Aboriginals - The Body As Living Art - Part 2


Off the coast of Darwin lie Bathurst and Melville Islands, home of the Tiwi. The facial and body painting of the people here have been described as the most colourful and elaborate of any Australian group. Face decoration in particular is unique to every individual, permitting the full exercise of the artist's imagination. A deep red ochre is obtained from the oval polished red stones found on the beach, which are ground then mixed with water; yellow is obtained from a soft yellow ochre stone, also ground to a powder. (The Tiwi sometimes burn the yellow to produce red.) white is generally taken from a clay found all over the island, and black is obtained from charcoal. The wonderful variety and impact of the Tiwi body paintings have led many researchers to investigate their meanings and associated rituals. The decorations essentially relate to the two Tiwi occasions for major ceremonies, the pukumani (mortuary or burial cycles) and the kulama ceremonies (initiation ceremonies associated with the harvesting of yams during the wet season). Pulumani ceremonies have their origin in the world of Tiwi religion and mythology and the first pukumani ceremony was created by Purukapali, a legendary figure of the creation time.


Tiwi stories tell of the first death, that of Purukapali's son, and the ceremony he created as a result. Purukapali lived with his wife Bima and their much-loved son at Impanali in south-eastern Melville Island. Bima and the child went out each day to gather food in the bush, returning in the evening to cook it. Tapara the moon man was attracted to Bima and sought an opportunity to be alone with her. When she was out food gathering, he persuaded her to leave her young child asleep in the shade and to sneak off with him. They stayed away too long and the sun changed position; the baby was left in the hot sun. When Bima returned, the baby was dead and she was filled with grief and remorse. Purukapali, the father, was furious. He hit his wife on the head with a throwing stick and hunted her away into the forest where she became a curlew that still flies around calling and wailing for her dead child. Purukapali decreed that because his son had died, all creatures must, so death came into the world. Tapara remonstrated with Purukapali, saying he could make the child live again, but Purukapali only grew angrier. In a furious fight with Tapara, he slashed his face with his forked throwing stick. Purukapali instructed the people to create a ceremony, making grave posts, dancing and painting their bodies.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

The people painted their faces for hours before the dance began and put on ornaments. They put dots on their faces, wore hair belts, white cockatoo feather headdresses, false beards, dingo hair crescents, goose feather halls and cane and fibre armlets. Purukapali himself died, too. He took the body of his son into his arms and walked into the sea until the waters closed over his head. where he died there is now a whirlpool. Tapara the moon rose into the sky, where the battle scars of his fight can be seen as shadows across his face. There is great personal pride in a beautiful painted face, and this is increased if the painting causes an awed reaction in the onlooker. One of the purposes of painting the face, as well as giving occasion for the Tiwi love of decoration and body adornment, is to disguise the wearer so that he or she will not be recognised by the mopaditi, these are the spirits of the dead, and they take particular pleasure of tormenting their near relatives.

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The pukumani face and body designs are usually more detailed than those of the kulama. Some of the designs' meanings were recorded by Charles Mountford over thirty-five years. As these interpretations are not mentioned by contemporary Tiwi, Mountford's work provides the only clue to the link of myth, dance and design in this area of Australia. The (tuduwala), a design emphasising the eyes, with the use of radiating lines in order to make the face appear fierce, the fish design with facial markings imitating the fish mungumini, a thunderstorm design represented by cross-hatching and a salmon design said to be that of the salmon, Kumininu, who fought with the shark man at the first ceremony.

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The ceremony involving the small yams known as kulama is the main Tiwi ritual that ensures the plentiful supply of food. when reported earlier this century, the kulama ceremonial cycle was a series of initiation ceremonies for mature men over thirty and included aspects no longer practised. Today the ceremonies celebrate the harvesting of the ripe yams and stretch throughout the latter part of the wet season. The first kulama was performed by Purutjikini, the boobook owl, and his actions are repeated in similar form by the Tiwi from January to July. At the beginning of the cycle, groups of men go into the bush to dig the round, hairy yams. They take great care to extract them from the earth without damaging the fine root hairs, because if a yam is broken it is said to release sickness into the air, causing those nearby to fall ill. This sickness, termed taini, can also escape when the yams are cooking. Painting up, dancing and singing accompany the various stages of the kulama ceremony. The yams are soaked to remove poisons, cooked in the ashes of a fire covered with paper bark, and cut up and distributed for eating later. Everyday situations are sung about in a communal atmosphere during the early parts of this process, then during the cooking dancers re-enact the first kulama in dances of birds, the crocodile, the turtle, buffalo and shark. The final scenes occur after the yams are cooked and placed in a basket. Initiates are ornamented with neck rings and armbands. Senior men in the kulama in dances of birds, the crocodile, the turtle, buffalo and shark. The final scenes occur after the yams are cooked and placed in a basket. Initiates are ornamented with neck rings and armbands. Senior men in the kulama paint their faces, bodies, hair and beards with elaborate designs in red, yellow, black and white and the yams are eaten in accordance with ritual custom. 

