Astronomical knowledge in art
In the Visual Arts Indigenous narratives are shared through symbols and with materials made from and of country.
The artworks featured in this resource show how Aboriginal artists represent astronomical knowledge and stories in different ways. The materials used in the artworks include logs1 and barks2 that are sourced from country and carefully prepared by traditional methods. The artists chosen are from Arnhem Land, which is in the north of Australia and represents one of the richest art producing regions in the country.
Covering an area of 150,000 square kilometres, Arnhem Land consists of rocky escarpment with thousands of galleries of rock paintings to rivers, lagoons, monsoon jungles, open forest, coastal and inland environments. Sustained contact with Europeans began when the British attempted to settle on Melville Island (Tiwi Islands) in 1824.
The artists chosen for this resource are Gulumbu Yunupingu from North East Arnhem Land and (Lorraine) Kabbindi White from Western Arnhem Land.
Artist Case Study 1
1945 – 2012
Language group Gumatj, Yirrkala, Northern Territory
The works of the late artist Gulumbu Yunupingu provide an insight into how art acts as symbols within narrative and also as a connection to country and portal to a spiritual dimension.
Initially inspired by Gumatj stories of the Pleiades and other constellations, Gulumbu Yunupingu painted Garak (the universe)3 and its stars and galaxies, interpreting ancestral concepts within the realms of her own imagination4. In 2004 Gulumbu won first prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards5 with an installation of three larrakitj (hollow logs)6 and has participated in many solo and group exhibitions7.
Her barks and Larrakitj are expressions of the cosmos, the celestial realm, with its infinite depths depicted in fields of intricate patterning using an artistic technique she made all her own8. Yunupingu’s paintings reveal depth of Yolngu knowledge of country and suggest the intimate personal associations of this story for the artist. The breadth of her philosophy included all humanity (John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu: Earth and Sky)9.
Artist Case Study 2
Lorraine Kabbindi White
Language Group – Kunwinkju, Gunbalunya, Western Arnhem Land
Dird Djan (Moon Dreaming) 201810
Ochre on Bark
58 x 30cm
(Lorraine) Kabbindi White is an artist who lives in Melbourne, Victoria. She was born in Darwin, Northern Territory in 1991. Her mother is a west Arnhem Kunwinj’ku Mok clan woman and her father is a non-Aboriginal Australian. Kabbindi grew up with her mother’s family in Gunbalanya, at Kabulwarnamyo on the traditional country (Mankung Djang) of her late grandfather, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO, and with her father at Jabiru, where she went to school.
As a child, Kabbindi used to watch her grandfather paint stories, and today she continues to share those stories through her own art. Dird Djang (Moon Dreaming) is an artwork created by Kabbindi in 2018, that depicts the Moon dreaming site. Karrakbal (moon spirit) sings a song about the waning of the moon, and how the spirit is losing his breath as he dies and is reborn again. At the end of the song, the moon spirit is breathing his last breath and whispering “I am dying”. In Kabbindi’s culture, the moon is associated with mortality and rebirth, something that Karrakbal (the Moon) argues with his adversary, spotted quoll. Quoll believed that death was final, but Karrakbal argued that when he died, he would be renewed. Karrakbal then proceeded to prove his point by flying up to the heavens, to become the moon that waxes and wanes each lunar month11.
The artworks of Kabbindi have a direct relationship with those of her ancestors. The dreaming narrative continues to inspire and guide Kabbindi. This narrative is a cyclic and iterative tradition. Kabbindi is adding her own layers of artistic life experience to a story that has been part of her culture and world view for time immemorial.
Classroom activity - The Arts (Visual Art) Years 7 and 8
This classroom resource represents four to six lessons of art. Students will engage with a mixture of responding to and creating art. The background information provided is designed to encourage higher order thinking about aesthetics and belief systems. Rather than mimic the work of Indigenous artists or preference one geographical region or linguistic group of Indigenous cultural practice, students are encouraged to think more abstractly about the importance of symbols, alternative epistemological frameworks and narrative tools. This encourages students to think critically about artistic practice, and promotes metacognition and a personal exploration of cultural values and social systems.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Experiment with visual arts conventions and techniques, including exploration of techniques used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, to represent a theme, concept or idea in their artwork (ACAVAM118)
- Identify and connect specific features and purposes of visual artworks from contemporary and past times to explore viewpoints and enrich their art-making, starting with Australian artworks including those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (ACAVAR124)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 7 and 8 in The Arts (Visual Art):
- identify and analyse how other artists use visual conventions and viewpoints to communicate ideas and apply this knowledge in their art making
- evaluate how they and others are influenced by artworks from different cultures, times and places
- plan their art making in response to exploration of techniques and processes used in their own and others’ artworks
Activity 1 - Reflecting and responding to artwork
The inquiry-based questions below refer to three conceptual categories: symbols, metamorphosis and country.
