Australian Aboriginal painting — complex and dazzling patterns of dots, lines and abstract geometrical shapes — are multilayered cultural artifacts whose symbolic visual vocabulary derives from ceremonial sand painting and body decoration, and can be found in petroglyphs that predate Western written language. They act simultaneously on multiple levels: as aerial landscape maps of traditional tribal domains, detailing the precise locations of food, water and other scarce resources necessary for nomadic desert survival; as recountings of mythological Creation stories of the Altjeringa or Dreamtime, when totemic ancestor spirits crisscrossed the world, laying out the structure that makes life possible and gives it meaning; as depictions of ceremonial rituals by which the Dreamtime — which exists as a sort of parallel realm of timeless continual creation underlying phenomenal reality — may be accessed; as operative manifestations of these rituals — i.e., portals to another dimension; and as objects of exquisite beauty. According to their creators, the paintings have further layers still, esoteric spiritual import that is discernible only to the initiated. In fact, for this reason, much of the work in the front gallery of Icons of the Desert — the exhibit focusing on the first couple of years’ worth of work from the Papunya collective — can’t be exhibited in Australia, and is represented in the catalog by blank gray rectangles (though a U.S.-only supplement includes the missing images).
more from Doug Harvey at the LA Weekly here.