Symbols and identity are the focus for this section. Five art works created by male and female artists have been selected to demonstrate diversity of symbols, artistic style and the use of traditional and contemporary materials. Students explore these artworks, artists, text and videos to learn about the use of symbols and cultural identity. Reflecting on this information students discuss the way symbols are used in art and everyday life. Students create symbols and graphic designs to represent their interests and identity.

Remind students to observe correct protocols and to use the glossary when necessary. Encourage the sustained use of ICT and technology to create their art works and to record, document and present their research and learning to the class, for self evaluation and teacher assessment.

Student notes

Exploring and responding

Observe the Ngurrara I 1996 canvas and read about the artist, their community and search for related video and film clips in the Tradition and Transformation resource. Use the Artful Thinking questions to assist your inquiry.

  • What can you see? (use observation skills)
  • What do you think this is about? (practice reflection, analysis and interpretation skills)
  • Pose questions that generate further enquiry. (develop research skills)

Ngurrara 1 is about Dreaming stories, cultural knowledge and practices revealing the artists connection to country and spiritual ancestors. The artists used symbols to depict this knowledge, some are identifiable while other parts of the painting are secret and known only to those elders who painted them. The canvas was created by 60 artists from different cultural groups, measures 4 by 7 metres and depicts 76,000 sq kilometres of land near the Great Sandy Desert.

However a second, much larger, 10 by 8 m painting of the same title was created and presented to The Native Title Tribunal in 1997 as evidence of ancestral, social, economic and personal connections to land. The paintings are similar and each defined area denotes different ancestral dreaming stories and significant places. During the court case some of the artists/ claimants stood on their country area within the painting, spoke of and danced their relationship to and responsibility for specific places. For more information:

Consider why the artists choose to present a painting as evidence.

View students from a Victorian high school exploring this art work as they aim to identify particular symbols such as trees, waterholes, stock routes, the rain spirit, river, snake and salt plains.

Compare Ngurrara 1 1996 canvas with a geographic view of Fitzroy Crossing or the Canning stock route using Google earth. Identify rivers, hills, sand dunes, tracks and vegetation and contrast this perspective with the way the artists have used symbols to depict their land.

Select and compare the following art works and note how these artists use symbols to paint about their country and identity. Insert thumb nail sketches url Read about the artist, their community and search for related video and film clips in the Tradition and Transformation resource. Use the Artful Thinking questions to assist your inquiry.

  • What can you see? (use observation skills)
  • What do you think this is about? ( practice reflection, analysis and interpretation skills)
  • Pose questions that generate further enquiry. ( develop research skills)

Yankirri Jukurrpa (Emu dreaming) was painted by Darby Jampijinpa Ross in 1987 and depicts his fathers country using symbols that represent emu tracks, soakages, spears and digging sticks in earth like colours, similar to traditional ochres used in bark painting.


Memory and Five Mile creek was painted by Daisy Napaltjarri Jugadai in 1995 and depicts her memory of a childhood place. The artist paints symbols to represent land, sky and vegetation using a palette of bright acrylic colours.


dhalaay yuulayn (passionate skin) was made in 2004 by Brook Andrew using aluminium, wood and neon to create a dynamic contemporary art work laden with political symbolism.


Preparing for ceremony was painted by Djambu Barra Barra in 1988 using vibrant acrylic colour and traditional x-ray and cross hatching designs to symbolise garndalpurra, the kangaroo.

It is important to understand that many Indigenous art works have strict copyright laws governing who has permission to paint certain symbols that relate to the Symbols . It is inappropriate for students to copy Indigenous symbols and paintings. Artists are often custodians of the land and have responsibility to both protect the land and pass on cultural knowledge through their art work. Symbols represent detailed cultural and spiritual knowledge that has been handed down the generations for thousands of years. Many symbols actually belong to a community and identify particular places of significance to members. This includes knowledge about territorial rights, cave paintings, rituals, ceremonies, kinship, songs, lore, law, hunting and gathering, plants, animals and technology. Some of this information is sacred and is the business of elders, men or women. These matters are private and may not be discussed in public.

All these aspects of life are interconnected and to represent this visually in a linear manner is inadequate as it does not show the complexity of interrelationships. To learn more about Indigenous life and identity study the Dreaming section from the Aboriginal Australia Art and Culture Centre.

Creating and making

  • How do you begin to define yourself?
  • At what point in your life did you become aware of yourself as a person?

These are big questions that are not easy or simple to answer.

Throughout each Identity activity remember where possible to record your ideas, responses to art works and the development of your own art works using ICT such as web cam, digital cameras and photo story. Maintain and build these files to demonstrate your knowledge and enable exciting presentation of your artworks.

Reflect on your life

  • Reflect on the identity map you created as a class or group and consider how you might represent your individual identity.
  • What makes us the same, what makes us different? Are there common factors?
  • Think over your entire life from a young child to being a teenager, how have you changed, how has your life changed during this time?
  • Brainstorm and identify the constant influences throughout life, such as family, friends, food, clothing, shelter, education, interests and activities.
  • Discuss how these influence your life and shape your identity.
  • Make notes that you can refer to in the development of your art works about your identity.

Your teacher may demonstrate their sense of identity by describing themselves, their interests and their various roles, ie teacher, mother, friend, female, noting how in each role they are slightly different.

Identity spiral

To assist you in creating a visual representation of your identity consider the self enclosed spiral design. This shape is like a mini life cycle and recognises the interrelationship of all aspects of your life, similar in concept to the Dreaming. It is important to include your current interests and also activities that do not interest you. Activities you do not enjoy also influence you so they are part of your identity. Place the most important aspects of your life closest to the centre and the ones you dislike on the perimeter.

  • Translate your ideas and interests into shapes and symbols on the spiral on the interactive whiteboard, on your computer or in your visual diary.
  • Create emphasis with colour, line, texture, pattern and explore the software available to include music and sound clips to symbolise your interests.
  • To start, insert spiral design place a symbol of yourself at the centre of the spiral, maybe use your name, initials or perhaps a digital photo.
  • See the images of students developing their ideas.
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Identity logos and symbols

  • Share your identity spiral design with other students.
  • Refine these shapes and design a single logo or tag to represent yourself.
  • Experiment with the elements of art as you develop this logo or tag.
  • Create a large class display panel on the IWB to share your designs.
  • Consider how other artists, designers and groups of people design signs to represent and communicate their ideas and identity.