Art in Balgo
Art in Balgo, as in most Aboriginal communities had its origins
in the ritual life of the people. In the desert, ceremonial designs
on the desert floor were created in the sand for particular ceremonies.
As many of these ceremonies were secret to those who participated,
they were usually abandoned or destroyed at the end of the event.
Ceremonial objects such as churingas were often carved as were
functional objects such as boomerangs, message sticks and didgeridoos.
People painted each other's bodies with clay in designs particular
to ritual and ceremonial events. Both men and women have separate
rituals (Men's business and Women's business) and
so each have separate body designs and secret meaning systems. Other
rituals were shared across the communities.
At the heart of all ritual was the people's relationship with the
land. For Aboriginal people their existence and future as a people
is inextricably linked with keeping up a right relationship with
their country. Their ancestors dwell in the waterholes, in the hills
and under the earth. They were transformed in the Dreamtime (Tjukurrpa)
into animals and the landscape, to be reborn again in the people.
Keeping faith with the ancestors is the most sacred obligation of
each person and each group. This is done ritually, through story,
dance and art.
These are the principal source of the designs and symbols in Balgo
art that is made in the community and marketed today across Australia
Essentially though, Balgo art, like all Aboriginal art is a political
statement about the spiritual relationship of the people with the
land. It is directed to the Kartiya as a reminder that at the heart
of this great land and responsible for it are a people who are descendants
of an ancestor people who still dwell in this country and who have
left their mark on its surface.
Because they tell the story of the land and those who dwell in
it, Balgo paintings (and others) often look like an aerial view
of the country, a particular kind of map of the land. That is often
the top 'layer' and looks rather like what you see from a small
plane as it flies over their part of the landscape. Another layer
is the theme or the story which the painting tells. To understand
this story beyond its general clues, you need to listen to the artist
or read the explanation that often accompanies the work.
But like all good stories, these have many meanings and often shift
meaning depending on the teller and what the holder of the story
wants to reveal to the listener. Sometimes a part of a story is
so deep or sacred that it is never spoken about. In Aboriginal art
this is sometimes spoken of as the 'closed' area or layer. Often
a small section is 'closed', sometimes the whole work, at other
times men's business will be revealed only to men and women's to
Reading the works
All great art is layered and reveals itself slowly to the initiated.
This is as true for Aboriginal art as it is for the work of artists
such as Picasso, Michaelangelo and Frida Kahlo in the Western tradition.
Balgo art looks quite abstract and without subject matter, it is
important to remember that it is almost always narrative art, i.e.
art which tells a story. The marks and designs are like codes -
they hold meaning and convey the story to those who can understand
the language. Here are some clues to this language, although many
of the meanings change from painting to painting and from region
- waterhole, soak, hill, resting place, place where ancestors
- 'string', ancestor journey, route
- people tracks
- bird tracks
- animal tracks
- woman sitting
- man sitting
- people behind a windbreak
View the list of Balgo Artists and their
works featured on the Lore of the Land CD-ROM.