For millennia First Peoples have used symbols drawn on bodies and natural surfaces such as rock, sand and bark as part of story and ceremony. Many First Nations artists use them in their art to symbolise elements such as people, country, plants and animals, Dreaming figures, and clan designs.
These symbols carry some of the cultural meaning of the story that the artist is telling. The symbols’ meaning is not always the same, depending on the context of the painting and its story.
The curved U shape is a widely used icon in First Nations art and symbolises a person. It represents the shape that is left on the sand when a person sits cross legged. The marks that are placed either side of the human symbol can define whether it represents a male or female. A woman symbol may have an oval shape and a straight line, which represent her coolamon bowl and digging stick. A man may be indicated by curved or straight lines, which are his spears and boomerangs.
Parallel lines linking circles symbolise the journey route people take between a series of locations. Wavy lines represent water running between two sites.
Travel was controlled by recognising features in the landscape which signified when food would be available. Sometimes artworks will show plant life at a particular point in its life cycle to provide guidance on when to travel or go hunting. Small circles may represent any number of bush foods such as bush melon and bush tomatoes.
A circle or a set of concentric circles usually signify places where people come together. They can represent a meeting place, fireplace, campsite, a waterhole, or a ceremonial site. Waterholes are critical to survival in the desert and for that reason they feature frequently in First Peoples’ art. They are often sacred places as ceremonies typically take place at sites where there is an abundant source of water. Accordingly, the symbol representing a ceremony and the symbol for a waterhole are often used interchangeably by artists.
Some artists represent animals by the tracks they leave behind. The symbol for Kangaroo represents the mark left by its large back paws. Goannas leave distinctive tracks that include their feet and a winding tail-mark.