Illustrated: Symbols in Aboriginal Art

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Words || Dylan Barnes

I am a person of Wiradjuri descent from my mother’s side and have been taught artistic styles from my Aunties and Uncles who are both Elders and experienced artists. I also have cultural connections to the Ngardi people from East Arnhem Land and the Darkinjung people from the Central Coast. 

These symbols that I am sharing with you are specific to my own cultural upbringing and understandings. Many of these symbols can be found within other language groups’ artistic styles, but they can have slight variations or meanings depending on their cultural histories and Dreaming stories. I ask that if you see similar symbols in other Aboriginal artist’s work, be mindful of their cultural connections and think about the contextual meaning of the artwork that may influence the visuals and meanings of certain symbols.

Sitting Person

A very common symbol for most Aboriginal language groups which depicts a bird’s-eye view of a person sitting down. This symbol can sometimes be seen with lines next to them which represent spears. In some language groups the amount of ‘spears’ depicts the sitting person’s gender (e.g. 1 = man, 2 = woman).

It is also common to see body art on these symbols which are very specific to the artist’s cultural connections, and the meaning behind the painting.

Campfire / Waterhole

This symbol represents either a campfire or a waterhole, depending on the artist’s cultural connections, and the contextual meaning of the artwork.

Many artists surround these symbols with ‘sitting people’ to represent community, family or people who are closely connected. I personally use this symbol to represent ‘community’ and the unification of peoples who are connected spiritually or emotionally.

Path / Flowing River

This symbol also has a different meaning and look depending on the artist’s connections and context. I personally use this symbol to represent ‘journey paths’ from ‘campfire’ to ‘campfire,’ and to express stories of travel, growth, and learning.

Coolamon

The coolamon is a common tool for Aboriginal women that was used to hold and transport water, bushfoods, and sometimes to cradle babies. This symbol is mostly seen next to the ‘sitting person’ symbol to signify that the person is a woman. 

Emu Footprint

This symbol depicts the three-toed footprint of the Emu and is a fairly common symbol around Australia. Emus were a vital food source for Aboriginal Peoples and their entire bodies would be utilised. Their bones were used for tools and weapons, their skin for leather, feathers for ceremonial practices, and fat for bush medicines.

Kangaroo Footprint

This symbol is also very common around Australia and can sometimes be seen with a line under the footprints to represent the Kangaroo’s tail. Kangaroos are a common food source due to their high meat and fat content, their bones and skin were used for tools, weapons, and carrying pouches.