Aboriginal Art:
Signs, Symbols, Meanings and Stories

"Walking down the street, all kinds of messages are being generated for us by, for instance, shop signs, posters, and traffic lights. Even the people passing by are generating meanings by virtue of the kind of clothes they are wearing or their hairstyles. Meanings are being made everywhere, through a huge variety of different channels of communication…" (Bignell: 1997, p.1)

The twentieth century became the century of the sign. Everything is sign. Everything has its meaning. Semiotics and semiology were developed to analyse meaning by looking at the signs, not only words, but also pictures and symbols, which communicate meanings. Art is also one of the signs that communicate meanings.

In Australia, Aboriginal art is argued that its richness and diversity is an exciting and stimulating resource. Moreover, it is one of the oldest, unbroken living traditions of art-making in the world, which some evidence suggests is older than European traditions. One example of the evidence is a fifty-thousand-year-ago Aboriginal rock painting in Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. (Tallack: 1996) Thus, Aboriginal art is interesting for critical discussions in the communication field of study in which people see, value and understand the work of art of other culture.

This study first was intended to be an observation of people's viewing Aboriginal art located at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. However, at this time, Aboriginal art is no longer shown to the public there. Therefore, the study turns to be small interviews in the issue of Aboriginal art with people who work for and walk in the business galleries. Then, the limitation is that this study cannot cope with all kinds of Aboriginal art. It is just on "modern" art on canvas. However, it aims to answer the questions for semiotically understanding signs, symbols and meanings in Aboriginal art by its audiences. Why are people interested in opening Aboriginal art galleries or watching it? How do they learn about the art for selling or knowing more about it? Then, the small interviews are interpreted by using a theoretical approach in semiotic analysis, known as "ethnography", to understand the meanings in the medium, particularly Aboriginal art, by looking at individuals and how they interact with medium in localised and specific ways. (Bignell: 1997)

The first interviewee is a Japanese woman who works for the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings located on 73-75 Bourke Street, Melbourne. She says when she first saw Aboriginal art, it was art that she had not seen before. Actually, she adds that she did not know what dots, lines and colours meant but she was very interested to know about that. Then, she tried to find the information by reading many books. Now, she has much knowledge in Aboriginal art. She argues that:

"Each piece of art has its own story. The artist tells his or her story through the art. Aborigines do not speak English. They do not know how to write. They have not got books. In the past, they sat and told their stories by sand painting on the ground. Or they painted their body, so other people could recognise who they were. These are the classical Aboriginal art. Then, in 1971, brush and colour were introduced to them. So colour does not mean anything." (6th May 1999)

According to Isaacs (1992), "traditional" painting underwent great changes in 1971 because of the emergence of the Central Desert acrylic painting. The use of new media, canvas, acrylic paints and sometimes artists' boards had a significant effect on public perceptions of the "modernity" of Aboriginal art. Although time and medium change, the paintings still offer the unity of Aboriginal people, semiotically, the defiant continuity of their cultural traditions and their own identity of symbols, signs and meanings.

However, according to the interviewee, Aboriginal art cannot be totally understood by other people, especially non-Aboriginal people. She is not told by the artist about the meaning which is communicated through the painting because, she believes, Aboriginal artists will never tell the story to non-Aborigines. Thus, she has learnt to understand the art by herself. Now, she knows that dot and line are just the way of painting which comes from the traditional painting by sand on the ground. They do not in themselves mean anything. The important meanings are communicated through shapes and symbols. A circle means a waterhole. A U-shape is painted as the sign, meaning human. Other shapes may be brushed to identify the artist of the art. However, this is different from what Isaacs (1992b) argued that the practice of dot painting is like a bush. The sand painting, which used not only sand, but also pulverised plant and animal material mixed with coloured ochres, in the ceremony was constructed by hand, dot by dot. When the modern artist began to use acrylic paint on canvas and board with brush, the art widely imitated this process. Thus, "dot" may communicate the same meaning but a different generation from sand painting to the next acrylic painting.

She also points out that Aborigines do not live just in the centre desert of Australia. There are many areas of their living. They speak different languages, so artists in different areas may use different symbols, shapes, and signs to communicate their own stories through the art. She, finally, notices that "most of my customers are overseas. Many American brought the art. Some of them are Japanese and European." Buyers are from other cultures. Do they understand Aboriginal art? What do they think of the meaning of that piece of art they buy? Why do they like and buy it?

Then, the interviews with people who go inside and have a look at the art are managed in front of the Original & Authentic Aboriginal Art Gallery at 90 Bourke Street, Melbourne. The first two interviewees, Lennart and Birgit Eriksson are a couple from Sweden who spend about five minutes in the gallery. They just walk around and do not look carefully through the detail of each piece of art. There is no discussion between them. The wife works in the field of art, so she is very interested in Aboriginal art. They say the art is strange because of the symbols and signs but attractive. They do not know the meaning what the artist would like to communicate because they do not have very much background information about Aboriginal art.

