Aboriginals - The Body As Living Art

All people express themselves in their personal appearances; in how they groom and dress their hair, in their clothes and in their movements. By body decoration, people declare many things about themselves, including membership of a group or religion, social status and age. Individual dress and body adornment also enable society to structure and control the behaviour of its members. For example, in Western society when physical exercise and outdoor activity for women were discouraged, tight corsets and voluminous, long skirts were worn.

In the immense changes that have followed the Industrial Revolution, clothing has evolved like the societies from which it came, each change reflecting the values and mores of that society but providing the individual with a great deal of choice and scope for personal expression. Like other indigenous tribal races, the Aboriginals had their own language of dress and body decoration. However, as their society is rooted in a history that spans over 40,000 years on this continent, and as the social changes that occurred were comparatively minor when contrasted with those of the post-industrial world, the codes of traditional body decoration and painting that have survived today are directly related to centuries-old traditions.

Individuals are not free to change social position by altering their appearance at will, but conform to the ancient and respected patterns of body decoration and adornment that mark their membership of a particular clan, their right to own and paint certain inherited designs, and that show their level of knowledge of traditional ceremony and culture.

In traditional communities throughout Australia the arts of personal adornment and body painting are inextricably linked to dances and songs. All forms of art, whether graphic, plastic or performing arts, have primarily social and religious functions. This does not mean that individual skills and accomplishments, as well as the beauty of the finished forms, are not recognised and appreciated by the community, but the function of the art is all-important. Body designs are integral to the dances performed on occasions such as the initiation of young boys, the successive stages of attainment of religious knowledge and funeral ceremonies. In a society where the addition of elaborate clothing never assumed a functional importance, the body itself was the raw material for artistic expression. The Aboriginal art of body decoration included scarring, face and body paitning for ritual, the wearing of items of clothing and ornaments and the transformation of the body using added texture and headdresses to form living images of ancestral beings.



Scars were made on the body for many reasons, including aesthetic. To the outside eye, the ritual scarification practices of indigenous peoples have seemed extreme and unnecessary, largely because of the attitude that pain and mutilation are unacceptable. yet, viewed dispassionately, many patterns and effects achieved are striking. Among both men and women, bearing pain is part of raising status and moving from one group to another. Boys feel pain when their teeth are knocked out at the first stage of initiation, when they pass from being children to pre-circumcision young adolescents. Pain is also extreme during the more testing manhood ceremonies involving circumcision, and in some cases subincision. It is therefore not surprising that pain was easily tolerated in the secular scarification rituals that resulted in skin patterns on chest, back, arms and legs throughout Australia. In fact, pain was a small factor - the preoccupations of the surgeon artists and the subjects were correct lines, placements, technique and the finished result of a series of properly raised and pigmented welts that enhanced the appearance and status of the wearer, signified manhood and would attract women - or conversely enhanced a woman and attracted men. The technique employed varied across Australia, but it invariably involved rubbing foreign and often irritating substances into the cuts to prolong healing and to retard the joining of the skin so that prominent keloid scars resulted.

Aboriginal (Tiwi man) face painting


Walter Roth, a late-nineteenth-century ethnographer, made special studies of the Queensland Aboriginal customs of the time and gave an interesting account of scars being given to a young boy of the Tully River tribes at his initiation. These scars, called moingga, were made just before sunset. The boy was prepared by his mother, who fed him an excessive quantity of baru nuts and water until he was bloated, his stomach, distended and the skin therefore taut. The boy lay with his head in a relative's lap while the lines were marked out with charcoal. The operation was quick and adept; several straight fine cuts were made with a sharp stone flake and the words, 'Ku! Ku! Ku!' were called out. After the boy had bled, yellow ochre clay was rubbed over the belly and into the cuts. These scars were necessary before a man married and, according to Roth, much ridicule ensured if they did not heal prominently enough; this meant that he had already found a girlfriend.

