Social and socio-
Ontogeny and symbolism
Photogallery of contemporary
1. Australian Aboriginal art
Andrew Lock & Margaret Nobbs
Aboriginal art has a distinctive and highly stylized visual tradition that depicts images whose sense is embedded in and portrays the body of myths that are collectively termed 'The Dreaming': it is thus a narrative art form, dominated more by conception than perception. Aboriginal creation myths inform, educate and narratize Aboriginal consciousness:
The Dreaming is the founding story, the great drama of the creative era, in which the landscape took its present form and the people, animals, plants and elements of the known world were created. But the Dreaming is also the inner or spirirual dimension of the present. Things contain their own histories. There is no contrast of the natural and the spiritual, and there is no geography without history and meaning. The land is already a narrative - an artifact of the intellect - before people represent it (Sutton, 1988: 1)
As a narrative form, elements of Aboriginal art can be understood at different levels of interpretation
'A single design element can in itself have several interpratation levels.
Thus-to take a hypothetical example-a circle might be described, in
the secular context, as a particular geographical region; become a
specific water-hole to a first-stage initiate; be a bundle of hair-string
carried by a mythological hunter who visited the water-hole to a
second stage ritual man; be extented to mean an object made from
the hair-string to a still more knowledgeable man; and have its
meaning extended even futher to the complete ritual man. Each
revelation is made only after the older custodians are certain that the
previous step, with its associated songs and ceremonial detail, is fully
comprehended by the younger men.'
2. Southern African Bushmen rock art
J. David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson, Andrew Lock,
& Charles Peters
'For many decades Southern African rock art was considered to be a simple, narrative record of Stone Age life with a few so-called 'mythical' paintings. Research over the last ten years has, however, shown the art is actually an expression of San (Bushman) religious experience. The art comprises symbols of a supernatural potency harnessed by San shamans (medicine people) to enter trance, metaphors of trance experience, and hallucinations experienced by people in trance. The art was thus essentially shamanistic.
'A man may feel as tall as a tree': these images are 67cm in length. All three images in this group assume trance-dance postures. On the left, the hands are held on the chest-an often represented posture that may be related to the tingling sensation experienced in a person's 'front spine'; the middle figure shows the arms in a typical dancing posture; the right figure shows a backward-facing arm posture that is characteristic of trance-state dancing postures.
The accompanying example is a portion of a complex dance group from the Harrismith district. The human figures are unusually ornate, but details such as what appear to be headgear are probably not literal depictions.
Certainly, the elongation of the figures should be ascribed to the sensation of attenuation often experienced by people in trance.
The line of dots along the back of the most prominent figure probably represents the 'boiling' sensation that San shamans ascribed to a supernatural potency rising up the spine as they approached trance. To the right of this figure is a partially preserved eland. This antelope is, amongst other things, a symbol of the supernatural potency harnessed by San shamans.'
Extracted from Handbook chapter and Art as a window to other worlds by J.D. Lewis-Williams
For an outline and comments on Lewis-Williams and Dowson's original proposals on the shamanistic context of certain forms of rock art (Lewis-Williams, J.D. and T.A. Dowson 1988. The signs of all times: Entoptic phenomena in
Upper Palaeolithic Art. Current Anthropology 29:201-245) see
Eric Pettifor (1996) Altered States: The Origin of Art in Entoptic Phenomena