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Glass plate negative - Woman decorated with pipe-clay markings, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, photographed by Herbert Basedow, 1923

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Woman painted with pipe-clay, 1923


This is a photograph by Herbert Basedow of the top half of a woman facing the camera. To her left is another woman, and in the background are four more. Each woman is painted with stripes of white pipe-clay on her face, along below her collar bones, and down her upper arms and breasts. Also visible on the woman in the front and centre of the photograph are small scars running across her chest, under her breasts.

Educational value

Decorative scarring was practised all over Australia, by both men and women, from adolescent years onward. This woman is also painted with white clay to take part in a ceremony. Along with other women and men, she was to perform a dance for Sir Tom Bridges, Governor of South Australia, when he visited Alice Springs in 1923.

When dignitaries visited towns it was customary to arrange a series of events to mark their visit. In central Australia, as elsewhere, this often involved local Aboriginal people performing traditional dances. Under normal circumstances, Aboriginal ceremonies can last for days, weeks or even months. So when performing for dignitaries, dances were often cut short to fit within the schedule of the visitor.

Herbert Basedow was a doctor, anthropologist and explorer. From 1903 to 1928 he ventured to remote regions of central and northern Australia - places rarely seen by Australians even today. Aboriginal people often feature in his photographs. Basedow wanted to document Aboriginal cultures as they had been before British colonisation, and often went to some lengths to craft his photographs to appear as such.

This photograph was taken during an expedition with the Governor of South Australia, whose plans for building a north-south railway involved first seeing the region for himself.

© Education Services Australia Limited and the National Museum of Australia 2010

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