In the past both male and female initiates would wear the ornaments and remain decorated for perhaps a month after the close of the kulama, then they would wash the paint from their bodies and resume a normal life. The kulama designs Mountford describes include a design of an initiate related to the boobook owl, in which white and red dots symbolise edible wild fruits, and another showing the barn owl (pintoma). A false beard is worn over the man's own beard and a headdress of white cockatoo feathers is added. Circles around the eyes symbolise the staring eyes of the barn owl that helped at the first kulama ceremony.

In present-day ceremonies there is a marked difference between the kulama and pukumani designs. Mountford's sketches of the designs in the late 1940s show that the kulama patterns were larger than the pukumani designs, with different colour areas more widely spaced. There were few detailed linear patterns on face or body. A similar difference remains today, and the kulama and pukumani designs used by one man, Declan Aputimi, can be contrasted. Declan's kulama pattern is sombre and, using dark red and black, it divides the face into sections separated with a line of yellow. Pukumani design, on the other hand, consists of a totally blackened face. The eyes are emphasised with yellow ochre dots and lines of white are drawn across the forehead, along the bridge of the nose and along the upper beard line. The hair and beard are yellowed with ochre. The technique of painting face and body is similar all over the north, although different people use a range of brushes and twigs, depending on the quality of line desired. The Tiwi designs frequently incorporate lines and dots over a base colour of yellow or white and these lines are done in a contrasting colour. The most usual implement for the lines is a paintbrush, whereas the preferred applicator for the dots is a chewed stick or, even better, a wooden comb. Tiwi make multi-pronged combs specifically for painting; the carved prongs apply rows of dots in a straight line. The combs are also used for paintings on carvings and burial poles. 

The following is a fairly typical procedure for painting the face and body. The pigments are crushed onto a flat stone and mixed with water. No fixatives are added to the powder, the natural oil and sweat of the skin serving to bind the clay paint to the body for a short time only; it will soon streak or sweat off after a dance session. when the colours are prepared, the face is coated in sections with base colours, generally white and yellow. For some designs, charcoal is first rubbed across yes and forehead so that upper face is darkly masked. This base is usually applied with the fingers and palms of the hand. Excess yellow ochre or white clay is also lightly rubbed through the hair and beard so that it sits on top of the curly hairs, greying or yellowing them and framing the face. At this stage of the painting, the Tiwi figures very much resemble the first European descriptions of them by Phillip Parker King, who surveyed the northern Australian coastal regions in 1837. He wrote, 'The men were more muscular and better formed than any we had before seen, they were daubed over with a yellow pigment which was the colour of the neighbouring cliff; their hair was long and curly and appeared to be clotted with a whitish paint.

After the ochre is applied all over, patterns of lines are drawn across the eyebrows and around the eyes, with the lower face receiving much attention. Patterns extend from the cheeks right o the tip of the beard. These decorations are usually painted with a brush in colours that contrast with the base colour. The body is roughly coated with white clay, slapped on to camouflage the natural skin and blend with the face patterns. The beard itself, if not decorated, may be augmented by an additional false beard made of feathers attached with beeswax to a woven pandanus band. it is termed intiyintinga or putha. In the hair, black and white cockatoo feathers are worn. These are fastened to a bone or wood pin and twisted around into one lock of hair to stay in place. Pandanus armbands and neck pendants consisting of feather balls are commonly worn.

Regardless of the function a work of art on the body may have, its essential nature is transitory. Preparation may take minutes or hours but, however spectacular the impact of the finished body design may be, within minutes of impressing its audience during the dance performance (which may also be over in minutes) heat, sweat and abrasive movements have dislodged the down, eroded the designs and substantially removed the work of art that was there. This is of absolutely no consequence to the Aboriginal artists, who have been doing similar paintings on their bodies for thousands of years. There is no need to 'record' this art or to house it in special museums in order to keep it alive. The designs live in the minds of every adult man and woman and are passed on without visual records. In fact, part of the special quality of this body art is its transitory nature, its impact on revelation in performances and its necessary immediate decay. 

Perhaps a regrettable aspect of our belated appreciation of the treasure that Aboriginal art has to offer is the tardy investigation in twentieth-century European art circles of the nature of art. Questions concerning the durability of art (Can a work of art last only a minute? Can it be a living, moving work?) and other more cerebral considerations have led to the most advanced art houses showing works in categories such as performance art, assemblage art, conceptual art, installations, and so on. In this environment Aboriginal art, whether bark paintings, fibre, sculpture or body paintings, finds a ready home and easy acceptance. It is now most obvious that it ranks as a most distinctive contribution to world culture and that works by living Aboriginal artists rank among the best of Australia's contemporary art. It has naturally developed from its origins over a time span unequalled anywhere else in the world.


