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Aboriginal Art

A dot pattern painted on cloth fabric provides a rich background.

Aboriginal Art

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Aboriginal Art for small group tours

Australian Aboriginal art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world dating back at least 85,000 years. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Australia, Indigenous people used many art forms including rock engravings, bark painting, body painting, sculpture, weaving and string art. A core concept amongst these, and amongst much contemporary art still, is the spiritual foundation of Aboriginal cultures known as “the Dreaming”. Artworks reflect the many specific Dreaming belief systems unique to particular countries and are therefore incredibly diverse stylistically, filled with various types of symbolism to convey important cultural information.

Several Aboriginal art movements have developed in modern times. These include the Western influenced watercolour landscapes of the Hermannsburg School, made popular by artist Albert Namatjira; the dot paintings of the Papunya and other Western and Central Desert communities, which have led a Renaissance of traditionally influenced contemporary styles; the Wandjina figure paintings and contemporary styles of the Kimberley; the traditional forms of bark, carving, and weaving from Arnhem Land; and the incredibly diverse range of styles and mediums found in urban-based art. The success of these modern movements has worked to maintain connections with Aboriginal traditions and knowledge, ultimately preserving and strengthening culture in the process.

This article explores the history and styles of traditional Aboriginal art and modern movements. The information used is gathered largely from Susan McCulloch’s 1999 book Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture. Additional sources of information include the Japingka Aboriginal Art and Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery websites.

Ornament in the style of Australian aborigines. Raster illustration.

Traditional Aboriginal Paintings

For thousands of years prior to colonisation paintings were traditionally drawn by Aboriginals on natural “galleries” such as rock walls or trees, ceremonial articles, as body paint and in dirt or sand.

The earliest forms of permanent Aboriginal artistic works are believed to date back 50,000 years found mainly, although not exclusively, in the many caves, crevices, and walls of rocky escarpments of Arnhem land. Meanwhile ochre paintings on cave walls near Laura on the northern tip of Queensland, as well as images of rain spirit figures in the far north west of Australia, date back 30,000 years.

Ancient rock sites can further be found in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, around Broken HillLake Mungo-Mootwingee in NSW and along the Murray river, in Victoria’s Grampians, in the southern and northern tablelands of NSW, around Sydney, in the Blue Mountains and the Shoalhaven area of NSW, and in many parts of Tasmania.

Rock art on the Arnhem Land escarpment.

Sacred designs, outlined with circles and encircled with dots, were also painted on the human body or assembled on the ground in dirt or sand. These designs held meanings connected to sacred rituals and were used as part of ceremony together with songs, stories, and dance, not intended to be permanent.

In all, use of painting, drawing, and ceremonial design acted as forms of visual communication, one of two traditional forms of communication used by Australian Aboriginal people along with oral communication (storytelling and songs). With no written language, these forms of communication were used to pass down information necessary for survival such as food and water sources at different times of the year, as well as Dreamtime stories, and obligations to country.

Aboriginal drawing in red sand in central Australia

The Dreaming

A central core concept to all Aboriginal art, despite the many different Aboriginal languages and artistic and cultural traditions, is “the Dreaming”.  Although not a completely adequate translation and hard to define in terms of non-Aboriginal cultures, the Dreaming broadly refers to the spiritual ideas or foundational beliefs in Aboriginal cultures. Encompassing religious practices, creation mythology, social mores, customs, and laws, the Dreaming provides the identity for Aboriginal people and their association or link to the land.

Many Aboriginal Australians also refer to the world-creation time as “Dreamtime”. Creation is believed to be the work of ancestral heroes who journeyed across a formless land creating all natural phenomena. This spirit of Creation is embodied in the landscape and connected to the people, tying family groups to their own specific Country and sacred sites. Aboriginal mythology is therefore not one simple belief system but many belief systems specific to the hundreds of different tribal groupings occurring throughout the continent

Unlike Western notions of time delineated history, the spirit of the Dreaming is not conceived of being located in the historical past but as an internal process. Traditionally it has been maintained – kept alive at all times – in a ceremonial context encompassing art, song, dance, and storytelling that relate to highly specific physical and cultural landscapes.

Indigenous Australian people dancing in ceremony, Queensland, Australia.

Diversity of Style

Aboriginal artworks each reflect a unique Dreaming inheritance and identity. Representations of the artist’s particular traditional Country is loaded with specific information and knowledge in symbolic form of the land, events, and specific beliefs. As such, Aboriginal artists need permission to paint particular stories, inheriting the rights to them as they are passed down through generations within certain skin groups, and prohibited from painting the Dreaming of another group.

