One of the most haunting and terrifying movies in my collection is The Last Wave (1977) directed by Peter Weir and starring my childhood crush Richard Chamberlain (yes, I was a rabid Dr. Kildare fan and my obsession with Richard Chamberlain continued throughout his mini-series years including Shogun and The Thornbirds). The Last Wave was, on the surface a thriller about a lawyer (Chamberlain) who defends 5 Aboriginals against a murder charge in Sydney. Beneath this plot however, is a dizzying trip into the Aboriginal “Dreamtime” in which a cataclysmic Armageddon is foretold.
I am not sure what affected me more profoundly: 1) the depiction of a recurring childhood nightmare of a tidal wave (another potential post subject) or 2) a teasing look into an exotic but real society so outside my ken in which the power of dreams are intimately entwined with the rhythms of nature. In fact, when you look at it – the two explanations are themselves closely aligned. This powerful affinity occurs in many of the cultures I have studied and is one of my favorite discoveries: that while seeming so disparate, the multitudes of cultures in this world have, in the past, currently and most likely in the future many commonalities – we are more alike than not- important food for thought.
What then, is Dreamtime? It deals with space and time and takes place in both the past and present. It includes the Dawn of Creation when according to lore, the Earth was no more than a vast plain. Upon this expanse spirit-ancestors rose, and taking the forms of animals such as the kangaroo, snake or eagle hawk they wandered across the Earth, behaving almost as humans. Then this first part of the Dreamtime ended and some of the spirit-ancestors rose into the sky and others into waterholes or into the dirt, leaving behind signs of their existence in the forms of caves, rivers, holes in rocks and hills. They also left behind spirits that brought to life, plants, animals and humans as well as laws, fire and tools to help the Aboriginals. In the Aboriginal belief there is no death (being just a physical end but not spiritual) so that all things on Earth are connected, past to present to future. The Dreamtime thus becomes the spiritual, moral and natural order of the cosmos. What’s a little tricky to understand is that the Dreamtime does NOT refer to the state of dreams, but rather to a state of reality beyond the temporal. At the very core of the Dreamtime is the ideological framework by which human society retains a harmonious equilibrium with the universe.
The Dreamtime is resplendently depicted in Aboriginal art – and I happily brought back a few pieces from my visit to Australia. While there are a basic set of symbols – straight and wavy lines, dots and the like, there are many meanings and interpretations depending on the Dreamtime site and the mythical activity being portrayed. Despite this there are some standard design elements. Concentric circles usually represent campsites or rock holes. A large dot surrounded by concentric dots refers to a watering hole. Straight lines between circles illustrate the routes travelled between camps or places. Wavy lines across a painting usually is water or rain. A small “U” shaped figure represents people sitting and straight lines next to them are weapons or domestic implements.
Tracks, whether human or animal, are often depicted in plain view as they appear on the ground. Lizards and snakes are frequently shown as one would see them from above. Significant plant species are generally shown in a stylised but figurative manner and the dotted primary motifs and backgrounds have become the hallmark of the fairly new acrylic paint movement which I will explain in more detail below.
See how many of these basic symbols you can recognize in my art pieces:
The didgeridoo is a wind rhythm instrument traditionally made from the trunk of an eucalyptus tree. In this tree termites burrow and lay their eggs and once the larva hatch they chew through the bark, creating a hollow. The Aboriginals, having an acute sensitivity, tap a small piece of the bark to test its hollowness. If it is not “ready” the location of the tree is remembered and revisited at another time for harvesting.
Some believe that the Aboriginals have been playing the didgeridoo for over 40,000 years, however the oldest records date back over 2000 years in the form of cave and rock paintings. Supposedly, by learning how to relax your breath in order to play the haunting sounds of this instrument, one can reduce or cure snoring and sleep apnea. Alas, I have never mastered the technique.
Dot paintings such as the ones I own are actually a fairly late arrival into the art world of the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals originally told their pictorial stories in the desert sand – in fact, this was preferred as the often sacred and secret rituals depicted could then be smoothed away and erased from prying eyes. In the 1970’s the artists started to transfer depictions of their sand paintings onto canvas – and they realized that the sacred-secret objects would be seen by the European settlers and others – so they eliminated those elements and abstracted the designs into dots which would remain pretty much meaningless to non-Aboriginals.
Next week we will move back to the North American continent to explore the Spirit World of the Canadian autochthonous tribes.
Interestingly while there are no words for “goodbye” in the Native American cultures, there appear to be some from the Australian Aboriginal tribes- however, being rather superstitious myself I will not tempt fate by writing them here –