What is the significance of Aboriginal Art and Symbols

What is the significance of Aboriginal Art and Symbols

Dating back over 60,000 years, Aboriginal Art is one of the most ancient forms of art that holds high cultural significance, where every color, every line, and every symbol resonates with meaning.

The Aboriginal Art form was a form of communication as there was no written language. More than just artistic expression, Aboriginal art is a very significant part of their culture. It's a bridge connecting the past, present, and future, carrying knowledge of ancestral journeys, creation myths, and the intricate web of relationships between humans, animals, and the land. 

From the weathered rock paintings in Arnhem Land to the contemporary canvases bursting with life, each piece unveils a chapter in Aboriginal Australia's rich and dynamic narrative.

The Aboriginal art symbols, the very language of this art, speak volumes. Understanding these Aboriginal symbols is like unlocking a secret doorway, granting deeper access to the heart of Aboriginal culture.



The significance of aboriginal art and symbols for the indigenous people is that for centuries they have utilized inventive drawings and markings to recount their stories and messages which is a vital ingredient within their culture.

Whilst indigenous art can be presented in various formations such as dots, cross hatching, maps of circles, spirals, lines and dashes which are recognized as being the traditional aboriginal art communication of the Western Desert people. However it is the dot paintings which have become internationally acknowledged as distinctive and fundamental within Australian Indigenous Artwork with symbolic significance.

The recognition of dot painting can be traced back to round about 1971 when a teacher from New South Wales (Geoffrey Barden) was appointed as an art teacher to the Aboriginal children at Papunya (nearby Alice Springs). He observed that whist the men would tell their aboriginal stories to children’s, they would draw symbols in the sand as to how they interrupted these stories. Bardon then encouraged the children to transfer these stories to canvas and board, which started aboriginal art by children. Within a short period a large number of the men followed suit and began painting as well.

Australian aboriginal dot paintings generally portray an account normally related to hunting or food gathering, usually immersed with customary aboriginal symbols ingrained throughout the painting. Upon explanation of these embedded symbols a whole new meaning within the painting is immediately evident.

Various Aboriginal Art Symbols and Their Meaning

Discover the meanings behind various Aboriginal art symbols in this brief exploration. From dot paintings to intricate line work, delve into the rich cultural tapestry of Indigenous Australian art and uncover the spiritual narratives woven into each symbol. Below are the list of various Art symbols and their meaning:

1. People Sitting

This circular symbol is a representation of either a campsite or water hole. The “U” shaped figures are people sitting around the waterhole or campsite.


2. Animal Tracks

The aboriginal people usually have individual signs which denote what type of animal that each represents – in this case it depicts Australia’s wild native dog “The Dingo”.


3. Sandhill or Cloud

This particular symbol to the aboriginal people has a multi meaning, as the heading states it can highlight a sand hill, cloud or some kind of wind break or shelter.

4. Rain

This icon has great significance to the indigenous artwork for the people of Central Australia. Rain can sometimes be a rare commodity to these people and when it does arrive it is celebrated with song and dance during ceremonies.

5. Honey Ant

Indigenous women with their digging, dig deep into the sand in the hunt for honey ants. The honey ants produce a honey- like liquid in their abdomen, which is regarded as a special treat by Aboriginal people in Central Australia.


6. Spears

The image shows two spear samples. Aboriginal men hand-craft the spears and use them to hunt prey. The men heat the spears over a fire or in hot ashes to straighten or strengthen the spears.

7. Woomera.

The icon known as a “Woomera” however it is also known as a spear thrower launcher.

8. Shield

This implement also can be utilized in a number of ways however on of its main function is for protection especially during inter-tribal rivalry.

9. Emu.

This image illustrates the emu track. The Aboriginal men peruse these tracks in their hunt for emu (large flight-less bird), which is a prime food source (bush tucker) and is used for bush medicine. Within men’s ceremonies, the emu feathers are used as body decoration. There are numerous symbols illustrating the emu track, these vary  based on the artist’s region.

10. Bush Tucker / Bush Berry

Bush berries are a primary food source which is gathered by the women of central Australia. Notice that we have referred to this staple food source as these berries come in many species.

