Aboriginal Art Symbols

Aboriginal Art Symbols

Posted by Mbantua Gallery on 2020 Jul 01st

Aboriginal Art Symbols - Understanding Aboriginal Art 

The use of iconography in Aboriginal art is as much a part of communicating the story today as it was 50,000 years ago. Traditionally, Australian Aboriginal people had no written language of their own so in conjunction with song and dance, images were used to help communicate important cultural stories. In this behind the scenes look at art from Utopia, we take a closer look at several of the icons commonly used by our artists to help tell their amazing stories. Australian Aboriginal art has become very well known around the world for its intricate designs and incredible workmanship, though one of the most powerful things about these amazing pieces is the meaning behind them.

Australian Aboriginal art has become very well known around the world for its intricate designs and incredible workmanship, though one of the most powerful things about these amazing pieces is the meaning behind them.

Unlike a lot of modern art that is abstract and without much meaning, Aboriginal paintings play an important role in the expression of Aboriginal culture as well as the telling of extremely important stories. Being able to understand the meaning behind Aboriginal art has a lot to do with understanding the meaning of various symbols, and while they do differ depending on where the artwork is made, you can get a sense of the meaning by understanding a basic set of symbols. The following are some of the main symbols that will enable you to gain at least some understanding of Aboriginal art.

Iconography is a lot more than just pictures.

‘U’ shapes:

'U' shapes are a common symbol seen in art from Utopia. Digging sticks and coolamons are often seen in conjunction with the u shapes, as these are women’s tools. Women dig in the ground for yams, witchetty grubs and honey ants. U-shaped elements generally refer to a person sitting or sometimes means a woman, and a large group of these shapes often refers to a large meeting or gathering. 

Man/Woman Sitting around Camp
Man Sitting
Man/Woman Sitting around Campsite  Man Sitting 


Concentric circles in Aboriginal paintings often refer to campsites or even water holes depending on their colour.


One of the most recognisable features of Australian Aboriginal art is its use of dots. Dots are an important symbol used in a lot of Aboriginal art in Australia and symbolise many things from stars to burnt ground. Quite often dots have been used in Aboriginal paintings to hide or camouflage secrets that are only to be known by those who have been properly initiated through ancient ceremonies. Depending on who you ask you may get many different answers to what the dots mean, and alot also depends on what else is depicted around the dots in the painting.

Concentric Circle - Campsite                  Concentric Circle - Waterhole
Campsite Waterhole

Body Paint Design:

Body Paint design is known as 'Awelye' in Anmatyerr/Alyawarr language in the Utopia district of Central Australia. Aboriginal women will traditionally paint their breasts, chests and upper arms with ochre during the Dreaming Ceremony. This painting up will often be accompanied by singing.

Body Paint Design - Awelye  Body Paint Design 

A Single Line:

This symbol can again mean many things though it is often used to represent a man. If it is surrounded by lots of little dots it can mean a man taking place in an initiation ceremony and if it is next to a U shape and a small circle it can mean a family unit.Straight lines are used to denote spears and digging sticks as well as the tracks of various animals.

Emu Tracks           Kangaroo Tracks
Emu Tracks  Kangaroo Tracks 

Oval Shapes:

An oval shape can mean at least two different things and generally is either a shield or a coolamon, which is a type of water or food carrier. Sometimes there are markings inside the oval that help distinguish what it is. Two smaller oval shapes inside the larger one can sometimes meaning it is a coolamon to be used for food and water. Two small straight lines can denote the handholds for the aboriginal warrior to carry his shield. 

Shield with hand holds.               Coolamon with Food
Shield with Handholds  Coolamon with food. 

Boomerang Shapes:

When a boomerang shape is depicted in Aboriginal paintings it can mean any number of things depending again on the context it is used in, though it will usually refer to hunting, weapons or bravery.

Number 7 Hunting Boomerang             
Number 7 Hunting Boomerang  Boomerang 

Obviously all Aboriginal people are not the same and there are lots of completely different Aboriginal traditions and cultures so the only way to be sure that you know what something means in an Aboriginal painting is to ask the artist who painted it. While some symbols are widely used, their meaning can differ considerably, so knowing a few symbols will just be the tip of the iceberg in understanding Aboriginal art.