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Northern Territory Arnhem Land Aboriginal Art Symbols

About Art Symbols

Northern Art Symbols - X Ray Paintings - Arnhem land Aboriginal Paintings

Northern crosshatch symbolic artworks. 


In Arnhem Land artworks exhibit more figurative symbols being more realistic representations of their animal totems and staple plant foods. The figures are usually infilled with intricate and sometimes complex patterns of crosshatched lines.  This line crosshatching known as rarrk. 

The rarrk belongs to each tribal group.  A familiar comparison may be the Scotts and their tartan kilts.  The aboriginal rarrk pattern including the colour sequence is unique to each tribal group. It is painted on the body during ceremony and is often used by artists from this region to infill their artworks.

Some artworks animal totems rather than being infilled with their tribal rarrk show symbolic representations of the animals’ internal organs.  This style of symbolic painting is now referred to as X-ray paintings. This stylistic imagery has been found on the very ancient rock art paintings of the Arnhem Land escarpment country.


Aboriginal peoples from Arnhem Land believe that ancestral spirits in varying forms created the world was we know it. Indigenous stories myths and tales of the creation period have been passed down and recorded in artworks from ancient rock art galleries to modern day canvases. The Mimi spirits of creation taught everything from hunting practices to ceremonial and cultural lore.

The artworks of North and Arnhem Land in particular were not done for art’s sake. They were often records and representations of ancient sacred beliefs ceremonies. T hey often reflect the brutal reality associated with survival and the myths associated with the cultural beliefs about the origins of natural phenomena and aspects of human behavior.

Artist will not paint another rarrk style and who can paint what involves rigid enforcement of initiation rights and clan association and ownership and the rights to certain stories are passed down according to cultural lore.

Common stylized and symbolic representations of ancestral spirits include 

Note image symbols below are outline  representations  of identifiable structure In actual paintings they will take different forms shapes and colours


Ngalyod - The Rainbow Serpent

The artist has painted Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent. Ngalyod is regarded as a most important ancestor spirit in West Arnhem Land and appears in various manifestations in Kunwinjku mythology. In the Dreamtime she assumed a range of animal forms including snake, kangaroo and crocodile and at times transformed herself from one to the other, or into a combination of each. It is believed that as a serpent she tunnels underground using barbed extensions from her head and the bony protuberance from her neck as aids. It is believed that Ngalyod dwells in various billabongs in Arnhem Land today, sometimes swallowing bininj (the Kunwinjku term for Aboriginal people) as punishment when they break traditional laws.
Ngalyod is painted by many Kunwinjku artists, according to each artist’s own imagination and mythological background. She is often depicted with the leaves of the mandem (water lily) protruding from her back.....
                                                                                          reference Injalak Arts



Namarrkon, the Lightning Man, is an important ancestral being in the mythology of the Kunwinjku people of Western Arnhem Land. This spirit helped create the country during the Dreamtime. Namarrkon creates thunder by throwing stone axes down onto the earth. These axes can be seen protruding from various parts of his body, particularly the joints. An arc of lightning encircles his body. Namarrkon is especially active during December, 

                                                                                              reference Injalak Arts

yawk yawk2.jpg

Yawk Yawk

Yawkyawk is the Kunwinjku term for the female water spirits that have fish tails.   Yawkyawk start out in a tadpole-like form, as they get older they grow fish tails and spend most of their time in the water but are able to sit on the banks of billabongs. When fully grown they are able to change their tails into legs and walk on land to forage for food. They also change into dragonflies at the end of the wet season, which signifies the rains have finished. Yawkyawk are said to have namarnkol (barramundi) as pets and that Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent serves as their protector. These spirits are guardians of sacred waterholes

                                                                                              reference Injalak Arts

Mimi Spirits


 According to the Kunwinjku people of West Arnhem Land, Mimih spirits were the original spirit beings who taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive. They also taught aspects of ceremony such as singing, dancing (kunborrk) and playing didjeridu (mako). Mimih spirits are believed to inhabit the rocky escarpments around Gunbalanya but because they are extremely timid they are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently depicted in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures, often shown with a range of hunting tools.

                                                                                                                 reference Injalak Arts


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