How do indigenous cultures influence art and modern design?

July 7, 2023
9 min read
Jair Lucena
Written by
Jair Lucena
How do indigenous cultures influence art and modern design?

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How do indigenous cultures influence art and modern design?

How do indigenous cultures influence art and modern design?

July 7, 2023
How do indigenous cultures influence art and modern design?

We have been here for a while.

And with us, our brain has evolved to create magnificent systems to help us understand reality.

Cognitive functions such as expression and communication have significantly defined how we understand ourselves and interact with the world.

Art was born.

Art and self-expression have always been a bridge between us and the world. From the inner to the outer, from the outer to the inner. Even now, there are things we wouldn’t be able to express otherwise

A creative symbiosis between us and nature shaped civilisations and helped us thrive in all environmental conditions.

Art and storytelling became a form of creating our cultures and weaving its most important ethics and moral codes into posterity through myths and symbols.

Indigenous cultures know this in-depth, as their traditions still stand on the solid foundations of their ancestral knowledge.  

Today, we will explore how these ancient wisdom keepers still influence many artists, designers, and writers through their overflowing abundance of shapes, colours, sounds and messages knitted in their cultural heritage.

Let’s briefly look together at how indigenous art and its astonishing expressions have contributed to the work of many artists worldwide and can be an excellent source for those who seek inspiration.

Geometric Shapes And Natural Patterns

Indigenous geometric shapes often carry symbolic meanings from their cultural and spiritual beliefs. They represent various elements and species in nature, celestial bodies, ancestral connections, and myths.

Some African, Polynesian, and Amazonian ethnic groups are characterised by visual patterns strongly related to their cosmogony and traditions.

For example, the Kayapó, an ethnic group from the Amazon, paint their bodies with lines in geometric shapes. These designs are part of their identity as a community, but they also believe that fine lines drawn and natural pigments helped them connect with nature and the spiritual realm. They strengthen their bond with the rainforest and all beings.

Kayapó, an ethnic group from the Amazon, paint their bodies with lines in geometric shapes. Source: © 2012 Anne Vilela

Certainly, such line patterns not only represent an essential aspect of being a Kayapó but also allow them to honour the tradition of their ancestors and their responsibility of keeping it alive.

Brazilian artists Daiara Tukano, a Tukano native, and Jaider Esbell, a Macuxi native, are some of the most renowned and celebrated indigenous artists that express the spirit of their ancestors through their art.

Daiara and Jaider are part of a broad and varied group of Brazilian artists who are bringing their original black and indigenous visual heritage back into the 21st century,

In another part of the world, we find another excellent example. Tibetan art is a well-kept visual tradition that still stands strong even after the Chinese invasion in 1950. This Buddhist tradition transmits divine qualities through powerful symbolism and sacred religious imagery in each painting. Calligrapher Karma Phuntsok is a great example.

Phuntsok’s style combines a deep understanding of Tibetan mysticism and the prolific calligraphic symbols that express an interconnected principle through pattern repetition.

Indeed, the indigenous use of geometric shapes is a great way to unlock new possibilities in our visual work.

Traditional Motifs And Symbols

Symbols play a vital role in indigenous cultures and their artistic expressions. A whole encyclopedia can be written about it.

Indigenous stories are charged with profound symbolism that often points to a spiritual meaning and expresses their relationship as a community with the whole existence.

Many modern artists were intrigued by indigenous symbols' richness and deeper meaning. For example, Jean-Michelle Basquiat, Paul Klee and Diego Rivera adopted ancient cultural symbols into their art.

Art has helped Australian aboriginal people safeguard their traditions, myths and cosmogony throughout millennia. Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest ongoing artistic traditions in the world, dating back at least 65,000 years ago. Aboriginal art styles include rock and body painting, ceremonial objects and wood carvings that portray ancient imagery, dreamlike visions, and their strong connection with their land.

In the mid-1970s, the western desert community of Papunya decided to share their magnificent use of acrylic paints through parallel lines and concentric circles that highlighted the essence of their aboriginal art symbols. This began the Papunya Tula movement, which has strongly impacted the Australian art scene since and became one of the most renowned contemporary aboriginal art movements.

Indigenous and aboriginal symbols link past and present and define a culture. They are the bridge between our unconscious and conscious minds and a significant source of inspiration for any creative being.

The Huichol people from North Mexico are among the world's greatest exponents of indigenous symbolism. Through their paintings and beadwork, they portray natural symbols which connect them with their ethnic cosmogony and share their visions and rituals in a pictorial form.  

Arte Huichol - Cuadro de Estambre. Nayarit, México - Source: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata

Narrative And Storytelling

Storytelling is the thread of cultures.

It is the driving force within the indigenous heart and a way to pass down history, cultural knowledge, spiritual teachings, and moral lessons to future generations.

Art tells stories, and painter Norval Morrisseau, an Ojibwe artist from Canada, captures his people’s oral traditions and legends in his contemporary paintings, conveying the interrelatedness between humans, animals, and the natural world.

Authors such as Richard Wagamese, Martin Prechtel, and Carlos Castañeda have also explored the foundations of their ancestral storytelling to share their journey in search of meaning, myth and magic through written language

Myths and stories are essential ingredients of our language groups. Researching their symbology and trying to understand where they point will ignite our inspiration as graphic designers and help us create ideas rooted in our humanity.

Traditional Materials And Techniques

Materials and techniques are also a big part of indigenous art and culture. They resemble their strong connection with Mother Earth and her resources.

From basket weaving to beadwork, these techniques have been crafted for centuries and are a powerful way for communities to connect with their ancestral lineage.

The Ika People, from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, are known worldwide for their “mochilas”, traditional handmade bags for carrying their daily working tools and sacred objects.

Each of their design patterns has a special meaning, and the women in the community are responsible for the task. For them, it’s a form of meditation.

This photo was taken in the city of Cartagena, Colombia, in which we can see a person belonging to the Arhuaca community. Source: Landres Camilo

Many artists and graphic designers have felt inspired by these ancient cultural techniques and symbols and have adopted them as part of their work. They aspire to bring back these artistic expressions into our era.

Artists such as Jordan Bennett, Preston Singletary, Bunky Echo-Hawk, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Elisa Jane Carmichael attempt to share their indigenous knowledge and roots while expressing their authentic vision of the world.

Indigenous Cultures: Still Alive, Still Inspiring Us.

Nowadays, resilience is a trendy word many people and industries adopted into their vocabulary. Still, few people have embodied the capacity to survive and thrive even in the most adverse external conditions.

Indigenous people have. And art and storytelling have been a significant foundation of their resistance.

At Lento, we believe that our aim as graphic designers and artists is to produce ideas that are shared by people and contribute to a better world.

If that’s also your aim, we are called to learn from those indigenous traditions that, regardless of extreme external circumstances, are still safeguarding their cultures, embodying their ancestral heritage, resisting oppressive systems, and developing new systems for survival.

This blog invites us to learn from our past and return to it whenever we feel our artwork has lost purpose. In our ancient human roots, we will find a treasure that keeps igniting extraordinary ideas with depth, simplicity, spark and wisdom.

Many artists and graphic designers are contributing to keeping that abundant source of inspiration alive through their work.

As far as it is known, the oldest modern human remains discovered data from 360.000 years ago. It was found by archeologists in 2018 in Morocco, North Africa.

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land where we work and live. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. We celebrate the stories, culture and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders of all communities who also work and live on this land.

Jair Lucena

Jair Lucena

Jair is a traveler, writer, and yoga-meditation teacher-practitioner. Who loves to explore different lands, cultures, and ways of being. Connect with him on Linkedin

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