Down Under Dreamings

This exhibition features bark paintings from the Flynn Collection of Aboriginal Art, part of the Museum’s extensive anthropology collections.

Every element of Australian Aboriginal art relates to the “Dreamtime,” the period in the ancestral past when the ancestor spirits created the known world, including the Aboriginal people themselves.


Featured Image:
“Namangwari, Salt Water Crocodile”
Artist: John Mowundjul
1988, Painting on eucalyptus bark
with earth pigments
77 inches x 36 inches (196 cm x 91 cm)
Northern Territory, Australia
YPM catalog no. ANT 261356

The Aborigines are believed to have migrated to Australia by land bridge and sea from Asia, perhaps 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. Their first known artistic expression took the form of rock art found throughout that huge island, ranging from the representational animal, plant and human forms of tropical Arnhem Land to the abstract concentric circles and dots produced in the desert. Many of those symbols and forms can be seen in engravings and paintings produced in historic and recent times, making Aboriginal art probably the world’s oldest continuous artistic tradition.

Because aboriginal artifacts were made of wood and bark, few survive from before the mid-19th century, when missionaries and ethnographers began to collect them. The bark paintings, as well as body ornamentation and sand paintings, were not meant for posterity but were created for a specific ceremony and erased afterwards. The power of the images is in the process of their creation, the regeneration of the ancestral power of a particular “dreaming” or sacred totem and its transmission to a new generation of custodians.

The “dreaming” is not a dream in the western sense of the word, but older traditional artists will sometimes induce a trance-like state to “sing” the painting into being. As the story unfolds in song they begin to paint, and many of the most powerful paintings express this kind of spiritual energy.