Dots and Lines

by Madeleine O'Brien (Australia)

Making a local connection Australia


The hot air of Northern Territory’s dry season whipped across my freckled face as I shuffled through the red dusty plains of Arnhem Land, and towards the Aboriginal man I could see carefully watching me. He was sitting on the ground surrounded by earth coloured paints and tiny brushes, with a large wooden instrument lying across his legs. As I drew closer I recognised that the instrument was a didgeridoo, and the man was using his tiny brushes to paint it with miniature dots and lines. I progressed towards him as I kicked up the terrain between my bare toes, a distinct Australian layer of red dust beginning to settle over my feet and all the way up my legs. I knew he would not understand my language, and in return I would not understand his, so instead we continued to observe each other until I found myself down on the ground next to him. I had not looked at someone for such a long time without speaking, but I never once felt a moment of discomfort. His hands, which were covered in dried paint, opened as if welcoming me to be with him, and his face scrunched up in wrinkles as he smiled at me with his eyes. We broke eye contact and he went back to slowly painting in dots, alternating between the seven earthy tones of paint sprawled out on the ground in front of him. I watched him paint and admired his work, but the longer I observed, the more I began to understand that this wasn’t about dots and lines at all. He gently took my hand and guided it across the top of the didgeridoo, scathing the sides of the rough surface and pointing out different painted symbols to show me what they meant. He did not speak, but he was telling me a story. I watched intently as he traced my fingers over the paintings, maps were coming to life and I could see stretches of land, people, and animals all disguised within. The dots and lines that initially appeared to be fragments of a simplistic art piece, were instead woven together to illustrate the chronicle of this man’s home and its people. Though I would never entirely grasp the history hidden within it, I felt fortunate to have been given an insight into the cultural depth of his painting, and I nodded in gratitude to the man as I stood up to leave, noticing as I did so that there were hundreds more Aboriginal people spread out across Arnhem Land. Each of them had tiny brushes and didgeridoos of their own, and as I shuffled my way back to the shelter, I wondered of all the stories they would one day tell.