Next, a middle-age Malaysian woman walks out of the gallery. She has lived in Australia for more than thirty years and owns four pieces of Aboriginal art. This time, she comes to collect another one. She says she just love the art but has no explanation. She does not read, learn and know much about Aboriginal art and its meaning. However, she feels it as an interesting art.

An Australian woman and her son's girl friend are also interested in Aboriginal art. The mother has some knowledge about it. She briefly explains about symbols and signs which are used in the painting and their meanings. Her words are correct according to the Japanese and the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings' leaflet that circle means waterhole; the sign like an arrow means footprint; and the U-shape symbol means a person (Refer to Appendix B). In addition, the younger woman is actually English and has just had the first time in Australia and did not see Aboriginal art before. She says the colour is very impressive.

The last two interviewees are a non-full-blood Aboriginal couple from Gippsland's in Gunnjidmarra Tribe (called "Lionel Rose People" by white Australians). They are in the gallery for about fifteen minutes, carefully looking at many pieces of art. Actually, both of them are also artists. They see what other artists painted. They say they understand all of the sings, symbols and meanings because they use the same symbols, signs and shapes for the same meanings even though there are some differences of art from different tribes. They know the whole story of art by their culture and spirits. That is in their blood from generation to generation. The spirit is what each Aboriginal artist uses for painting his/her art. The meaning is from inside that is also semiotically communicated in other kinds of Aboriginal art, dancing and music. Thus, there is no doubt why people from other cultures, White, Asian, and other Black, do not understand the whole meaning and story of Aboriginal art.

Therefore, this relates to the Finnegan's chapter of 'Storying the Self' (1997). Finnegan pointed out that story-telling is a perspective on the study of culture and of identity. He argued that the story is recognized as identity which means that it shapes and is interpreted as human culture. That means self-story telling is a medium of individuals at every level for creating their own identities and, by extension, the culture in which they are involved. Thus, Aboriginal culture can be learnt through an Aboriginal artist which is a story teller.

Finally, the study relocates to the Aboriginal Art Galleries of Australia at 31 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Kirsty McHarg, a consultant of the gallery, says that she has been interested in Aboriginal art and she has learnt about it for many years but it is difficult to explain what was the starting point of her interest in Aboriginal art. She says although she knows the common meanings of signs, symbols and shapes, it is not clear in her mind about the whole idea that the Aboriginal artist communicates through the painting. However, she knows the background of each piece of art by the record of the gallery when the art is brought from the Central Australia Desert. Then, she can understand them more when she would like to know the meaning after having the first impression of a piece of art.

This discussion of interpreting signs, symbols, and meanings of Aboriginal art by its viewers fit into the two approaches of both Peirce and Saussure, called "semiotics" or "semiology". The two ideas are close together, however different, that are the studies of the relationship between the signified symbol which is represented by and the signifying unit by through a restrictive function-relation. In other words, semiotics is established as a science which seeks to represent that the definition cannot be totally represented, called the unconsciousness. In addition, the social practice, economy, mores, 'art', which is realised as a signifying system, structured like language, can be argued in semiotics or semiology approach. (Moi: 1987)

To sum up, not only is Aboriginal art a story-telling of Aboriginal culture by an individual artist, but also a communication of meanings through signs, symbols, shapes and colours. Furthermore, a quote from Maryanne Hollow, the director of Aboriginal Art Galleries of Australia can be a good conclusion of the semiotic study on Aboriginal art. She believed:

"Aboriginal art can, on first acquaintance, be quite overwhelming as it deals with both visual and cultural aspect. A great deal of time and understanding is required to fully appreciate the technical diversity and brilliance of the art before the traditional meanings can be interpreted. We are immediately attracted and stimulated by the visual aspect, the design, colour, technique and overall appearance of the art… The tradition aspect, the Dreamtime Story, is then told through an intricate system of design, the iconography… For Aboriginal people art is a visual expression of what they believe in: the presentation of their history, culture and Dreamtime."

Colour, design, shape, technic and overall appearance of Aboriginal art are the signifier of what viewers see. On the other hand, Aboriginal culture and story are the meaning as the signified system which is communicated through the medium. However, many pieces of Aboriginal art are named by the term "dream" as Aboriginal art is also the "dream" of people who have a different culture to interpret its meaning.


Bignell, J. 1997. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester University Press. Manchester.

Finnegan, R. 1997. "Storying the Self: Personal Narratives and Identity". In Mackay, H. ed. Consumption and Everyday Life. Sage Publications, London.

Hollow, M. 1999. "Dot Art: A Natural Abstraction". In Brochure: Australian Aboriginal Art.

Isaacs, J. 1992. Aboriginality: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings & Prints. University of Queensland Press. Queensland.

Isaacs, J. 1992(b). Australian Aboriginal Paintings. Weldon Publishing. Sydney.

Moi, T. ed. 1987. The Kristeva Reader. Chapter 4, "Semiotics: A Critical Science and/or a Critique of Science". Basil Blackwell. Oxford.

Tallack, M. 1996. "Aboriginal Art". In Dawtrey, L., Jackson, T. Masterton, M., and Meecham, P. Critical Studies and Modern Art. Open University. Milton Keynes.

Go Back