Contemporary styles are therefore incredibly diverse, reflecting the many Dreaming belief systems and unique spiritual links to Country depending on which region the artist is from. Some involve meticulous layering and overlaying, creating works of shimmering luminosity; others have an appealing fresh quality with bold use of colour and raw, free design; yet others portray traditional design in fine detail using age old techniques.

Ultimately, all styles combine a strong sense of design and finely honed sense of colour or surface texture and special relationship – and are underpinned by an intangible but ever present connection with the land, its creators, their stories and the artists’ interaction with this.

Indigenous Painting

Most contemporary styles can be recognised from the communities where they were created. For example, dot painting is identifiable to the Central and Western desert, cross-hatching design and x-ray paintings come from the Northern territory, in particular Arnhem land, and the Wandjina spirit beings come from the Northern territory, in particular Kulumburu.

Choice of colour too continues to reflect the communities’ styles. Papunya Tula, part of the western desert art movement, is known for its use of soft earth colours, whilst many other Western Desert Communities opt for strong primary colours for example. However, overall styles can also vary dramatically even within regions with variations tending to pinpoint more closely to specific communities.

One popular style used by Aboriginal artists is painting from an aerial perspective showing the terrain as a map. In doing so they pass on important knowledge and understanding of their Country, representing important landmarks such as water sources, locations of bush tucker, and sacred sites. Songlines or Dreaming tracks laid down in the Creation time by the spirit Ancestors are also laid down by the artist.

Aboriginal Art

Symbolism

The use of symbols is an integral part of Aboriginal artworks drawing from a continuous tradition going back to rock art and sand paintings. With no written language for Australian Aboriginal People, symbolism is used as an alternate method of conveying important information to preserve culture. Through them cultural stories as well as knowledge of matters of survival and land management are passed down through the generations.

Symbols may thus be used for example to represent features of the land such as hills, waterholes, and hills, or important sites such as campsites and resting places. Some similarities in the imagery include circles, tracks, and parallel bars of straight and wavy lines throughout.

Aboriginal Symbols / Morten Serkland / CC BY-SA 4.0

However, it is not always easy for the viewer to interpret these symbols. Groups and individuals use various symbols differently according to context and different traditions and thus their meaning varies widely. There is no guarantee that a certain symbol produces a certain fixed meaning every time.

Additionally, the symbols are often abstracted to disguise the real meanings so as not to be understood by Westerners. This is because designs are not only sacred but also secret. Traditionally they are to be shared solely by the initiated or by specific people of a certain gender or age or located in a particular moiety or subsection of the kinship system.

Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg School

Although Aboriginal Australians had been painting with ochres on bodies, bark, and rocks for thousands of years, it was not until the 1930’s that the first paintings on canvas were done. These paintings however were not done with ochre or in traditional styles but drew from an especially Western art style.

In 1934 Australian painter Rex Batterbee introduced the water colour medium to now famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira and other Aboriginal artists at the Hermannsburg mission south of Alice Springs. They would in turn produce beautiful illustrations that distinctively capture the essence of the desert landscape in a way Western artists could never do.

Albert Namatjira, Central Australian Landscape, 1950s

First established in 1938, their paintings sold out at in an instance at exhibitions in Melbourne, Adelaide and other Australian cities, and came to be known as the Hermannsburg School.  The school of art continues to this day with artists at Many Hands Art Centre still producing beautiful watercolours of the country around Alice Springs including its waterholes, canyons, and ghost gums.

Namatjira’s clarity in his work as well as his influence as a role model has also had a major impact on subsequent generations of Aboriginal artists of quite different styles. These include the Melbourne based artist Lin Onus, the Central Desert painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Northern Territory artist Ginger Riley.

Ngarlu, Red Hill by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Papunya Desert Art: The Origins of Contemporary Aboriginal Art

The renaissance of modern Aboriginal art styles began 50 years ago at the tiny Central Desert community of Papunya, 230 km from Alice Springs. Papunya was home to many different groups of desert aboriginal people, including Pintupi, Luritja, Walpiri, Arrernte, and Anmatyerre, who had been moved there in the late 1960s under a government policy of assimilation.

In 1971, a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon became fascinated by the drawings of tract designs in the sand by Aboriginal children he was working with. He encouraged them to recreate their drawings in classroom in water colour and a mural was then planned on the school walls using the traditional style of sand and ceremonial art.

Several senior men soon became involved after explaining to Bardon that the subject matter was more suitable to adults due to the art style’s spiritual purposes and strict protocols around its use.

Coming together from at least a dozen different language groups, these men created a mural depicting the Honey Ant Dreaming, of which Papunya is the centre, the point where Songlines converge.

