Dreamtime is the beginning, when the earth was a flat desolate surface through which the ancestors broke through. The sun rose and the land received light for the first time, and as the ancestors moved across the land they changed its forms and created the landscapes.
In Aboriginal stories all living things are descended from the Dreamtime ancestors, who then returned to the earth and their state of sleep, or who became part of the landscape. It is these sacred places, the landscapes that show the cycles of nature, that are the basis of Aboriginal spiritual life.
Dreamtime could be compared to the expression in Western culture “and then there was light”. It symbolizes the birth of existence, and Dreamtime is in essence the creationist myth for the Aboriginal people.
There was a uniqueness and diversity existing in Australian art before the artists were introduced to canvas and acrylic paints. This can be seen through the rock art found in Central Australia, the sacred objects of engraved wood and stone, the painted shields and carrying dishes, as well as the temporary designs used in ceremonial body painting. Each of these designs belongs to the ancestors and vary from place to place, and are seen as markers of the journeys the ancestors took, and the events that occurred, and will therefore always be unique depending on the context, medium and audience.
In the last forty years attempts have been made to understand Aboriginal art in the context of a western art history. Initially it was classified as ‘tribal art’ or ‘primitive art’, which limited it to a representation of the people as a whole, not as individual groups. These initial attempts to classify and understand Dreamtime stories didn’t account for the differences between tribes. Now there is more of an understanding that the stories that influence each tribe and their art are reflective of their particular myths and legends, which are ever evolving.
Some ritual ceremonies and song cycles created by the Dreamtime journeys of the ancestors are known as ‘Tjingari’ and are shared by all of the Western Desert tribal groups. These are the best known of all the Dreaming designs and represent the journeys of the ancestors across the landscape. Each family (or skin group) is assigned a landscape feature, which is then further divided among individuals who then all share the Dreaming story. Dreaming as a religion has not been passed down through texts, but through the rituals, celebrations, dances and painting that illustrate the stories that need to be passed down from the ancestors.