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Throughout Australia photographic records and written descriptions show that patterning the skin with permanent scars was common. Today scarification is rarely seen on young people, whereas on grown men and women scars remain as evidence of ceremonial status, childhood experiences and strenuous training. Among the women of north-east Arnhem land, one scar pattern resembled a string of beads, each one raised like a shell necklace. Some had cicatrices across their hips., on shoulders, or on the midriff. Newly made cuts were filled with clay in order to make the scars as prominent as possible. Frequently young men in particular cut and scarred themselves. The raised cords or shiny ridges stand out and gleam in the sun and are still sources of vanity to their owners.

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Tiwi man in full face and body decoration, including a
false feather beard attached to a woven pandanus band.

Only in some places, such as Queensland in the Roth example given, were the scars overtly associated with initiation rituals. In most areas they were for decoration, a way to enhance the human body, decorate the more mundane and signify individual differences. Roth comments that the decorative scars are often similar in men and women. On the Pennefather River the most common patterns are vertical and horizontal lines on shoulder muscles and on the upper chest. Patterns enhance and draw attention to muscular build and to chest and arm strength. Perhaps such embellishments stress the role of the man as hunter and provider, needing strength for spear throwing, fighting, rowing and carrying meat. Certainly most Aboriginal women have commented that one of a man's most attractive assets is 'strong arms' and even the song poetry occasionally praises them.

Carving of a bird from Arnhem Land

Of the Tasmanians, Captain cook wrote, 'They wore no ornaments, unless we consider as such some large punctures or ridges raised on different parts of their bodies, some in straight, others in curved lines ... the women had their bodies marked with scars in the same manner. La Billardiere described a group of Aboriginals as having raised points on their skin much like horseshoes. Other observers, also using comparisons from their own frames of reference, frequently describe the ridges as 'like epaulets'. Walker, an early Tasmanian settler, revealed a little of the incredulous distaste of the nineteenth-century European when he discussed an incident he observed.

When the males arrive at the age of puberty, they are deeply scarified on the thighs, shoulders and muscles of the breast with a sharp flint or glass. When I witnessed the operation, a female was the operator, and such, I believe, is always the case. The subject was a young man named Penderoine, brother to the celebrated western chief Weymerricke; the instrument was a broken bottle, and, although the fat of his shoulder literally rose and turned back like a crimped fish, he was, during the whole operation, in the highest glee, laughing and continually interrupting by picking up chips to fling at our party, in play. These scarifications are intended as ornaments.


Throughout the Australian continent, the central elements in the arts of the Aboriginal people have always been ceremony and dance. All people decorate the body in such a way that it assumes a quality and character far removed from its owner's everyday appearance. during ceremonies, all participants paint or smear their bodies with coloured pigments or white clay or build elaborate designs and constructions over the whole body frame. The number and variety of designs are extraordinarily large. Designs often differ a few kilometres apart, and even within each group, according to occasion or ceremony. The identity of the person is often obliterated, to be replaced by a representation of his ancestral totem, frequently an animal. In Arnhem Land, complete obliteration of the features is rare, although the torso may be covered with complex painted designs that also occur in bark paintings and on other media. The effect of painted dancers performing is dramatic when accompanied by singing, percussion, and, in some places, the haunting, deep drone of the didjeridu. When a fire provides an indirect source of light at night, a performance becomes riveting.

Tiwi men in full body design for the funeral of an important man.

The method of applying coloured earth to the body varies depending on purpose. In most areas, before hunting, The men roughly smeared their bodies with ochre. In southern areas, white settlers' journals often mention the practice of smearing the whole body with earth, coloured charcoal and animal fat, ostensibly to camouflage smell, but probably also to maintain body temperature. In tropical areas, coating the skin with earth and fat kept sand-flies and mosquitoes at a distance. Much has been said about the decorative and ritual functions of body painting. However, paint on the body has other uses less concerned with painted designs. Paint, specifically ochre, is applied to the body as a coating for protection in fighting. The Aranda covered their bodies with ochre if a fight was planned; it was not, as in other societies, 'war paint' or a signal of aggression, but rather a coating that created a protective aura for the warrior.

