects national policies had on Aborigines. The Inquiry found that 1/10 to 1/3 of all indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. Children and their families were actively discouraged from contact with one another after separation. The children were taught contempt for their cultural heritage and their parents, and had to endure the racist attitudes of their foster guardians, teachers and peers. The schools and foster homes were underfunded and in poor condition. Children placed in foster care were often the victims of severe punishment and sexual abuse. Mothers and children both felt "great personal loss" and helplessness.

"Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history..."

It was a momentous occasion when on February 13th 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the hurt caused by decades of state-sponsored treatment of indigenous Australians.

If you are interested in sponsoring a project for Aboriginal Artists to over to the UK to share their rich arts, crafts and culture, please
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The London Aboriginal Art & Didgeridoo Shop



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