Symbols encourage students to think about how we use shapes, pattern and colour to represent a range of ideas, identity and belonging.
Metamorphosis focuses on alternative definitions of time, being and belief. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cosmology has a circular notion of time and being. Culturally, one is part of the landscape or country, and there’s not the same divisions between the human state of being and the animal and plant world. In the cycle of life and death, everything is in a constant state of metamorphosis or change.
Country refers to how we relate to the natural world around us, and how it informs our sense of identity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have links to country through language and cultural practices, including dance, songs, stories and totems. Aboriginal Australians may be connected to ‘country’ in terms of through descent from a particular ancestor, or cultural authority and identity from both sides of family. There are many Songlines and other cultural aspects that link people to complex social structures, kinship, identity and country.
- How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use symbols in art work?
- How does the art work incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge of astronomy in their work?
- How does the artwork tell a story of change or metamorphosis?
- In what ways do the materials used provide a connection to country and the environment?
- Video “Yirrkala drawings - Larrakitj”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NgbCuNa8W0
- Video “ANKAAA Harvesting Traditional Knowledge – a two-way learning project - Yirrkala”: https://vimeo.com/72787939
- How do the stories in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art work connect to country and identity?
- Consider why Kabbindi might sometimes only use ochre in her artwork, and other times acrylic paint.
- Compare and contrast the artworks of the case study artists; one from Western and one from North Eastern Arnhem Land.
Activity 2 – Night sky collage
Suggested timing: 3 lessons
Required resources: pieces A3 paper (white and coloured), wax crayon/candle, coloured inks, polystyrene
Teacher notes: This activity encourages students to think about how they would translate their connection and understanding of the night sky in an artistic form. The practical classroom suggestions easily translate to many media allowing a teacher to work with their own artistic strengths and the resources available at the school.
- Students study the night sky, and create their own map of the night sky from their home.
- Students will translate this map of the star systems to a large blank piece of paper. Using a wax crayon or candle, they will place star systems and the moon into this night sky, across the top two thirds of a piece of watercolour or heavy gsm paper.
- Using dilute inks of different colours representing the night sky (black, dark blue, purple and grey) students will create a wash background for their night sky. The areas drawn in wax will repel the ink and shine through like stars.
- Students draw a horizontal land or cityscape that relates to their home on a piece of paper. The drawing should extend the width of the piece of paper.
- Students can then trace the drawing onto a piece of polystyrene (from packaging).
- Students can use the foam as a printmaking plate and roll it up with block printing ink.
- Students can then print multiples of the image on different coloured pieces of paper, representing different seasons. These pieces of paper will be layered to create a sense of depth on the final work.
- Once completed, the students should layer and adhere their landscape onto the bottom third of the picture.
This exercise could be developed further to create a diorama with changing sets, for different times of the evening and lunar positions or dates within the lunar calendar. Students could make small ‘stop motion go’ video works, using the diorama to tell the narrative of the Moon or to talk about the milky way or larger cosmos.
3 Gulumbu Yunupingu Gumatj/Rrakpala peoples 'Garak I (The Universe)' 2004 (National Gallery of Australia, 2010): https://youtu.be/Y6z5Ga-Aa6M
6 Australian Capital Equity., 2011, Larrakitj: Kerry Stokes Collection, Australian Capital Equity, West Perth, Western Australia.
7 Skerritt, H. F., (ed) 2016, Marking the Infinite, Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia from the Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection.
Marking the Infinite (The Phillips Collection): https://youtu.be/85XOW9cKhZA
8 Gulumbu Yunupingu (QAGOMA): https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/goma10hub/artists/gulumbu-yunupingu
10 Information and image of artwork retrieved from: https://issuu.com/benjaminkthomas/docs/mits_barring-bul_-_low_res, p. 20
11 ibid. p. 20
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.