Bark painting of an emu and a snake from Arnhem Land

The belief that ochre has magical powers is widespread throughout Australia. Cape York people hold clay in special regard, keeping it in secluded storage for ceremonial use because o this power. Similarly in New south Wales, an early myth tells of the time when man's existence was threatened by giant marsupials. One old man used the strongest magic he could, and painting his body with white clay, successfully summoned the great spirit to the aid of mankind. Throughout the centre, red ochre took the place of white in terms of power and deep significance because of its symbolic relationship with blood in secret ceremonies. The association of painting his body with white clay, successfully summoned the great spirit to the aid of mankind. Throughout the centre, red ochre took the place of white in terms of power and deep significance because of its symbolic relationship with blood in secret ceremonies. The association of painting with the power of sorcery is prevalent in the north even today. In a desperate outburst, one Arnhem Land man, frustrated by ten years of attempting to erect a community for his family on his tribal lands and having negotiated through what he believed was every possible government channel in the land, was finally faced with being outmanoeuvred by one of the people of his own community who had different plans. He mumbled that there was only one thing he could still do: 'I'll just have to paint myself'.

Tiwi ceremonial body design

An artist using these same ochres and clays for painting designs necessarily comes into contact with their magical properties. In general, the power is not fully released without the dance and ritual songs being performed as well as the design being exposed. In some cases, however, the sight of the design itself in ochre or in other materials such as blood or down may be enough to cause the viewer to fall ill or even to die. Both men and women paint themselves to attract lovers. Women paint themselves for ritual and sexual reasons; these paintings are designed to make them appear fatter and their breasts larger. Walbiri men also paint themselves to attract lovers. Designs in this context greatly differ from those in ritual. They generally depict through symbols men and women having intercourse, or representations of sexual organs. When viewed by women, the men maintain they make the women sick in the stomach, or 'sick with desire'. These male designs are usually done by younger men, the longing for lovers by old men being held in some ridicule by the community at large.

Colours come from a range of earth-based pigments. These give the artists a full range of tones, from white through beige and brown to yellow, rust red and black. No blues, greens or brilliant primary colours are used as paint, although, with the addition of seeds, feathers and leaves a wider choice of patterns and colours is possible. Intensity and strength of colour are very important to the artists, whether for body painting or for painting on bark. Ancient trade routes cross-cross the country, following lines of exchange from one tribal group to another, as the richest and brightest red is traded from the south to the north and the brightest yellow is traded from eastern Arnhem Land across to the west. In the centre deep red ochre is considered sacred and the full initiation ceremonies are publicly referred to only as 'red ochre ceremonies'. In western Arnhem Land, a fine white paint is found in an eroded cave. This pigment, in common with most concentrated sources of colour in the earth, has a mythological origin.

During the nineteenth century, exploration was very fashionable. Pushing back the frontiers in remote lands and discovering 'primitive' untouched peoples was the goal of ethnographers the world over. Art collections were formed for English and European museums and lengthy and laborious descriptions were made of the customs of the peoples encountered. Australia was fertile ground indeed; its people wee classified, studied and pronounced examples of 'stone age man'. The detrimental effect this had on the future of Aboriginal people was profound; successive governments sought to protect these 'childlike remnants of pre-industrial society'. However, if the observers had been able to step outside the ethnocentrism of their time and accept the religion and philosophy of these people, perhaps a different story would have been told.

