Ceremonial Body Adornment
On important ceremonial occasions, often lasting days, people still go to great lengths to decorate their bodies. Bird down and plant down (from crushed-up small desert flowers) is applied to men’s bodies using human blood as the glue, replaced nowadays with flour and water, and other sticky substances. Sometimes the face and body of performers is almost completely obliterated by a thick layer of down. Body paint is applied to both men and women.


Aboriginal body adornment

Aranda men from Central Australia covered with thick layers of coloured down, carrying bunches of leaves.
Photograph by Ted Strehlow, circa 1949.


Aboriginal people have recorded their ceremonial dress in rock paintings and engravings throughout the country. Circles, ovals and other motifs in Central Australian rock paintings and engravings often replicate the designs applied to the bodies of performers.

Ancient Aboriginal paintings in rock shelters across northern Australia depict human figures wearing a range of headdresses, arm bands, waist appendages, body paint and other body adornments, still worn on ceremonial occasions to this day. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia in particular, three main groups of ceremonially-dressed human figures, each with their own unique body decoration, were described by rock art researcher David M. Welch in 1992.

Tasselled Figures are characterised by wearing tassels from their waists, headdresses, arms and shoulders, and belong to an early time. These are followed by Bent Knee Figures, which lack tassels, wear tall conical headdresses (ngadari, pronounced na-da-ree), and are associated with triangular shapes most likely representing bunches of emu feathers (yululu, pronounced you-loo-loo). The third group, which is painted later again, is Straight Part Figures, characterised by wearing a barrel-like or bucket-like headdress known locally as ngumuru (pronounced noo-moo-roo). 


Minyipirriwoi, a man from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, dressed with a simple feather headdress, a string belt around the waist, and multiple tassels hanging from his armbands. He carries a ceremonial bag hanging from his neck and a ceremonial stingray-barbed-spear, which has a tassel attached. 1936.
Photograph by Donald Thomson,
from Thomson Time: Arnhem Land in the 1930s..

Aboriginal body adornment


Aboriginal body adornment

Tasselled Figures in Kimberley rock art wearing tassels hanging from the waist.
Photograph by David M. Welch.


People dressed for a ceremonial occasion, wearing shaved sticks in their hair and painted with bands of white pigment.
Photograph courtesy of the Battye Library,
State Library of Western Australia.

Aboriginal body adornment


Aboriginal body adornment

A Bent Knee Figure with similar bands of body decoration, painted in a rock shelter in Drysdale River National Park, northern Kimberley, Western Australia.
Photograph by David M. Welch.




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