The mural proved highly influential leading other men to create smaller paintings of their Ancestral stories on just about any available flat surface such as tin cans, match boxes. car bonnets, and corrugated iron sheets. Colours were restricted to variations of red, yellow, black and white produced from crushed ochres, charcoal and pipe clay. Later acrylics were used on canvases supplied by Bardon allowing for more vivid colourful paintings.

In 1972, the artists formed a collective named tula after a small hill near Papunya, a Honey Ant Dreaming site. A movement, generally regarded as the origin of contemporary Indigenous Australian art, had begun.

Red centre, road outback, bush in Northern Territory, Australia.

As the movement became more popular, the Aboriginal community became concerned that the artworks were revealing too much of sacred heritage that were being seen by not only Westerners, but Aboriginal people from different regions who were not privy to their tribal stories. And so earlier representations of artefacts, ritual objects and spiritual ceremonies soon disappeared, abstracted into dots to conceal their sacred meanings.

For a number of years, at first, the domestic art market and museums virtually ignored their work. Several early works were instead sent overseas for exhibitions, donated to museums afterwards on proviso they would be on public show. As a result, several overseas galleries have better collections of early art than in Australia. A major exception is the Art Gallery of Northern Territory that has the largest collection of just over 220 early works acquired between 1972-76.

The Art Movement Spreads Through Desert Communities

Gradually from the 1980s people in other communities such as Yuendumu, Balgo Hills, Utopia, as well as numerous other small outstations, settlements, and individuals started making their own paintings, batik, sculpture and craft. The new forms grew to success in the outside world and by the early, 1990s, thousands of Western and Central Desert people had become regular painters or crafts people, working either individual or through their community and cooperative.

These artists from the Western, Gibson and Great Sandy desert regions no longer only use traditional iconography or natural ochres. Paintings today can be colorful, figurative, abstract, bold, and sublime. Art is created by both men and women with a free style that comixes Dreaming narratives of the Ancestors with depictions of historical and contemporary events.

Developments in the Kimberly

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is renowned for the Wandjina figures painted on rock walls, a tradition dating back thousands of years, the oldest continuous sacred painting movement on earth.  Unique to the Mowanjum people, the Wandjinas are depicted with large eyes but no mouth, and elaborate headdresses. To these people, the Wandjina Ancestors are the supreme creators of the landscape and its inhabitants and continue to govern potent forces like the weather as well as human behaviour.

When the spirits found the place they would die, it is said they painted their images on cave walls and entered a nearby waterhole. These paintings were then refreshed by Aborigines as a method of regenerating life force.

Aboriginal Art of Wandjinas on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station/ Graeme Churchard / CC BY 2.0

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s several Mowanjum artists depicted traditional Wandjina on pieces of string bark. These artworks were sold mainly through the mission at Kulumbaru and are now in major museum collections around the world. Some of the important artists from this region include Alex MingelmanganuCharlie Numbelmoore and Jack Karedada.

There are also several distinct styles of modern Kimberley art. The first forms emerged in the late 1970s on boards produced by Warmum (Turkey Creek) people in the East Kimberley. These ochre paintings were completely different from the dot style developed in the Central Desert area, instead characterized by expanses or blocks of single colour interspersed by white dotted lines. The picture plane is divided up into differing tonal areas imbuing the paintings with an aerial perspective.

In the mid-1980s the Western-Desert Kimberley region of Balgo Hills, who have strong connections with the Central Desert community of Papunya, started painting in acrylic on canvas. And at the same time, a number of Fitzroy Crossing residents started painting in brightly coloured watercolour. These artists from both regions use interlocking geometric patterns in their paintings that traditionally adorn ritual and decorative objects such as shells, shields, and spear-throwers.

From the early 1980s, a new art tradition emerged led by Paddy Jaminji and Rover Thomas who introduced bold textured and ochred landscape paintings of Country and of significant historic events.

Windirr by Boxer Milner and Tjitji Kutjarra by Miriam Baadjo at the Arte contemporaneo australiano de Balgo Hills at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City / Thelmadatter / CC BY-SA 3.0

Arnhem Land

The art in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory is quite separate and distinct from the desert art of Central Australia. In the coastal regions of Australia’s Top End, image making had been produced for sale or barter for several hundred years. Painted barks, carvings and other transportable objects were traded the Makassans during the 1700s, white anthropologists from the 1800s, and tourists from the 1900s.

Great interest in Arnhem art emerged in the late 1950s and ‘60s after Tony Tuckson, director of the Art Gallery of NSW, accepted a gift from anthropologist Dr Stuart Scougall of a specially made set of Melville Island Tiwi burial poles known as Tutini. The 17 poles were placed in the gallery’s foyer, drawing both criticism for their placement in such a prominent position as well as inspiring a number of leading modern artists such as Sir Russel Dyrsdale, Sali Herman and Margaret Preston.

