Women’s Rituals and Body Paint in Aboriginal Culture

Women’s rituals related to women’s affairs are referred to as ‘Awelye’, as are the Aboriginal body paint designs applied on a woman’s body. The Awelye cycle is practised for social and healing purposes in Central Australia. It is a distinct and unique form of Aboriginal art that’s filled with spiritual and social symbols.

Awelye connects women with the land’s fertility and celebrates the sustenance it provides. It is performed by Aboriginal women from the Utopia region to honour their foremothers, show respect for their homeland, and display their duty to maintain the community’s wellbeing.

Indigenous women have practised Aboriginal body painting for thousands of years, and Awelye is regarded as one of the world’s oldest living art forms. Today, we see the amazing Awelye design on the canvases of many well-known Utopia artists. These include the likes of Minnie Pwerle, Charmaine Pwerle, Teresa Purla and Emily Pwerle.

Awelye in Utopia

The ladies begin the Awelye ceremonies by painting each other’s bodies in intricate designs that relate to each woman’s Dreaming and their skin name. Flora and fauna, healing, and laws are among the Dreamings represented by the Awelye patterns.

The women’s ceremonial body paint designs are formed in this manner: first, the dancers coat their bodies with animal fat or vegetable oil, and then the ladies sketch the designs. The designs are then painted on the upper breasts, chest, and arms using powders ground from ochre, charcoal, and ash in a sensual and meditative performance. They either use their hands or a flat stick to apply the ancient Aboriginal body art designs. Using oil as opposed to animal fat can also help keep the powders in place and makes for easier removal of the ochre powder from the skin.

While the women chant Dreaming songs of ancestral figures and tasks, the pigments are applied in raw linear and curved lines. The women begin their ancestors’ sacred dance and song once they have been painted, and dancing might last for several hours. Since Awelye is a woman’s business, it’s never performed in front of a man. And given women are typically seen as maternal figures, Awelye focuses on connecting the land with fertility, celebrating the food it provides the community in the hope that the land continues to flourish.

The event concludes with the women meticulously performing site-specific dance cycles. The physical training for these dances often takes far longer than the performance itself.

All of the women sing the ceremonial hymns they are about to perform as the body painting takes place, and each woman gets dedicated time to being painted up. Their songs are inspired by Ancestor Creation Journey Dreaming legends, as well as songs for totemic plants, animals, and natural forces.

In Utopia, old women still paint Aboriginal body painting symbols on their breasts and chests, first with their fingertips, then with a stick-shaped brush called a ‘typale’. They use red and white ochres to paint.

They then dance while revealing their legs. The older women dance in the dirt with a ceremonial stick. The spirits of the land perform women’s ceremonies for the elderly. The woman sings, and then she passes on the ceremonial to the others in order to strengthen it. Because the spirits of the land have given her the ritual, the elderly woman is boss. As a result, all of the women follow her example and gather and sing.

When individuals are unwell, the older women sing these rites to heal girls and children. A child who is sick in the stomach is taught to sing. The ancient women are also dancing while clutching their country (symbolically). That is what the older women dance for — they instruct younger women and pass on their knowledge to their granddaughters, ensuring that all grandmothers and granddaughters carry on the tradition.

Cultural significance of Awelye and Aboriginal body painting

Awelye is a sort of matrilineal kinship expression that involves the sharing of land knowledge, customs, and Dreamtime stories. Song, rhythm, melody, gestures and dance, gathering, graphic imagery, totem objects, and spatial orientation are some of the ways these teachings are expressed and passed down from one generation to the next. Many distinct functions and interactions exist within Awelye, forming a complicated whole that women across the community embrace.

Awelye is vital for kin bonding, country education, and the transmission of tradition, which is accomplished through the gradual participation of the young. Furthermore, Awelye is viewed as a form of performance ritual and a symbol crucial to securing and continuing to exercise rights to land in modern-day Australia.

Find artworks featuring the Awelye motif at OzBid

Fascinated by Awelye? If you’re searching for artworks that depict Awelye patterns, OzBid is the place to go. Here, you can take part in online auctions that afford you the opportunity to buy authentic Awelye art at lower prices. We also feature various other Aboriginal art, including bark paintings, ochre paintings, and dot paintings. Please contact us if you’re interested in learning more about this sacred practice and the common Aboriginal body painting symbols seen across various art pieces. Our team would be more than happy to provide you with additional information about Awelye, or help you find an artwork that depicts this sacred ritual.



What is the Aboriginal body paint called?

The Aboriginal body paint applied to women’s skin is called Awelye. The same term refers to women’s rituals that are performed in relation to women’s affairs or business. Away from the ritual, Awelye also refers to the content of a ceremony and the associated body of knowledge.

What do Aboriginal body paintings mean?

The designs used relate to each woman’s Dreaming and their skin name. Flora and fauna, healing, and laws are among the Dreamings represented by the Awelye patterns or Aboriginal body painting symbols.

Why do Aboriginal people have paint on their bodies?

Aboriginal body paint is a form of cultural expression. The Aboriginal body art reflects or reinforces the meanings associated with certain rites or rituals, as is the case of the Awelye cycle performed by women.

This ceremony ensures women within the community remain connected to the land and the food it provides. It also demonstrates and reinforces their responsibility for their community’s well-being.

Which Aboriginal artists have painted art that depicts the Awelye cycle?

As one of the oldest living art forms in the world, there are an array of famous indigenous women who have depicted this sentimental ritual through Aboriginal body painting symbols, colours, patterns and designs. These include Minni Pwerle, Barbara Weir, Abie Loy Kemarre, Colleen Wallace Nungari, Narpula Scobie Napurrula, Jennifer Purvis Kngwarreye, and Petyarre sisters Violet Petyarre and Myrtle Petyarre. These women have designed artwork related to a woman’s Dreaming, skin name and position within the community.

Is the Awelye cycle still performed today? 

Yes. This sacred spiritual ceremony is still performed by Anmatyerre and Alyawarr peoples to signify a young woman’s coming of age and her connection to her country and fertility. Older women continue to engage in these ceremonies to ensure they also remain connected to the land.