11. Waterholes & Running Water

This Aboriginal art symbol depicts two waterholes joined by flowing water (wavy lines).



12. Boomerangs

The boomerang serves as multi-purpose tool by the Australian Aboriginal men. They can be used as a hunting implement or weapons for fighting.  They are also utilized for digging, as cutting knives for lighting fires through friction and also be used as a percussion instrument during ceremonies.

13. Kangaroo Tracks

This image refers to the track of the kangaroo. Aboriginal men hunt the kangaroo by following its tracks in the sand.

14. Tracks/Waterholes

This icon depicts campsite or resting place (circle) and the journey path joined by straight lines connecting with the circles, a common feature seen in a large number of Australian Aboriginal artworks.

15. Meeting Place

This icon represents meeting place (concentric circles) and journey path (lines). The meeting place is culturally a significant site to Aboriginal men and women. It is a place where Aboriginal people gather together, sitting in circles; this is seen as a normal practice among the indigenous people.

16. Campsites / Waterhole

Concentric circle can portray a campsite, meeting place or ceremonial site or perhaps a waterhole These sites are not only culturally important to Aboriginal people living in Central Australia but important from a survival point  given that this symbol may be a waterhole rather than a campsite.

17. Hunting Boomerang

Apart from being used a clapping sticks in ceremonies the hunting boomerang is normally hunt for the larger type of animal either kangaroo or emu. The boomerang is usually a hand crafted implement by the Aboriginal men –it takes the shape of the figure seven the longer part of the instrument is the handle with the shorter wing which is extremely sharp being the damaging part.

18. Coolamon

The Coolamon, a beautifully crafted wooden dish, served Aboriginal women as a multi-purpose tool for gathering bush tucker, transporting water, and even carrying their infants..

19. Digging Sticks / Clapping Sticks

Digging sticks are hand crafted wooden tools, sharpened at one end, which the Aboriginal women use to dig for edible bush tucker (roots, tubers, honey ants, reptiles).  In women ceremonies they are used as clapping stick.

20. Woman

This symbol depicts a woman and a digging stick. Aboriginal women use a digging stick to collect out edible bush food (roots, yam, and witchetty grub). In ceremony the women use digging sticks as clapping sticks.



21. Men

This image represents a man with spears. The spear is a hand-crafted weapon the Aboriginal men use for hunting larger prey. The icon(s) depicted next to the U shape, determines if it is a male or female.

22. Person

The U shape icon represents a person. The U shape icon can represent male or female.

23. Witchetty Grub

This image shows the witchetty grub which are mainly collected by women living in Central Australia. The witchetty grubs, a principal food source (bush tucker) for the Aboriginal people living in Central Australia.

24. Goanna

This aboriginal symbol represents the tracks of the goanna. The Aboriginal people follow the tracks of Goanna in the sand to hunt for them. They hunt Goanna and consume its eggs, again a principal food source (bush tucker). The symbol has many other representations depending on the artist’s region.

25. Digging or Clapping Sticks

Digging sticks are hand-crafted wooden tools sharpened at one end. The Aboriginal women use the stick to dig for edible bush tucker(roots, tubers, reptiles, honey ants). Whereas, in ceremonies, they also used it as clapping sticks.

26. Hole or Cloud or Nest

According to the artists ' perception, the symbols hole(rock hole), cloud, or nest have different meanings. A round shape that can look like a hole in the ground, a fluffy cloud in the sky, or a cozy nest. 

27. Man 2

The Aboriginal symbol represents a man holding a spear and woomera(spear thrower). The Aboriginal men in Australia use handcrafted weapons, spears, and woomera to hunt larger prey. The icon next to the U shape determines whether it is male or female.

28. Possum

This Aboriginal art symbol is usually depicted in the Aboriginal artworks from Yuendumu in Central Australia. The symbols are used to represent the footprint of the possum.

29. Smoke, Waterflow, Lightning, or Bushfire

Depending on the artist's dreamings, this Aboriginal symbol has many meanings or interpretations. In aboriginal artworks, you can see it as smoke, water flow, lightning, or bushfires.

