Symbolism plays a very significant role in Aboriginal Art. In many traditional Aboriginal communities, body art and rock art have been used for tens of thousands of years to relate stories and depict sources of food and water. Many communities are now also using art as a way to record their histories and important Dreaming stories.
While there are huge differences between symbols and meanings throughout Australia, there are some symbols that seem to be almost universal throughout the Aboriginal world. The more you understand of the symbols, the more you can appreciate Aboriginal art and its meaning. Although some symbols used in Aboriginal art have secret meanings - which are only there for those who have been appropriately initiated - other symbols and their meanings have become well established. The following looks very briefly at the meanings of some of the symbols used in Aboriginal art.
One of the most common symbols that you will find in Aboriginal art is that which is used for people and is depicted by a 'U' shape. Lots of U-shapes together can represent a meeting or a camp, and men are also sometimes represented by a spear or shield symbol.
Symbols representing the footprints or tracks of a person or creature are frequently used throughout Aboriginal art to show the presence of people, animals, and Dreamtime forces. Long, curving lines in a painting will often mark the trail of the Rainbow Serpent, an extremely powerful being of Aboriginal creation mythology.
One of the most recognisable features used by Aboriginal artists in Australia, dots can represent a whole range of things depending on how they are configured. Sometimes a single dot next to a 'U' will represent a child with its mother, while dots in a circle can represent a campfire, a meeting or a waterhole. Dots can represent berries or the stars, and when used as follows==o==o== the dots breaking the lines represent resting places when traveling. Ironically, dots were also used extensively to cover up secrets in Aboriginal art, making it convenient that everyone seems to like them so much.
Apart from a curvy line sometimes representing the tracks of a snake, lines are also used to depict the route of a journey. A short series of parallel lines is sometimes used to represent the porcupine and its quills, and two longer parallel lines with a footprint at either end often represent lizards - in particular the goanna.
Aboriginal art has become a big deal in the art world over the last thirty years, though it seems that not everyone has taken the time to understand what it is really all about. Knowing a little about the common symbols will make it easier for you to get a bit more out of the meaning of the art, though the only way to fully understand what a piece is about is to talk to the artists themselves or from a reputable dealer in Aboriginal art. Every region of Australia will have their own unique symbols, make sure to ask what is the meaning of the symbols used in the painting that you wish to buy.