Aboriginal group with body art

In 1889 Carl Lumholtz published a description of his journeys through Australia, titillating the imagination of his readers with the title Among Cannibals. Into his observations he injected the emotions and responses of his own culture and era. He described a ceremony in which the dancers shone by the firelight painted with red, yellow and white designs. Their hair was adorned with cockatoo crest feathers and some had shells glued to their beards. The women had bands of red and black painted on their faces, although the central dancers wore no ornaments. Lumholtz praised the male dancers who 'were the heroes of the day'. The lone 'middle-aged' woman dancer, to him, was merely an object of distaste, as she danced bare-breasted. 'The sight of this woman jumping up and down in the same place with her large breasts dangling was truly disgusting.' this comment causes us to reflect how little nineteenth-century observers understood about Aboriginal women's matters. Although to them naked, dancing 'primitive' males appeared splendid even in middle age, the women soon after bearing children ceased to be beautiful objects of naive and natural charm (and by extension lust), but became old, withered and unkempt, their ceremonial life being regarded as having nowhere near the relevance and importance of men's. It has taken one hundred years for this view to be challenged and refuted, as the women of traditional societies in remote parts of Australia begin to tell their story today.

In the south-east, we have only white men's accounts of many Aboriginal ceremonies. James Dawson wrote a broad account of the Aboriginals of Victoria, published in 1881. He described a corroboree in which the chiefs 'were painted with red in bands above and below the eyes and over the cheeks. They wore possum skin headbands, feather headdresses and kangaroo teeth ornaments. The wives of chiefs also wore red paint in stripes across their cheeks. In contrast, the performers in the ritual wore white paint, a fire was lit from dry bark, branches and leaves, and the boys and men painted their bodies, arms and legs with a clear white pattern resembling a human skeleton. Leaves were tied around the ankles in bunches to add to the decoration and to create a rustling sound during the stamping dance.' His description of the ensuing dance could refer to any camp dance in traditional Aboriginal communities today. 'Some of the men stand beside the fire, beating time with the music sticks. After the music has begun, one of the dancers emerges from the darkness into the open ground, so as just to be seen, and, with a stamp, sets himself with arms extended, and legs wide apart and quivering, his feet shuffling in time to the music, and the twigs round his ankles rustling at each movement. He remains thus for a few seconds, and, turning round suddenly, disappears in the darkness with a rustling sound.' Dowson describes other dancers who take the place of the first, appearing and disappearing together in a line, quivering and rustling the leaves bound to their legs. They advance nearer and nearer to the fire in formation until the final song verse, a loud exclamation, and the dance is over. The bright firelight shining on the painted bodies of the dancers made a striking impression on the audience then, and it still does.

There are accounts of the Tasmanian people appearing blackened with soot or charcoal. One man in a group might have been smeared with red ochre stuck to the body with tar. The purpose of this colouring of the skin might well have been related to the environment; the additional layer of fat would have insulated the body and helped the people to survive Tasmania's cold. It was also obviously a cosmetic, according to this description by the French explorer Peron. 'Oure-Oure showed us for the first time the kind of paint in these regions, and the manner of its application. Having taken some charcoal in her hands, she reduced it to very fine powder; then putting it in her left hand, she took some in her right, rubbed first of all her forehead, and then both her cheeks, and in a moment made herself black enough to frighten one; what seemed to us most singular was the complacency with which this young girl appeared to regard us after this operation, and the confident air which this new ornament had spread over hr physiognomy.

Several painting style were practised throughout north-west Queensland. On the Pennefather River the men painted charcoal on their foreheads; a white band from either eyebrow down the front of the ear continued along the shoulders and arms. White and red bands were painted across the chest and the rest of the body was covered in red. The back was textured with a design of fine vertical lines in ochre, formed by scraping through the paint to the skin with the back of a shell. At Cape Bedford, red, white and yellow were used in horizontal lines on the torso and vertical lines on the buttocks and legs. Along the Bloomfield River women had face designs only, and along the Yully River no patterns appeared, as an overall general smearing with pigment was preferred. In Rockhampton, red ochre was smeared in vertical streaks down trunk and limbs.


