Crossing Cultures: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art


Learning to Look

Created by the Hood Museum of Art, Learning to Look is an approach designed to help viewers look carefully and think critically about any work of art.

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This annotated list of resources may be used to help you and your students learn more about looking at and making meaning from this type of art.

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Vocabulary List

This glossary provides definitions to words used in the pre-visit material and also that are likely to come up during a visit to the exhibition.

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Other Resources

Information about the Dreaming, or “the Law”

Compiled by museum education staff for use in conjunction with the exhibition Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art

For Indigenous Australians, many aspects of life are guided by their religion, which is referred to in the English language as the Dreaming or the Dreamtime. Although Aboriginal people today may talk about their Dreamings, these have nothing to do with an unconscious or sleep-like state. The term instead refers to totems and stories about the creation of the world by Ancestral beings. Each Dreaming describes how particular aspects of life came to be. Dreamings explain how the universe was created, how the land was shaped, and who and what came to live in it. They provide guidance on how to behave and why, where to find certain foods, and much more. Above all, Dreamings teach people to live in harmony with each other, animals, and the land. Aboriginal people themselves more frequently refer to the Dreaming in English as “the Law,” the unifying principle that brings together and governs all people, places, and things. The Dreaming is not a finite period of time but is believed to be perpetual and ever-present in Aboriginal Australian culture.

The phrase “the Dreaming” is sometimes used to evoke the shape-shifting Ancestors who created the land, named it, and passed down laws of social behavior. While on their epic journeys, the Ancestors eventually metamorphosed into the land and bestowed it with their power. As they traveled across the land, beings left pathways that are called “songlines” because the stories of their journeys are passed on through songs. These songlines divide Australia into large cultural regions, colloquially known as “country” and often link distant communities together through shared Dreamings. These pathways are recognizable in the landscape through landmarks such as hills, rivers, and groupings of plants.

Knowledge of the Dreaming, or the Law, is acquired progressively through initiation ceremonies. These Ancestral narratives are passed down generationally and are shared through storytelling, performance (including song and dance), and art-making that includes body painting, ceremonial ground painting, and rock painting. These art forms provide the basis for Aboriginal ceremonial life. Children learn Dreamings from their elders, who tell the stories and show how to depict them. As they grow older, children develop greater insight into the messages within the stories.

Dreamings are sacred, and for that reason usually only those who “own” a Dreaming are allowed to know its whole story. People gain ownership of Dreamings by birth and through family relationships. One person can have many Dreamings, and many people can share the same Dreaming. It is rare that the whole story of a Dreaming will be revealed to people who do not “own” it. Most of the time only parts of a Dreaming, or a very simple version of it, is shared with those who do not own it. In this way, the sacred, spiritual significance of the Dreaming is honored and protected.

For hundreds of years, Aboriginal peoples depicted Dreamings by painting them in the sand or on rocks or their bodies during ceremonies. Only recently—beginning roughly fifty years ago—did they begin painting Dreamings on canvas, such as you see in the exhibition Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art. Because many of the designs used to show Dreamings relate to shapes and activities in the landscape, some of these paintings can be thought of as maps of the landscape. Symbols are used to depict landmarks such as rivers, hills, water holes, caves, campsites, and tracks. Only those people who “own” a Dreaming or know its whole story will be able to look at a painting and understand everything that it represents. However, by identifying the symbols that artists commonly use in their paintings, we can figure out parts of these stories.

Sometimes the symbols found in paintings can be “read” according to this chart, while other times you might see the same symbol but it could have a different meaning.

Pre-Visit Activity

Aboriginal Australia: Geography, Land, and Stories

Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art showcases the diversity and richness of art from across the Australian continent. While all of the works in the exhibition were made within the past fifty years, many of them are imbued with knowledge shared across generations of Aboriginal Australians spanning millennia. The way the art looks and how it is made reflect the artists’ connections to the past, to the land, and to the social and cultural practices of their people.

This pre-visit lesson will prepare students for the Hood Museum of Art by familiarizing them with the geography of Australia. It will also help them learn about the connection between storytelling and art making in Aboriginal Australian communities, provide an opportunity to watch an Aboriginal artist working.



