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Behind the dots: Aboriginal Art unlocked

As part of our Reconciliation Week series, and in the spirit of the 2020 theme #inthistogether, we are celebrating the local Aboriginal people and their culture through unlocking the meaning behind the creation of their artwork.

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Post date: 28th May 2020

Art plays a huge role in Aboriginal culture. Due the fact that Aboriginal people have no written language, they have used art to pass important cultural stories and messages through generations via symbols portrayed visually. The art of indigenous communities across Australia has enabled the preservation of their culture; highlighting educational, behavioural and moral aspects of their teachings and chronicling knowledge of the land, events and belief systems.

Who are the Yorta Yorta?

A common stereotype of Aboriginal people is that they are a mono-culture; all part of one big group with a single belief system, law, language and way of living. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Yorta Yorta tribe have traditionally inhabited the country encompassing the Goulburn and Murray Rivers in present-day North-East Victoria. An Aboriginal Elder of this tribe speaks of their connection to their country here:

"“For Yorta Yorta people, the land and the world view in which they live is an extension of themselves. The land and water are the embodiment of their identity and existence, as river-based people, passed on by the great creation spirit Biami”."

Dr Wayne Atkinson

Aboriginal people have historically used symbols as an alternate way to write down stories of cultural significance and teach the importance of their relationship with the land. For many people, when they think of indigenous art, “dot paintings” might be the first thing that comes to mind. However, dots are mostly used in Central Australia and this representation is just scratching the surface of the many other symbols, including diamonds, zig zags, and chevrons, that are synonymous with Koorie artistic expression. Here we unlock the meaning behind some of the most commonly used symbols in Yorta Yorta art.

The Turtle

The turtle is a particularly common symbol used in Yorta Yorta art as the species is also the tribe’s totem. The Yorta Yorta believe that the turtle is their protector, provider and guide; it is often used prominently in visual representations of their creation stories.

Yorta Yorta Turtles

Crosses & Lines

Crosses represent the stars in Yorta Yorta art. Historically, indigenous populations of Australia were nomadic, and used the stars and other landmarks to navigate their journeys across country. These journeys can be represented by various additional symbols such as concentric circles representing waterholes and wavy lines representing water. By understanding the meaning of these symbols in Yorta Yorta art, we not only see the importance of the relationship to the land but could also view the artwork as cultural maps; underlining the importance of nation and country to the First Peoples of Australia.

Rivers Aborginal Symbolism

The Horseshoe

This symbol represents a person sitting – you may often see these symbols gathered around in a circle, representing a sharing of knowledge, or accompanied by hands, representing learning. The cultural practice of passing stories of the Dreaming through generations is incredibly important to Aboriginal people and is often shown in addition to spirals symbolising the circle of life; of which gaining knowledge from the Elders is an integral part.

Animal Tracks

Instead of the dots that are often associated with Aboriginal Art, the Yorta Yorta style is based in lines and cross-hatching. The basis of this symbolism lies in the animal tracks that the tribe encounters on their journeys. Various arrows and lines depict the marks left by native Australian animals; emus, kangaroos, possums, goannas; further emphasising the strong connection of Yorta Yorta people to the land.

Of course, in explaining artistic symbolism, we should consider that the viewing of artistic expression is subjective, and the interpretations of the various iconography used in Yorta Yorta art can differ depending on the creator and the audience. Using this knowledge – what will you see next time you take a look at the local indigenous art?

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