Wearing clothes, boy ornaments and jewellery or decorations reflects individuality as well as group membership. In Australia, the traditional Aboriginal arts include a wealth of spectacular personal adornments made from shells, feathers and fibre. Archaeological discoveries have made it clear that, just as ancient men and women painted themselves for ceremonies, body ornaments also played a significant role in personal status. People used a range of animal and plant materials to construct headbands and necklaces. Excavations have revealed cut segments of kangaroo bones that were worn as beads over 12,000 years ago in areas south of Perth; a skull from Kow swamp in north-west Victoria had a row of kangaroo teeth embedded around the forehead and linked by traces of resin. Shell pendants were frequently worn in ancient times and fragments with holes drilled for threading have been found in New South Wales. In the recent past, pearl shell was traded from the coast of the Kimberley region in Western Australia and bailer shell was traded south from Cape York.  Shell pendants continue to be used in Cape York.

So far, the most interesting ornament known to have been worn thousands of years ago is a full necklace of over 170 teeth extracted from the Tasmanian devil; this was discovered with traces of a man's skeleton in Lake Nitchie, western New South Wales, and dated to 6000 years ago. Evidence of the full extent to which the everyday ornamentation of the body was enhanced and embellished in ceremony is now lost to us. These ritual occasions were only fleeting moments, whereas the body in burial remains in its final resting state for thousands of years, allowing us now to have only a glimpse of society's need for body adornment thousands of years ago.

Tribal artists sought materials to make colourful and striking objects, chosen from the natural environment and the bounty that their tribal lands had to offer. coastal sea people chose bailer shell, nautilus, cockle, pearl shell and small sea and mangrove shells to string into necklaces and form into pendants. along the northern rivers of Arnhem Land, snail shells were strung together and painted. In central Australia, bright red, yellow and brown seeds were strung in to hair string, or simply tied into the hair, forming a frame for the faces of young girls. The magnificent plumage of wild birds was the source of the most decorative and colourful regalia. usually worn for dance or ceremony, feather plumes formed headdresses and lengthy tassels of string and feathers, shimmering like the breast of a rainbow lorikeet, hung and swung from the arms and hips of dancers. Natural plant and animal fibres were twined, plaited, stitched and spun, making headbands and armbands that were of the embellished with ochre designs or filled with black beeswax and embedded with bright red abrus seeds.

In decorating the person, requirements varied from the secular sphere of daily life to the flamboyance of ceremonial occasion. forms of personal clothing ranged from possum fur rugs, bearing the personal insignias of the wearers in the form of designs scratched into the hide, to other small items of clothing such as the simple hair string belts of central Australian nomads, pulled tight to prevent hunger, or headbands of fur, string or fibre. In many parts of the country daily wear also included nose pin ornaments made of reeds, carved wood, shell or bone. In the ceremonial arena the art of personal adornment reached its colourful zenith. Ochres were applied in exciting and dramatic designs, headdresses ranged from simple headbands to string and feather constructions metres high, and arms and bodi3s were adorned with feathers or shell pendants. The lower legs were frequently encased in masses of leaves, altering the proportions of the body completely, and contributing to the rustling sound effects as the dancers performed.


In the colder southern climate when temperatures in the winter months dropped to freezing point, both men and women wore fur cloaks, generally suspended from one shoulder, leaving the other arm free. At other times, not only in the south-east but throughout the country, people went naked, although pubic tassels of fur and string were worn by both men and women. The southern cloaks were worn inland and long the coasts north and south of Sydney, although, curiously, not around Sydney itself. They were also worn in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

A description of the manufacture of the cloaks in the central Darling region of New South Wales was given by a local European man who grew up there and who watched the process. He wrote:

...cloaks were made of the skin of the doe kangaroo, murraway; this was stretched and dried in the shade, rubbed with ashes and then with some emu oil or goanna fat, and pulled backwards and forwards around a smooth-barked tree to make it a little pliable. Other than this, no attempt was made at tanning. The skins were roughly trimmed and sewn together by thread of kangaroo ail sinews, and in the very cold windy weather the cloak was worn with the fur inside. skins were sewn together for a sleeping cover, and their manufacture was only discarded with the giving of blankets by the government.

Such rugs were sewn together using a fine awl as a needle and kangaroo leg sinew for thread. The holes were made with the bone point, then the thread was pushed through these holes by hand.