In the desert regions, the Dreaming or creation era is known by different names according to language. All the animals and living creatures are interconnected with mankind, and each group of people has its own 'Dreaming tracks' associated with the movements and actions of related animals in creation times. These tracks circumscribe land ownership and the special sacred sites must be maintained through ceremonies, including dance, song and sometimes ground paintings. Ritual life has lost little of its intensity and during ceremonies a dramatic change takes place. Dancers completely transform their bodies with paint, down and feathers, often obliterating natural features, and taking on both the natural form and the symbolic decoration of the part danced, whether goanna, wallaby, marsupial rat or another creature. The body decorations are spectacular; they are not paintings but ceremonial designs constructed ton and with the body.

Judging by accounts left by ethnographers over eighty years ago, it is remarkable how traditional body decoration techniques have been retained in central Australia. Although ceremonies are fewer and therefore occasions for adornment less common, specific designs for each dance and totem are alive and well remembered.

In 1904, Spencer and Gillen described the decorations worn by men and women of the Arunta tribe for corroborees or ceremonies that they judged to be for public viewing by the whole community rather than solely restricted to men or women. Each performer wore a headdress that was usually conical in form, bound with string and topped with feathers. The headdresses were made over a frame of twigs with their bushy ends on the head and the stems pointing upwards and backwards. The string was coated with ochre and had a simple design applied in white down. The design on the headdress was integrated with the designs on the face and body and the body itself was decorated with bands and circles of 'down' made from a species of Portulaca; birds' down replaced plant down in sacred ceremonies. Bunches of leaves were also tied around the legs just above the ankle.

The technique of applying the down described by Spencer and Gillen is identical today. First, the body is painted in ochre and the design is worked in plant material. The flowers or hairs of the Portulaca and other plants used (or bird down) are a dirty grey when gathered. They are pounded in a grinding stone, sometimes with white pipeclay or red ochre. The down is held in place by human blood, the design being built up of numerous little pellets or dots. When decorating each other, the men have the left hand filled with compressed sown, out of which they take little pellet-shaped masses one after the other until gradually, after hours of labour, the whole of the upper part of the body may be completely covered over with bands and masses of variously coloured won. Bird or plant down is seldom used by men or women for public ceremonies. Throughout central and northern Australia it is almost exclusively associated with the sacred ceremonial life of the people.

The women had their own distinct designs. They wore no headdresses in the sense of supported built-up structures, but wore headbands and fur tassels. Each woman had a double row of plant down running across the forehead, over the nose and around the eyes so that it looked as though she was wearing a mask. The designs consisted of linear patterns on stomach and thighs. The altered lifestyles in central Australia have brought about some cultural change, although if one glances at patterns used for ceremonial dance today the only noticeable change is the physique of the people. Early this century, when all peoples walked great distances and the diet consisted of natural food, hunted and harvested, bodies were slim and lean. Today, many men and women are large; damper, billy tea and a sedentary life have had major effects on weight and health. However, larger bodies have provided bigger 'canvases' for the artists' traditional designs, particularly in the case of the women, whose full breasts are adorned with painted designs.

The intense maintenance of sacred law in central Australia includes as a prerequisite keeping advanced knowledge of ceremonial procedure and performance in the minds of the senior men alone. Information is passed on by participation in rituals from stage to stage, always in a combination of verbal and visual forms. Song poetry transfers verbal information  language names and events of the Dreaming creation era, and this information is also codified into visual symbols. These symbols are many, and separate groups are used for different purposes. In order for the designs to achieve their effect, i.e., to accurately call forth certain ancestor beings, assist in procreation, fire dreaming, water dreaming, or other purposes, they must be created in the right context that always links body decoration with dance, song poetry and sometimes making large patterns on the earth.

