Is this only a pretty painting featuring abstract dots and circles or do they signify a particular meaning? Actually, the artist is revealing her kin-owned and geographically specific Homeland, which is considered sacred to her family. I photographed this acrylic canvas painting during my fieldwork in 2008 in Nauiyu a community located in Fitzmaurice region, Northern Territory, Australia. The painting was dislayed as a piece of fine art, among other works of local art, at Merrepen Arts gallery in Nauiyu. The artist Marita Ann Sambono Diyini, born in 1968, is a member of the Ngan’gikurrungurr language group and a Traditional Owner of Ngambu Ngambu Homeland. She is an active artist and employee at Merrepen Arts. In Australia most Aboriginal works of art are sold with a certificate of authenticity, documenting biographic details of the artist and their design story. A design story is a narration in the words of the artist describing their illustration; the design story for Sambono’s Fog Dreaming reveals how her abstract painting is her creative illustration of a sacred Dream site:
“This is my grandmother’s Dreaming. Near the Moyle River there is a place called Marringarr where the fog comes out of holes in the ground near the station house. This painting shows these holes in the centre of the circles. The different layers around the circles are the fog spreading and floating over the land. My design shows the movement of the fog and the spiritual danger associated with coming into contact with the fog.”
According to Aboriginal cosmology the world was created by powerful Ancestral beings in a mystical past called the Dreamtime. Through their creations their power is manifested with a timeless presence in the land, making it sacred. Certain areas are referred to as a Homeland, Dede Putymemme in Ngan’gi, where the right to ownership of the land and its Dreamings, as well as the right to depict them in art, and also the obligation to look after the land, are given to particular kinship groups by the Ancestors. Organized through descent, this ownership is passed from fathers to their children. In this Dreamtime design, Sambono is visually and artistically interpreting a specific, geographical Homeland, Marringarr, into a painting. The spiritual danger mentioned in the story is related to the presence of Ancestral spirits in this area. The Ngan’gi’s always perform a Welcome to Country ritual for every person that enters their sacred and kinship-owned Homeland for the first time. Water from the land is placed on the head and belly button of the visitor, and once it flows on the land, it will familiarize the Ancestor spirits with the visitor. They will thus leave the initiated person in peace. Were an uninitiated stranger to enter, the spirits would take the shape of fog and chase him. Sambono’s design illustrates as such her knowledge of their cosmological Dreaming, and her family’s relationship to their land and their Ancestors.
The painting is the result of cultural painting conventions learned through years of training in kin-based apprenticeships with her older relatives. However, her individual creativity and talent is also vital to the development of her designs. She painted her first Fog Dreaming in 2004, which was a particularly creative move stylistically because it was so different to her former works, which were predominantly figurative and more colourful. I asked Sambono how she came up with such an innovative design and she told me that she had an idea inspired by early rock art and the movement of the fog in this area. Then Sambono talked to an art coordinator working at Merrepen Arts at the time asking her how to visualise her idea from her mind to canvas. The curator suggested the abstract use of dots and lines. Thus, Sambono’s visual development of this design was also partly spurred by this advice. The curator was most likely knowledgeable of the recognition that Aboriginal abstract dot-paintings from the Western Desert has received in the fine art market, and encouraged Sambono to develop a similar style, which could increase recognition of her work in the art market. This illustrates how both coordinators and customers influence the artistic production of artists.
Once Sambono began producing Fog Dreamings she quickly changed the designs in many directions. She developed her composition by adding first a few circles as a manifestation of the fog producing holes in the ground, surrounded by concentric circles and patterns created by dots and lines representing the fog’s movement. Then she began painting innumerable circles flowing into each other. She also changed colours from tones of grey to red-brown, and gradually made the design on larger canvases. Lastly, she improvised by transferring this design to other art media, producing a Fog Dreaming etching and screen print on paper. There are certain ambiguities when Aboriginal art is incorporated into art exchanging contexts as there are clear differences in the creative practices of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists. Sambono is painting a Dreamtime site while drawing upon knowledge of her cosmology, the Law, and her Homeland transferred to her by her older relatives. Sambono is simultaneously conscious that her saleable art has a market value, appreciated as fine art, and thus she is concerned with incorporating knowledge of the customers’ aesthetic preferences in her works. The painting makes two transits from her home to the Merrepen Arts gallery’s display, to a wall in the home of a purchasing customer. A transition follows as this painting is founded on her sacred and kinship based ownership of a land area, yet, in the art world contexts the painting is appreciated and aesthetically judged simply as an object with the status of fine art (Svašek 2007). Aboriginal art is simultaneously a commodity and an object of significant and sacred value to its producer.