The Darling River people also wore nose ornaments made from carved sticks or wild turkey feather quills that they inserted through the pierced nasal septum, and headbands of spun string. small shells were worn as necklaces and possum skin strips were worn as headbands by both sexes. In South Australia the possum skin rugs could once be seen along the length of the Murray River; they were also worn by the people of the Coorong and the Adelaide plains. The Kaurna in the Adelaide area preferred more pliable rugs made from small animals rather than large kangaroos, whose pelts were tougher and less flexible. The rugs were worn over the left shoulder, fastened under the right armpit and tied with string. women in all these areas wore the cloaks in such a way that a pouch was created on their back in which a child could ride, supported under its bottom by a special baby harness made of netted hand-spun string. In severe cold the rugs or cloaks were worn with the fur against the skin. The inner soft surface was occasionally decorated by scratching the skin with sharp shells and then rubbing charcoal and animal fat into the surface to darken the incisions and to emphasise the decoration.

Extremely unusual items of clothing worn by the Kaurna were seaweed cloaks. None of these survive in the national collections, but the written records describe them as being cloaks worn in a manner similar to the skin rug and constructed of lengths of seaweed interwoven to form a square. Tassels hung in lengths off the lower edge. Shell was universally used in body ornaments. Along the Richmond and Tweed Rivers of New South Wales, the people wore pendants of ground segments of nautilus shell frequently as large as the palm of the hand, which had been traded from the sea coast. Women in many areas wore delicate strings of small pearls, some strung in multi-strand patterns and combinations. The shell necklaces still made by the Aboriginals of Cape Barren Island in Bass Strait are most like the early examples. These are made from tiny marine snail shells and were worn exclusively by women.

Unlocking the old drawers in the museums of the nation reveals a wealth of tiny and relatively inconspicuous Aboriginal decorations gathered by the early European settlers and by nineteenth-century collectors. Materials employed by the coastal and southern riverine peoples, as with all forms of Aboriginal artistic expression, reflect not only the locality but a joy and love of the colourful and unusual offerings of natural plants and animals that can be worked into wearable ornaments. Emu feather waist girdles were worn along the Yarra River and referred to as til-bhur-nin or jerr-barr-ning. The delicate long feathers were gathered into tufts of six or more and bound along the length of a waistband. Waistbands for men in the Lake Callabonna area of South Australia were reportedly made from strips of pelican skin attached to a cord of human hair string. Other feathered bands and ornaments were made from owl feathers (for head ornaments) and parrot feathers. One example in the national Museum of Victoria is listed as a waist belt of Blue Mountain parakeet feathers. A spectacular piece that has survived the ravages of insect attack and natural age rot is a man's pelican feather apron from South Australia, also in  the Museum of Victoria.

Necklaces were strung from tiny sections of hollow reeds and worn by both men and women in Victoria and New South Wales. On Lake Hindmarsh in Victoria they were up to ten metres in length and called jahkul; along the Yarra in Victoria they had another name, djarrk. similar necklaces are still made at Aurukun, Cape York. Quandong seeds were used to make necklaces in many parts of Australia. These delicious fruit trees grow in more arid regions, though in the nineteenth century necklaces were found in Victoria's mallee region, perhaps traded or grown locally. Must unusual necklaces were made by the people of Warrnambool, Victoria, of small sections cut out of the orange claws of a crayfish, drilled and strung together. String, bone and teeth were combined in many variations, particularly for headbands. One elegant piece from the lower Murray, dated before 1878, used hand-spun string, probably aquatic vegetable fibre, which was then knotted into a band of about five centimetres. Two pairs of kangaroo teeth were attached at either side to hang onto the temple, forming a frame for the eyes.

Descriptions by James Dawson of mid-nineteenth century decoration for ceremonies in New South Wales mention that nose reeds up to thirty centimetres in length were worn by men for corrogorees. When the men stood with their knees quivering in dance, the reeds seemed to connect the dancers in a continuous line. Dawson also noted the women's practice of wearing flowers 'in the slits of the ears'; it is unfortunate that he does not elaborate on this, as his is the only record of this custom. In the south-east, the practice of wearing fur cloaks, neck pendants and other traditional ornaments disappeared with European colonisation and the issue of blankets and clothing by the government of the day. The elegant shells were replaced with brass plates inscribed to commemorate the wearer's status, such as King Billy or Queen Emma, awarded for being outstanding leaders. Ceremonial life, including the great bora initiations, continued in secret away from the towns and camps, but as Aboriginal cultural values were being constantly eroded, ceremonial practice ceased early this century. In parts of the north coast of New South Wales, some descendants of the early people are beginning a planned revival. They hope this will encourage young Aboriginal people to understand the depth and quality of their ancient heritage. 

Australia - Aboriginal Body Living Art, Part 3

Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Music

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