Encoding the Dreaming

30th December 2013

A toa representing a place on Coopers Creek (published in Australian Archaeology 49:17).

A toa representing a place on Coopers Creek (published in Australian Archaeology 49:17).

Howard Morphy

Introduction*

Australian Aboriginal cultures are rich in artistic traditions. If their art took a more permanent form Aborigines would be living in a forest of paintings and carvings that would be a visual testament to their artistic heritage. As it is, most of their art works are temporary, many almost transitory—body paintings that hardly outlast their production and sand sculptures that begin to weather before completion. Apart from certain sacred objects, only the paintings on sheltered rock walls, rock engravings, stone arrangements and tree carvings survive from past generations, and not all of these occur across Australia. Art exists for most of the time in people’s heads waiting for a purpose to call it into being: a ceremony to initiate young men, or a mortuary ritual to farewell the dead and see them to their spiritual home. For art in Aboriginal Australia is seen as a form of spiritual power; it is an intervention of the world of the mythical past in the present. It is a means by which knowledge is passed from generation to generation about the creative forces that shaped the world and will enable it to continue into the future. Art in Aboriginal Australia is, in this respect, information: one of the main ways, if not the main way in which individuals are socialised into the Dreaming—the Ancestral Past—is through art. People learn about mystic events through learning meanings that are encoded in paintings and explained in song and dance. In the case of many non-European indigenous art traditions referential meaning is absent from, or at best a secondary component of, the system (see e.g. Forge 1973; O’Hanlon 1989), but in Aboriginal Australia referential meaning is primary.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

Morphy, H.
Encoding the Dreaming
December 1999
49
13–22
Article
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