What do the dots mean in Aboriginal art?

Do this if you have time or are even mildly curious but ask people: what is Aboriginal art? Bet the majority of people will mention ‘dots’. But ask them what the dots mean and the majority of them won’t be able to answer you accurately or clearly.

Let’s clarify just one thing to start with; Aboriginal art is not just ‘dots’. Aboriginal artwork is made up of symbols that when combined, share a story. The dots you see in a lot of paintings is one of these symbols, yes. These dots can mean ‘stars, sparks, burnt ground’ (Artlandish 2018) or they can be used to hide sacred knowledge. Aboriginal people have one of the most secretive cultures in the world.

To understand how they would have used ‘dots’ to hide sacred knowledge, we must talk about the beginning of the Aboriginal art movement. To gain income, Aboriginal people would sell their paintings to Westerners. They would paint about common medicinal knowledge, astronomy, stories with morals that had been passed down to them, hunting and maps of their country where they could get water. However, once the Elders of the communities noticed that they were giving away a lot of their people’s sacred knowledge, they sought to restrict this.

Aboriginal artists started painting dots over things like sacred landmarks and stories to conceal this from the Westerners. That is how dot painting emerged. A lot of Aboriginal paintings are intentionally abstract, meant for an audience that is not or should not be privy to their secrets. Thus, to understand Aboriginal paintings is to try and learn a foreign language-each symbol means something different but once these are learnt, any person should be able to look at an Aboriginal painting and understand the story on the canvas.

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