The Dreaming - part of a Catalogue Essay

By Dr Christine Nicholls, Posted 02 February 2019

This all-important concept of "The Dreaming" discussed by Dr Christine Nicholls

It is important to understand works of art in terms of the particular logic which produces them, and essential to any real understanding of Indigenous Australian art, which first and foremost needs to be understood as religious art.

An analogy could be drawn to the art of the Renaissance, chichis impossible to understand without some reference to Christianity. In the same way, the Indigenous religious concept of “The Dreaming” needs to be evoked in order to understand the art.

“The Dreaming” is in fact a poor and trivialising translation for this complex and all-embracing concept, which encapsulates Aboriginal Law, and the Creation time of the Ancestral heroes, a time which, unlike the Biblical Genesis, is not believed to be finite, or to have occurred in the past,  but to be ongoing, extending into the past, present and future.

“The Dreaming” also refers to the rituals, ceremonies and other associated artistic practices which are utilised to evoke that time of Creation. 

Indigenous Australian people “own” (in the copyright sense of “own”) or “manage” particular   Dreamings, as a matter of inherited rights deriving from their fathers, grandfathers and mothers - for example as Anmatyerre artist Gracie Morton Purle (Utopia) owns the bush plum Dreaming. In effect, this means that she and a limited number of other people are the only ones permitted under Anmatyerre law to reproduce the images associated with the bush plum Dreaming.

It is considered a capital offence under Anmatyerre Law to reproduce the “Dreamings” of others without permission. Each of the paintings is a representation of a particular Dreaming.


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