How does art convey a meaningful narrative through the use of symbolism? Art gives the capability for a person to communicate their opinions or tell stories. Artists use a variety of mediums to convey their beliefs, attitudes and values about the world. Art can vary in its level of subtlety when trying to depict what the artist would like to convey. All artistic movements are comprised of representations.
Whether the artwork is conveying emotion or a physical object, it cannot do either without using something to represent the artist’s intentions. The use of symbolism in art can be a very powerful way to represent the artist’s perception or interpretation of something. The use of symbols in art can be particularly effective when the artist composes these symbols in a sequence to create a visual narrative. This form of artistic story telling has been present since the very earliest works of art.
Australian Aboriginal culture incorporates these symbolic artworks to tell their dream time stories and communicate between each other, the Egyptian culture created a whole hieroglyphic alphabet with artistic symbols, and how modern day society uses emoticons to convey complex emotions and ideas over digital text. The Australian aboriginal culture is one of the oldest in the world, dating back between 60,000 and 80,000 years. Ancient ochre based paintings on rocks, found by archaeologists, have been dated back as far as 40,000 and 60,000 years.
Because Australian Aboriginal culture has no written language, the Aboriginal people must use symbols in their artworks as a means to convey the cultural dream time stories that are of great significance to their culture. These symbolic artworks allow their cultural messages and methods of land management to be passed down from generation to generation. The symbols in the artworks vary from area to area, but are broadly understood. They are a very valuable part of Aboriginal artworks.
The symbols incorporated into aboriginal artwork are quite simple, yet they can tell intricate stories when they are used in conjunction with other symbols in a more complicated fashion. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Mens Ceremony Acrylic on Board 1980/82 The artwork by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri is an example of the intricate story telling involved in Aboriginal art. The painting depicts a corroboree which is a traditional Aboriginal meeting at which Aboriginal men use music, dancing and costumes to interact with their Dreamtime. These corroborees are sacred and it is forbidden for outsiders to watch or participate.
Modern Aboriginal artists represent the “outside” story. They construct this for the non-indigenous members of their audience, because the in-depth “inside” story can only be understood by those who’s understanding is of an appropriate level. This means nonindigenous people will never fully understand eloquence of the Indigenous artwork. Yet from an artistic standpoint the complexity of symbolism used in the Indigenous artwork is second to none. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was thought to be born in 1932, his day and month of birth is unknown, but the year is thought to be approximately accurate.
He was born on Napperby Station, three hours North West of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Like most young Indigenous men in his situation, he spent his early years working as a stockman, receiving no formal education. He became a talented wood carver, and started working at his local school teaching wood carving. It was at this school in 1971 Geoffrey Bardon, a local art teacher gathered a group of local men to create a group called “The Painting Men”. Possum Tjapaltjarri was somewhat reluctant and was one of the last to join the group.
The group started with large murals on the the school walls and then snowballed from that point on. Possum Tjapaltjarri soon established himself as a superior member in the painting group. A 2004 exhibition by The Art Gallery of New South Wales spoke of him as “… an expert woodcarver who took up painting long before the emergence of the Papunya Tula School in the early 1970s. When Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri joined this group of’dot and circle’ painters early in 1972 he immediately distinguished himself as one of its most talented members and went on to create some of the largest and most complex paintings ever produced”. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004).
The Group “The Painting Men” later became renamed as Papunya Tula Artists, where Possum Tjapaltjarri was chairman from 1980 to 1983 and once again in the later 1980s. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s art consisted of the stories which he was taught from a young age, through cultural ceremonies and the knowledge passed down from his Elders. The dreaming he inherited provided a great variety of content for his art, it included: Honey Ant, Goanna, Mala, Lighting, Mans love story, Snake, Fish, Kangaroo, Water, Fire and Possum.
His art contains important messages and information for his Aboriginal people, it discusses the laws, morals and beliefs relevant to his culture. In 1990, Possum Tjapaltjarri had the honor of traveling to the United Kingdom and meeting Queen Elizabeth II. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri had a long and successful career spanning 30 years, he passed away on June 21, 2002. He had innumerable exhibitions both in Australia and internationally, and still today there are exhibitions honoring his work.
The Egyptian culture took a similar approach to that of the Australian Aboriginal culture in relation to their art work, using symbolism for storytelling. However with the use of their Hieroglyphic symbols the Egyptian people created an alphabetic system similar to that of our present day English alphabet. This allowed the Egyptian people to send messages between each other and record information for future generations to learn from, all through the means of art. The symbols used by the Egyptians in their hieroglyphic alphabet are different to that of the Australian Aboriginal art works.
Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of small symbols and figures. The figures include humans in varying positions, animals and a range of shapes and patterns. The variety of Egyptian hieroglyphs is immense. They were not just alphabetic symbols, but also included syllabic symbols and occasionally even determinative symbols the latter portrayed the words meaning itself. None of this would be possible without the vast number of artistic symbols used by the Egyptian scribes who created these intellectual works of art. The above image (Millmore 2016) is a quote that a famous Egyptian ruler named Ptahhotep instructed his scribes to write.
It translates to “No limit may be set to art, neither is there any craftsman that is fully master of his craft”. The use of artistic symbolism to depict meaning has evolved over time. Modern technological societies have developed Emoticons or Emojis. The word Emoticon is the combination of two words, ‘Emotion’ and ‘Icon’ as the combination suggests, an emoticon is a way to create a digitized form of emotion. They consist of small faces, each showing a different emotion. They originated as a way of compensating for the incapability to convey vocal changes, body gestures or facial expressions in a digital message.
The emoticon has changed substantially from its original combination of key strokes; They are now a form of art. There are hundreds of faces and symbols that are used by a substantial portion of today’s technological society to covey complex emotions and ideas, that words cannot. The photo above (Pinson 2014) shows the top 100 emoticons used by society today. The use of symbolism in art to depict meaning, has been a way for cultures to tell stories and record information, different forms of symbol art has formed over time, and I was intrigued by the creation of a narrative through a sequence of symbols.
I aimed to produce work that incorporated the use of emoticons to portray a message or story. My work is somewhat similar and inspired by the way Egyptians hieroglyphics using a sequence of symbols to convey information. In my own work however, I have incorporated emoticons as symbols conveying emotions to create a narrative. By creating a sequence of emotions, it tells the story of an intimate interaction leaving a participant broken hearted.