30. Snake

As the name suggests, the aboriginal symbol is used to represent a snake. In the central Australian Aboriginal artworks, the snake can also be referred to as the rainbow serpent, a mythological creature from the Dreamtime.

31. Star

This symbol can be represented as a star in Australian Aboriginal artworks. Aboriginal people refer to stars as "totemic beings."

32. Travelling Sign

This symbol depicts a campsite or resting place (circle) connected by a path (straight lines). This is commonly seen in Australian Aboriginal artworks.

33. Woman 2

This symbol represents digging stick (I), woman (U), and coolamon. These are commonly used symbols in Central Australian bush tucker paintings.

34. Yam Plant

This Aboriginal symbol represents the yam plant with its extensive root system. It appears in numerous Australian Aboriginal paintings from Central Australia. The bush yam is a staple food consumed by Aboriginal women. In ceremonies, women honour the yam plant.

Traditional Methods of Aboriginal Art Creation

Instead of fancy canvases, the first artists used the earth as their canvas. They etched stories and symbols onto rock walls using ochres made from iron oxide and charcoal from burnt wood. These pictures, called petroglyphs and pictographs, showed hunting scenes, creation myths, and their ancestors' journeys. They were a permanent way to show how connected they felt to the land.

Carving and sculpting were also part of this ancient art form. Wood, bone, and stone were turned into tools for ceremonies and figures that had spiritual meaning. Ochre and charcoal were used to decorate these objects, making them even more special.

The desert sands became another canvas for temporary stories. People painted intricate designs on their bodies, made drawings in the sand, and created murals on the ground. These were ways to share stories, hold ceremonies, and pass down knowledge. Natural pigments were like temporary tattoos, putting ancestral patterns on people's skin to connect them to their families and communities. Even though these sand masterpieces didn't last, they were powerful ways to show who they were and how much they loved their land.

In the 19th century, bark became a new canvas for Aboriginal art. Ochres were put on with brushes made from chewed twigs or feathers, turning bark into colourful tapestries that told stories. These intricate bark paintings showed journeys their ancestors took, ceremonies they held, and how everything in nature is connected.

Even though modern materials like acrylics and canvas are now used sometimes, the heart of Aboriginal art is still in these old ways. The connection to the land, using natural materials, and focusing on telling stories make this art form unique and alive.

Historical Figures in Aboriginal Art: Beacons of Legacy and Evolution

While Aboriginal art is usually a group effort, where knowledge and skills are passed down through generations, some individuals have become primarily known for representing the spirit and evolution of this art form. 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Kngwarreye became famous for her bright dot paintings later in her life. Her canvases, full of ancestral stories and symbols, captured the feeling of the Western Desert and made people interested in modern Aboriginal art again.

Rover Thomas

Thomas used strong ochres and big brushstrokes to paint the fantastic landscapes of the Kimberley region, where he lived and worked. His powerful paintings showed the wild beauty of the land and helped people understand the spiritual connection Aboriginal Australians have with their homelands.

Albert Namatjira

One of the first Aboriginal artists known worldwide, Namatjira mixed traditional and Western art styles. His watercolours captured the dreamy beauty of the Central Australian desert, showing the unique way his people saw the world.

Lionel Lindsay

Even though he wasn't Indigenous, Lindsay played a significant role in helping more people learn about Aboriginal art. He supported artists like Namatjira and helped make Aboriginal art an essential part of Australian culture.

These are just a few people who have shaped Aboriginal art. Today, a new generation of artists like Eileen Bird Kngwarreye and Agnes Namijinpa Brown are pushing boundaries, using traditional techniques in new ways and talking about important issues like the environment and social justice. Their work keeps the flames of Aboriginal storytelling bright for future generations. View our list of fantastic aboriginal artist from around the Australia. 

The story of Aboriginal art is not a finished one. It's a living, breathing example of how strong and creative a people can be when they are deeply connected to their land and ancestors. Learning about the history and traditional methods of Aboriginal art is just the first step on a lifelong journey of appreciating and respecting this fantastic art form. 

Visit our gallery or contact us today and discover the stories behind the symbols. Our expert guides can help you unlock the secrets of Aboriginal art and connect with the ancient wisdom of the land.

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