Pukamani funerary poles (tutini) from the Tiwi Islands / Laterthanyouthink / CC BY-SA 4.0

A year earlier, some major bark painters from Yirrkala on the Northeastern tip of Arnhem Land also produced the Yirrkala Bark Petition. This was the first formal assertion of Indigenous native title, and the first example of an art work making a powerful political and cultural statement.

At the same time, Yirrkala elders, fearing a complete loss of their culture, also instigated a unique community project to create encyclopaedic bark paintings on un unprecedented scale. Known as the ‘Church Panels’, they today remain in the collection of the community’s Baku Larrngay Mulka Arts Centre and are still considered one of the most important Australian artworks.

During the 1970s and ‘80s Arnhem Land missions and settlements such as Yirrkala, Maningrida, Ramingining, Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) and Echo islands were returned to Aboriginal control. Community art centres have been established in all of these, taking the traditional forms of bark, carving, and weaving into the realm of contemporary art.

Australian Aboriginal art: Paint on Bark / Google Art Project / CC BY-SA 4.0

Urban Art

Since the late 1980s, appreciation of Aboriginal art has broadened through the development of a strong school of urban-based art. The term ‘urban’ art refers mainly to artists working in major capital cities and within the general Australian contemporary arts scene rather than those working in Aboriginal communities from a more ‘traditional’ framework.

These artworks add a further dimension to the work of land-based artists, commenting clearly on recent Aboriginal history and dealing with social, cultural, and political issues such as the stolen generations, land rights, and reconciliation.

Artists are both self-taught and professionally trained, and use multiple forms of media. Artworks range from photography and video art, to graffiti paintings, mixed media, paintings that mix traditional and modern techniques, and more. Some of the well known artists include Tracey Moffatt, Lin Onus, Michael Riley, Trevor Nickolls, Christopher Pease, Fiona Foley and numerous others.

Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land / Jay Galvin / CC BY 2.0

Conclusion: A Strengthening of Aboriginal Culture

Today Aboriginal art continues to be produced in hundreds of remote communities around Australia and by urban Aboriginal artists. This contemporary art movement continues to act as a powerful bridge between both Aboriginal and western cultures and between the ancient and the contemporary. In doing so it has fuelled a great interest in preserving and strengthening culture in Aboriginal society by recognising and reinforcing the values of traditional knowledge, which forms the basis of Aboriginal art.

Indigenous owned art centres particularly play a vital role in maintaining the flourishing art movement and associated reconnection with culture. The more than 250 Indigenous art centres in remote communities around Australia providing an important focus and centre for the communities. Elders, artists and young people can all come together, talk about stories and culture and then paint those stories.

Most art centres operate online art galleries where local and international visitors can purchase works directly, as well as working in a partnership with leading galleries in Australia and worldwide to promote their art and culture to as wide an audience as possible. With this, their art has increasingly become a significant source of income, livelihood, and sense of pride for many of these communities. Supporting Aboriginal art thus in turn has an indirect effect of supporting the language and culture of Indigenous families who are able to remain living in remote locations linked to their own ancestral lands.

Tour of Aboriginal Art & Culture

Odyssey Traveller provides the opportunity to view Aboriginal art on several of our Australian tours:

  • We visit Aboriginal art galleries and learn  about the contemporary Aboriginal art movement in Alice Springs on our tour of Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Alice Springs, or simply ‘Alice’ as it is known now colloquially, is famous for the ochre sands and mountain ranges that surround it, its many Aboriginal art galleries, and cultural events. The Arrernte people, who have lived in the Central Australian Desert in an around what is today Alice Springs for thousands of years, still today sustain a strong connection to this land and a rich culture.
  • We visit significant sites of Indigenous rock art on our Tour of the Kimberley. This fascinating region of Western Australia – over 400, 000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness spanning Australia’s north west from Broome to Darwin – is home to thousands of ancient rock art sites, believed to be the world’s oldest examples of the art. Set amongst the stunning scenery of the Kimberley – river gorges, boab trees, sandstone formations, waterfalls and pristine beaches – these extraordinary paintings are a testament to an ancient civilisation that remains vital today.
  • We also learn about the Aboriginal culture and art of Kakadu as part of our new tour of Kakadu and the Northern TerritoryThe ‘Stone Country’ of Kakadu National Park boasts over 5,000 known Aboriginal rock art sites, with some archaeologists believing that there might be up to 15,000 total sites across the entire park – the greatest known concentration of rock art in the world. Some of the rock paintings are up to 20, 000 years old, constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may also want to check out our other outback Australia tours, which include visits to Lake Mungo and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia; to the important cultural site of Wilpena Pound on our tour of the Flinders Ranges;  and to the Brewarrina Fish Traps in outback Queensland.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

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We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

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