Among the Walbiri, special women's designs are called yawalyu. Although the patterns may refer to an ancestor common to both men and women, the designs themselves are given to individual women in dreams. All the family members who share one camp and sleep together are thought to share the same dream. Although the woman who dreams the new design owns it, she shares it with her husband's other wives and additional women in the family (such as brother's wives and husband's sisters) and she is also expected to share the knowledge with her husband. Yawalyu designs may be seen by older married men and by young children. Although often denigrated somewhat by the men as being not very  'important', not 'big business', the women's designs in central Australia form a parallel stream of art, with specifically female preoccupations in terms of function and purpose. As with the men, only the shoulders, breasts, upper arms and thighs are painted. Headbands, sometimes made of seed, may be worn, as well as other body decorations. The women carry boards in dances, but the body is the main means of visual communication. Generally sisters-in-law are expected to paint each other, although this varies according to expediency and often no strict kinship rules are applied. Although the designs may represent food and other aspects of the women's role in traditional society, they are by extension associated with the renewal of life, the continuation of the species and in particular an increase in female sexuality. Designs emphasise the breasts, making them visually large and swelling them as though they are producing milk. The purpose of some ceremonies and designs and dances is to bring men, either lovers or husbands, into the aura of the women, to make the women attractive and to increase sexual desire. The paintings encourage conception during intercourse as well, and often young girls' breasts are painted when they are first married ('to make the milk come').

During Pitjantjatjara women's ceremonies, rhythmic dances are performed on a ground away from the main camp. At one ceremony held at Mimili in the early 1970s, the women alone gathered, together with some children. They danced singly or in small groups with one acting the central role. The paintings were similar to those of the northern desert women. A digging stick was used by the main dancer, who enjoyed herself and greatly amused the gathering by making sexual gestures with it. Women's gatherings such as this are generally connected with a great sense of fun, although the content may concern ancestral characters. Women also conduct ceremonies as an adjunct to men's initiation rituals. These trace the travels of female ancestors who figure in the mythology of the surrounding land.


In Arnhem Land, Aboriginal ceremony is important to every individual. The decades of mission and government intervention in the people's lives have wrought immense changes, but the basic religious orientation of the people, their beliefs about the origins of life and the land and the behaviour and obligations of each member of society necessary to maintain harmony in the universe have remained so strong that there is always some ceremonial activity. Clans may be meeting to discuss ceremonial gatherings, performing a ceremony to increase procreation, a burial or an initiation, or one old man may just working quietly making some feathered string for a morning star ceremony. even when an artist is painting a small work for sale, the designs he or she is painting are related to ceremonies and stories from the Dreaming. Ceremonial life is the foundation of the whole of Aboriginal society and the designs used to decorate the bodies of ceremonial participants are always part of the performer's inheritance, an aspect of his joint ownership of ritual knowledge and, by extension, of land. These he shares with other people, although specific individuals may lay claim to the right to paint certain designs from their fathers or through other kinship connections. Body decorations in the northern coastal areas are usually chest and limb paintings, head and arm bands, with down being applied only in some areas for special ceremonies. The occasions on which down is used are frequently connected with ceremonial cycles from further south. A man or woman will be painted and will paint others many times for dancing in ceremonies and bunguls. Bunguls are general camp corroborees; they may consist of dances depicting the mokoy or spirits of the dead, or stories about animals, birds or other living creatures. Some are re-enacted recent events. Humorous dances have their place as well as hunting stories, and new dances are continuously introduced. The new dances are 'dreamed' by the men or the women, and in the dream the songs, dances, story and paintings necessary for the performance are transmitted for their use by the ancestors.

Body paint for these bunguls is quickly applied. The effect required is a roughly ochred body, usually white, so clay is patted or slapped on with the hands. Some broad linear patterns may also be painted on the face and chest with a brush. Only rarely will a full and elaborately painted performer appear in a secular public performance, as the intricate clan designs are reserved for use on more serious occasions. A mokoy dance is performed mainly to give children gathered around the fire a healthy respect for the dangers of the spirits of the dead that roam around at night and that have been known to take children away. The mokoy actor paints his body all over with white clay, leaving only his eyes bare of pigment. The white paint catches the light of the fire and the unpainted areas disappear into the blackness. What appears a living skeleton then performs a dance in which the rigid and jerky steps imitate a skeleton's movements. These dances and the emphasis on mokoy help ensure that wandering children return to the camp at night.  

