Altyerr: Dreamtime, dreaming and its relationship to the art of the Power of Place at Tandanya

Dreamtime refers to the time of the creation of all things while dreaming refers to man’s or woman’s set of beliefs or spirituality. It is the law of religion and social behavior and the spiritual forces sustaining life on the land. During the Dreamtime all life and form was created by spiritual Creation Ancestors. The spiritual Ancestors took forms including human, plant and animal and travelled all over the land performing ceremonies and singing. Once their work was done, the Ancestor Spirits changed again – into animals, stars, hills or other forms.


In the desert region of central Australia the Ancestors left their spirit in stone objects and sites which are sacred to the initiated men. The Alyawarr and Anmatyerr pass their Dreamings down to the younger men and women through sacred ceremonies telling stories and performing songs, dances and rituals. This system of beliefs is known as the Altyerre to the Anmatyarre and Alyawarre people of the Central Desert region.

Rocksite MacDonald

The Power of Place is a celebration of Land seen through the art of the Anmatyarr and Alyawarr people of the Eastern Desert region, NT. The exhibition includes new iconographic and geometric ceremonial paintings from the senior male artists from this region – Cowboy Louie Pwerle, Freddy Kngwarreye Jones, Charlie Petyarre Jones and Sandy Pitjara Hunter – honouring the ancient and enduring ideology of the Dreaming (Altyerre). The artists depict the Dreaming of their Ancestors – the journeys, actions, sacred objects, designs and sites associated with their Ancestors. These paintings reflect some of the ground markings used during the men’s ceremonies. However some stories and ground markings are considered to be of a secret or sacred nature and only to be told or shown to an initiated male. The artists use iconography and abstract imagery to depict the sacred ceremony and the sacred site where that dreaming occurs and where the power is still all pervasive. A Dreaming name such as Kangaroo Dreaming is a Dreamtime being, a site associated with that Dreaming and the country surrounding that site. The symbols or signs denote places and sites or the tracks and pathways of the Ancestor.

For the women dreamtime stories are passed down through the generations through ceremonies during which the women’s bodies are painted in linear strokes of ochres and white and the stories are sung to the young initiates. This is called making Awelye. Song, dance, body and story – the media of the Women’s Law – are explored through the paintings of the contemporary women like Susan Pitjara Hunter, Joy Kngwarreye Jones, Mary Kemarre Morton, Lucky Kngwarreye Morton. These women have stories that they tell only among themselves. Younger or unmarried women are not permitted to hear these stories, and to tell them or permit them to be told to the ‘wrong’ person is against law.

For the Alyawarr and the Anmatyarr, the past is still alive and vital today and the Ancestor Spirits and their powers are present in the forms into which they changed at the end of the ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’, as the stories reveal.