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Throughout the Australian continent, the central elements of the arts of the Aboriginal 0eople have always been ceremony and dance. All people decorate the today in such a way that it assumes a quality and character that’s far removed from it’s owners 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 kilometers apart, and even within each group, according to occasion or ceremony.

The identity of the person if often obliterated, to be replaced by a representation of his ancestral totem, frequently an animal. In Arnhem Land, complete obliteration of 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.

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.

Much has been said about the decorative and ritual functions of body painting. However, paint on the body has other uses less concerned with painting 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 no, as in other societies, ‘war paint’ or a signal or aggression, but rather a coating that created a protective aura for the warrior.

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 of 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, the red ochre took the place of white in terms of power and deep significance because of its symbolic relationship with blood in secret ceremonies.


View Paintings of Boday Paint Dreaming