Pacific Island and Aboriginal Art 1980 Essay

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Art, ritual, and religion are inseparable in the aboriginal societies of Oceania. Aboriginal myths of creation and the Dreamtime are rendered in art and permeate the various types of art found throughout indigenous Australia from bark and rock paintings to the modern renditions on canvas. Similarly, the art of Pacific Islands before 1980 is inseparable from their cultural contexts. The concept of art is different in the Pacific Islands than it is for the Europeans who colonized the region. Therefore, it is important to understand both aboriginal and Pacific Island art within their own historical, cultural, and social worldview. Art was functional, symbolic, and sacred, and was tacitly decorative.

The aboriginal Australians have populated their lands for 50,000 years, and during that time developed highly sophisticated cosmologies comprising "what anthropologists say is the world's longest enduring religion," (Kiger, n.d.). Although there is a considerable amount of diversity in the exact formulation and conceptualization of the cosmos throughout aboriginal Australia, the common element is the Dreamtime. Dreamtime is both a time and a space, but it also transcends both time and space. Rendering the abstract cosmology of the Dreamtime in art has evolved over thousands of years.

Dreamtime is rooted in the theory that "the Earth's surface once was nothing but a vast, nondescript expanse of mud or clay," (Kiger, n.d.). From an artist's perspective, a "vast, nondescript expanse of mud or clay" is the starting point of all creation. The creation of the universe is art, and art therefore mirrors the creation of the universe. Moreover, the creators are not earth-bound. Rather, the "ancestral spirit beings rose from beneath the surface or descended from the sky, and assumed the forms of animals, plants, and humans," (Kiger, n.d.). The spirit beings give rise to art and music, providing the impetus for creation as well as the specific forms and aesthetics. The concept of Dreamtime continuously imbues artistic creations with spiritual meaning.

One of the core creator gods in the Aboriginal cosmology is Wandjina, who is rendered in aboriginal cave paintings as a dual being. In this painting, the creator spirit is depicted as a double-being, or the creator is the descending being on the top, representing the mirroring aspect of the spiritual world. This painting also signifies the hierarchical order of the universe, which is also witnessed in creation through the natural order of plants and animals.

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Paintings like these are rendered on rock surfaces, on the thick barks of some trees, and also on body painting. Many of these paintings are only temporary, revealing the aboriginal appreciation for the paradoxical passage of time. For the human being, time passes in a linear fashion but the Dreamtime exists outside of linear time. The Dreamtime is akin to Plato's forms: a world of eternal, ideal, archetypal forms.

The artists of the Pacific Islands also executed paintings on bark. One of the most famous bodies of barkcloth paintings comes from Tongan civilization. Unlike the aboriginal rock paintings, barkcloth could be used as currency or a symbol of wealth and status in the society. Design elements reflected social and political hierarchies. Tongan women frequently created the barkcloth, showcasing the gendered divisions of labor in the society. Rather than depict deities or religious figures, Tongan barkcloth often showed humans in positions of power. The humans were provided with semi-divine status as political leaders, though, important for revealing the mirroring aspect of the cosmos; just as there is a cosmic hierarchical order, there is also a hierarchal order in human affairs. Deities were ordered and structured, and so were the families and kin groups of the communities. There remains tremendous diversity in the social structures and politics of the different islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia but there do remain commonalities in the role art plays in these disparate regions. As Kjellgren (2007) points out, "oceanic sculpture and painting have emerged from not one but hundreds of separate religions, each with its own distinctive aesthetics, iconography, and supernatural beings," (Kjellgren, 2007, p. 6). For example, tattoo is more localized to the Polynesian triangle but throughout the Pacific region, the human body became a preferred medium to render artistic forms and cosmological patterns. This is evident as much in dance regalia as in tattoo. However, tattoo's portability makes it especially relevant for the seafaring and exploring nature of Polynesian society. Navigation also stressed the importance of art for depicting elements of the celestial world: the stars and directionality needed for successful seafaring.

Masks captured the interweaving of the human and….....

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"Art of the South Pacific: Polynesia," (n.d.). Retrieved online:

Kjellgren, W. (2007). Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kiger, P.J. (n.d.). Australian aboriginal creation stories. National Geographic. Retrieved online:

Kleiner, F.S. (2016). Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Cengage.

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