Students will:

1. Learn a few basic geography facts related to Australia that will provide some contextual background in preparation for their museum visit.

2. Think about ways in which storytelling is used to share knowledge within different cultures.

3. Watch a video of Aboriginal artists painting and discuss what they notice when looking at the video;

4. Learn that the art they will explore in the museum will reflect the traditions and values of diverse Aboriginal Australians, as well as the different environments in various regions of Australia.

Materials needed for this activity:

Map of Australia overlaid on the United States, glossary

Access to the Internet



Explain to students that when they visit the Hood, they will be looking at an exhibition of art made by Aboriginal Australian artists from all across Australia.

Show the image of the map of Australia superimposed over the map of the United States. Point out that Australia is only slightly smaller than the United States. Invite students to share what they know about Australia, and then read the following geographical facts:

● Australia is the sixth biggest country in the world

● At one point there were over 600 native languages spoken across Australia. Today there are 300-400 native languages still spoken

●Australia is home to some of the world’s most unusual animals, including the kangaroo, echidna, emu, Tasmanian devil, thorny devil, and the koala

● Indigenous Australians have the world’s oldest continuously surviving culture, dating back more than 50,000 years


Stories: Why and how do people tell stories?

Invite students to brainstorm answers to the question, “Why do people in different cultures tell stories?” As you help them develop their answers, include the following ideas:

● Stories can teach younger generations valuable lessons

● Within a culture group, stories can help connect living generations to their ancestors from the past and create a sense of togetherness and belonging

● Stories can entertain

● Stories are a way for people to learn about cultures other than their own

Next, ask students to brainstorm answers to the question, “What are some of the different ways or methods people use to tell stories?”

After they share ideas, have them consider the four categories listed below. Help students brainstorm specific examples within each category. For example, under the Performative category, a specific example might be a song that tells a story such as The Star Spangled Banner:

● Oral: telling stories out loud

● Written storytelling

● Performative: dance, drama, movies, song, and music

●Visual: paintings and sculpture


Aboriginal Australian art: What it looks like and how it tells stories

Inform students that Aboriginal Australians have been sharing stories about their ancestors and the land they have lived on for thousands of years. Many of these stories are sacred and tell of deep connections Indigenous people feel to land and to their ancestors who created the land. One of the ways Aboriginal Australian people tell stories today is through their visual art. The paintings that they will explore on their visit to the museum will invite them to look and think differently about how knowledge is shared. Most of the art will appear to be abstract, and by looking carefully at colors, shapes, and lines, they will come to understand how these paintings tell important stories about connections between generations of Aboriginal Australian people and the land where they have lived.

The painting process

Log onto

This link takes you to the web site for Creative Cowboy films. Watch a 2:24 minute video of Aboriginal Australian artist Angelina Pwerle painting on a canvas. Before students watch, invite them to pay attention to both what they see and what they hear. Following the video, ask students to briefly share their thoughts about what they noticed using the following prompts:

● What did you see happening in this video?

● How is the artist making her art? What kinds of tools is she using?

● How is painting sitting on the ground different from painting standing up?

How is her perspective different from that of someone painting standing up?

● The sounds you hear are sounds Angelina makes as she paints. How would you describe the quality of those sounds? (i.e. loud/quiet, rhythmic/dissonant, soothing/jarring, etc.)

● What does the art look like?

Share with students:

This brief video shows Aboriginal Australian artist Angelina Pwerle painting about the Bush plum. The Bush plum is a small, nutrient-rich fruit with black seeds that grows abundantly in the region where Angelina lives. For thousands of years it has sustained her people, and it is a fruit typically harvested by women. As she paints, she tells the story of the plant, where it might be found in the land, where her people live, and how it came to be. As she paints, she remembers the stories and the experiences she and her ancestors have had collecting this fruit. By painting this story, she is honoring the land that provides this sustenance and honoring her ancestors.

Outline of the Australian continent over the map of the United States

Exhibition information

For an overview of the exhibition, including images of works of art, visit


Aboriginal Australian Art

There is no substitute for seeing the real thing! While the museum is closed for expansion, we are still offering free tours of public art on campus, including Orozco's Epic of American Civilization.