Aboriginal art began thousands of years ago on cave walls all over Australia. The symbols and patterns can represent native animals, stories that have been passed down through generations, or maps of local landmarks. Many Aboriginal artworks represent “the Dreamtime,” the period of time indigenous people believe the world was invented.
I like to compare and contrast Aboriginal art to Native American art—both are often created with natural materials and rely on the use of symbols. To better put things into perspective, I always tell students that the Aborigines of Australia are similar to the Native American people here in the U.S. Native American tribes from different parts of the United States develop different styles depending on their location and the materials available; these differences can also be found in the Aboriginal groups throughout Australia.
I begin an Aboriginal project with a PowerPoint showcasing a variety of visual examples. I question the students and push them to examine and draw conclusions about the artworks before I explain them myself.
Because of the aerial perspective, symbolism and storytelling that is prevalent in Aboriginal art, there are many meanings that can be uncovered during a critique. I like to point out the use of natural colors and dotting methods found throughout many Aboriginal artworks.
Students are also interested in viewing videos of Aborigines making art. As we watched one in particular (youtu.be/14Yfl5O2Pgc), we became fascinated with the sound of the didgeridoos and watching the methodical stamping of dots all over the large artwork—with just a simple stick!
Telling a Story After exploring examples of Aboriginal art from the traditional to the modern, I have the students spend a day working on sketches. Aboriginal art is meant to tell a story, so I stress the importance of laying out the symbols and patterns in a narrative way.
I provide students with a handout of various Aboriginal symbols, which vary from the expected kangaroo and boomerang symbols, to the more unique, like witchetty grubs and emus. The art principle, balance, is important at this stage; students need to create an interesting layout with their visual story that makes use of the entire composition. When asked, students should be able to guide you around the sketch and identify how each symbol and pattern contributes to the overall story of the artwork.
Layouts and Layers Once a student has a great sketch, he or she can begin drawing it out onto the 12″ x 18″ paper. I leave the color choices up to the students; traditional Aboriginal art is generally made with natural colors, while contemporary can use brighter and more vibrant hues.
After a student has the first layer of paint on the page, the dotting process begins. Aborigines often use sticks of different sizes found in nature. Many art teachers like to use cotton swabs for dotting, but the ends often become frayed and make distorted circles. An easier option is using the back end of a paintbrush. One dip in the paint can usually yield at least a few dots and they stay fairly clean and neat. I make sure to point out the dots in Aboriginal artworks are never random and sloppily placed, but generally arranged in a neat and ordered way that guides the viewer around the composition.
Evaluation This is a great project for a class critique because the students can evaluate the narrative elements of the artworks, as well as the craftsmanship of the painting. I ask each student to identify the symbols and how they related to the story of their painting, what they liked the most about it, and what they would change if they made another painting. Rhythm and balance are great principles to point out in the artworks and how they contribute to the overall unity and mood.
Middle-school students will …
• learn the techniques and symbols used in traditional Aboriginal art.
• become familiar with and create their own narrative artwork.
• properly utilize the art principles of balance and repetition.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Sketch paper, pencils
• 12″ x 18″ white paper,
• Handouts of Aboriginal symbols
• Paintbrushes, palettes, tempera paints in a variety of colors
click here for resources related to this article
Matt Mazur is an elementary and middle-school art teacher at Dealey Montessori Vanguard and International Academy in Dallas, Texas.
Want More Classroom Projects From This Issue?