Paris, 7 September 2018

The Aboriginal arts of Australia may be diverse, but they’re characterised by a certain unity and a distinctive identity. An identity that is expressed in multiple ways and variations, all inspired by the common theme dubbed as the “Dreamtime”.

They call it the Dreamtime. Sometimes alternatively written as the “Dream Time” or “Dream-time”, this concept was named by Francis James Gillen, a pioneer in the field of scientific anthropology, who used it to describe the mythology of the Arrernte (from central Australia), one of the 600 Aboriginal ethnic groups that were identified at the time. If there are different ways to write the term, it’s because it’s the translation of the word “Altyerrenge”, drawn from one of the indigenous languages that have existed in Australia for several thousands of years. This lexical hesitation translates our awkwardness in importing a given idea and its representation from another culture. But even if the Dreamtime may be hard for Westerners to grasp, it is nonetheless a key to the Aboriginals’ reading of the world, radically shifting the way everything is perceived in comparison with a Western viewpoint.

What exactly is the Dreamtime?

First of all, the Dreamtime can be seen as a mythological narrative on the creation of the world. It tells that before life in any form whatsoever existed, Ancestor-Spirits were born from the Earth and fashioned the land that we still see today. Cliffs, waterfalls, rivers and streams, plateaux and mountains are thus considered vestiges of the Dreamtime. The same goes for life forms: humans, plants and animals are explained as “prints” of these Ancestor-Spirits, appearing in their wake.

In Western eyes, it’s a surprising way of seeing things. Our customary view is that landscapes are the work of time and the natural phenomenon called erosion. Another difference: we consider that time governs the emergence of life; life, in essence, is a fruit of temporality. But the opposite idea reigns in Arrente mythology, where geography marks the beginning of time rather than being its consequence; life produces time instead of being produced by it. In this respect, the Dreamtime is firstly associated with a “moment” that takes us back to the limits of creation, to an initial instant, the very beginning, before time started its inexorable work. A time before time, one might say, which raises up a mind-bending paradox and a metaphysical enigma. The Dreamtime also puts forward that when life appeared, different forms gathered together into groups that anthropologists would describe as “totemic”. These totemic groups make up different “Dreamings” with their own specificities: for example the Kangaroo Dreaming, the Shark Dreaming or the Honey Ant Dreaming, the latter being particularly significant in the Papunya Tula movement which emerged in the early 1970s in the desert of Alice Springs (Northern Territory), marking the return of Aboriginal art to the forefront of contemporary art.

It is up to each individual to adhere to or to create his or her own Dreaming(s), for individuals can commit to different totems. Every individual or group of individuals therefore “owns” their own Dreaming, in other words has an affiliation with a specific totem, by which they understand the laws of their existence and their condition. The Dreaming precedes and succeeds the individual, and we can associate it with the notion of the “species”, not from a biological viewpoint but a spiritual and mystical one. A species is not subject to time because every individual, by their existence, ensures its endurance. Nor are species subject to death (except in the case of extinction, but here, we speak of “extinction” rather than “death”), unlike individuals, subject to temporality, thus destined to die. In this way, by establishing which Dreaming they “own”, a person will gain awareness of the species they belong to, whereby species is conceived as a totemic ontology, following Descola’s definition in Par delà nature et culture – a relationship to the world that asserts a resemblance between interiorities (souls) and physicalities (bodies) between humans and non-humans, grouped around the one “substance” and manifesting the same “form of life”.

The Dreaming therefore refers to a single and identical common Ancestor for all individuals in the same totemic group. An Ancestor who was present in the Dreamtime. In this way, encountering and exploring the Dreaming amounts to communicating with this Ancestor, which is precisely the function of Aboriginal dances, rituals, paintings and sculptures. This is why art is a favoured medium for understanding the meaning of existence in the light of one’s own Dreaming. For Aboriginals, the Dreaming offers access to God; a means of communicating with God via ancestral spirits who themselves are not divinities but higher beings who initially inhabited the Earth.

Why painting?

The Aboriginal arts demonstrate a multiplicity of forms and techniques. Let’s look at painting and sculpture in particular, as pictorial arts. While song and dance are temporal arts par excellence, painting or sculpture produce fixed images and forms. So how can these images represent the Dreamtime? Why should images be chosen as vehicles for thinking about origins on top of narrative?

An image is a spatial form. What’s striking about Dreamtime works is that they can be seen as a mythological cartography of Australian land. Dreamtime representation is “cartographic” by nature. Landscapes from different regions where different Aboriginal ethnic groups have settled can be recognised in the Dreamtime; we can also identify prints left by humans, animals, and of course the Ancestors. These representations follow a carefully codified system of symbols that allows viewers to grasp the meanings of images. This system of symbols is incidentally the same as the one found in the most ancient rock paintings – an indication that Dreamtime paintings engage in an ecological approach, having an intimate tie with a given territory. As a result, they convey a singular manner of inhabiting the world and a lifestyle that is inextricably bound up with the presence of nature. Just as the ancestral spirits left life behind them in the way that traces are left behind, humans leave their traces through paintings, whose prime function is possibly to spiritually map out a territory that offers resources for survival and from which the meaning of existence can be pieced together.

Stepping into the Dreamtime means settling into an age-old present, still underway today. Finally, the Dreaming also has a moral dimension as humans can draw from it the principles that govern individual and social acts, including marriage and initiatory rites.

The Dreamtime today

It’s no accident if none of the Aboriginal languages has a word to designate time. For these cultures, the notion of time doesn’t seem to hold any relevance when referring to the world’s origins. In this way, the Dreamtime is not a thing of the past as one may think a mythological narrative to be. The Dreamtime is neither the past, nor the present nor the future. It is not a “time”, hence the misunderstanding that may arise, also fostered by Gillen’s translation of the Arrernte term. Rather than a time, the Dreamtime is what encompasses all of time, something that is outside time and also a framework within which time can take place. To explain it in terms of time, we can describe it as a perpetual present as this is possibly the best way to grasp a notion of time that does not pass but that exists in a permanent manner.

What’s remarkable about Aboriginal art is that it expresses the world’s oldest form of cultural continuity. Indeed, it is a form of primitive art (whose first occurrences date back over 50,000 years) which, at the same time, is still contemporary. We can consider it as an art outside of time in that it shows an endurance that stretches towards permanence. Of course, all artworks are permanent in some way when they are handed down to us and conserved. An artwork can play the role as an undying witness to humanity. But in the case of Aboriginal art, it is the art form itself that is perpetuated: a practice that has been carried on for several tens of thousands of years.

The fascination of the Dreamtime is twofold: on the one hand as an anthropological singularity; on the other hand because it coincides precisely with the message conveyed by Dreamtime art. The Dreamtime draws us to an original time when past, present and future formed a unified continuum. Time is no longer envisaged as unfolding inexorably but as being one with itself, like a river. Of course a river flows, but how can we recognise it? Not from the water that runs through it and that is never the same... What makes a river is not its water but the permanence of its current. The same goes for time from a Dreamtime perspective: time is not a flow but the unity required for something to flow. In the case of Aboriginal art, production that has persisted for thousands of years, and its permanence, reflect the same phenomenon...

Valentin Biesse