Symbols and meanings in indigenous art

Indigenous art is ingrained in the fabric of Australia, from statues in our streets, to ancient paintings in the cavities of Uluru. The history of Australia’s indigenous culture is hidden in the art work of this country’s oldest people, with their stories imbedded in the symbols that are used.

Traditional indigenous paintings are often combinations of dots, lines and circles, which can be difficult to interpret for the untrained eye. But with a bit of guidance, the dots, lines and circles of some of the most famous pieces can begin to make sense. More modern pieces have shapes and symbols which are easier to recognise, but many traditional elements still remain.

We’ve put together a list of some common symbols in indigenous art and how to identify them. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will help you better understand and interpret the stories of this country’s ancestors.


Men and women, in gatherings or on their own, feature strongly in a lot of indigenous art works, which often tell stories of tribes and families.

U shapes, such as those in Susan Betts painting, Community Gathering (see below), represent the tracks left behind by people. A lot of U shapes together in one area signifying a popular meeting place. The size of each U shape indicates whether the person represented is an adult or a child. White dots surrounding the shape indicate that the person is wearing body paint.

Gender is suggested in each painting by the types of symbols that surround the U. Men are often depicted with spears and boomerangs, while women are shown with digging sticks or a coolamon, which is a type of vessel. But sometimes women have no gender identifying symbols around them as well.


Animals are recognised in indigenous art by the bird’s-eye shape of their tracks. A snake has shallow, curved lines. Different kinds of birds have three pointed claws. The individual features of each bird are noted with different details in the shape. For example, a Kittyhawk is drawn with dotted lines rather than solid ones. A turkey has added circular endings. Dingoes appear as a paw print, while kangaroo tracks look like an upside-down arrow split down the middle.

According to the artist’s origins and the painting’s date, animals have also been drawn as accurate, though stylised, likenesses.

Land and Water

Indigenous Australian cultures have a deep connection to the land they live on, so natural surroundings are a key feature in indigenous art works.

Since indigenous artists come from a wide range of environments across Australia, their renditions of their home differ according to the varied landscapes throughout the country.

You can often guess an artist’s origins from the subjects in their paintings: paintings with oceans and sea creatures were likely created by an artist from a coastal area.

Water is one of the easiest things to find in an Aboriginal painting. Wherever you see, deep, strongly-curved lines, it will probably be water. And have you ever seen groups of concentric circles? They depict watering holes, so important in the indigenous lifestyle.

Rock-holes are also important sources of water for indigenous people, and are represented in paintings as a series of circles close together, with many dots inside each circle.

Mountains are often shown as very sharp curved lives, while sand hills have semi-circles stacked one on top of the other.

The Evolution of Indigenous Paintings

Almost all traditional Aboriginal artworks represent religious or spiritual stories, often telling stories of the Dreamtime. These stories hold deep cultural significance, and are often hidden by the artist deep within the paintings, only interpretable by experts.

Modern non-indigenous artists incorporate themes from traditional Aboriginal art: the land, the native flora and fauna and family connections. Judy Prosser is one such artists. She honours the Australian Aboriginal history and the harmony between people and nature while experimenting with different, more modern painting techniques.

Indigenous paintings will only gain in importance as Australians foster increasingly greater respect for this land’s oldest inhabitants. And while it’s lovely having a colourful dotted painting on a wall of your home, understanding the significance behind the painting’s elements will make your painting all the more special.

Browse PictureStore’s selection of Aboriginal prints today.

Richard Tarrant - Bio

Richard Tarrant - Founder and CEO of PictureStore Pty Ltd
Richard is founder and CEO of PictureStore and has worked since October 2000 to make wall art accessible to all Australians. Google+

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