The participants vary their designs slightly for other public dances, so that something of the subjects they embody may be apparent to the audience. Leaves may be bound to arms and legs to give a rustling effect or the chest may be simply painted in rough approximations of linear patterns or sections of clan designs used for other occasions. Now that corroborees are called for whenever an official ceremony is taking place, dancers, singers, and the owners of the 'dreamings' concerned have had to address themselves to creating a repertoire of dances, songs and associated body decorations that can be performed at non-traditional public functions. In their own tribal areas, this need may arise in conjunction with the arrival or departure of an important missionary or administrator or at a ceremony celebrating the erection of a school, museum or public building.

Aboriginal dance performances are held in Australian capital cities alongside those by other national dance companies, and several groups have travelled extensively throughout Europe and America performing their public dances. On all these occasions, the details and concern over the body painting are determined firstly by the importance of the occasion as perceived by the performers and secondly by the time allowed for preparation. Performers take elaborate care over designs in a setting they feel is sympathetic, one in which the audience is thought to take notice of such details. Every few years a major gathering is held to celebrate a festival of traditional arts throughout the Pacific region. On an occasion such as this, when groups from other traditional societies are taking great care to impress each other with the designs, dances and songs of their own culture, Aboriginal artists excel. Similarly, if visiting Aboriginal groups come to stay and perform in a northern Australian Aboriginal community, designs and dances are executed with the utmost care and interest. Like most artists, Aboriginals make greater efforts in producing at work for a knowledgeable audience. The resulting paintings and dance are outstanding if that audience contains artists who have similar skills and interests.

In the realm of ceremony, much more elaborate decorations are made, for much more is at stake than mere display. during ceremonies, the painting of the clan designs is a means of entering the Dreaming, of bringing forth the power believed to emanate from the ancestors. Through this power, the ancestors made changes in the landscape; in some cases they created the very features of the clan land. Each young boy is first painted with his own inherited clan design at his circumcision, when he is about eight years old. From time to time throughout his life he will see variations of this design painted on his brothers and cousins, nephews and other relatives. He will paint it himself with increasing symbolic content as he grows to full ritual maturity and learns more of the 'story' of which his initiation painting as one of the symbols.

To give one example, a young Riratjingu boy of north-eastern Arnhem Land may have his chest and face painted at initiation with a maze of white, yellow and red cross-hatching around the central black motif of a goanna. This is the simplest rendition of the designs and symbolic paintings associated with the great Djankawu, ancestors of the Riratjingu. The Djankawu sailed across the sea and landed at Yelangbara, a beach on the north-eastern tip of the Northern Territory. They were the first ancestral people to come to Australia, and song cycles tell of how they travelled across the sand dunes, created waterholes, trees and rocks and produced many children. One of the first animals they saw was djunda the goanna, running over a sandhill. Hence the initiation design on a boy whose tribal land is Yelangbara is a composite of cross-hatched symbols of Yelangbara's natural features, such as sand and water, together with the image of djunada. As the young man learns more about the details of the Djankawu's travels, he gains further knowledge of the designs. They are transmitted not only in body paintings but, more commonly, through bark paintings. The paintings are usually done for sale, though they are also of immense educational benefit to the artist and his family. The last occasion on which the clan designs are painted on a person's body is at his or her funeral. The painting may be on the body or on the lid of the coffin. The design's complexity depends on the deceased person's level of ceremonial importance. The funeral paintings reach their most important level and convey most information when the person is an elder statesman with deep ritual knowledge and great responsibility. The paintings are done by one or several men in a shelter away from the rest of the community, guarded by others to keep children from bothering them or interfering with the execution of the design. Usually outsiders are forbidden access and photographs are not permitted except as the clan's own records.

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