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Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings

Australian Used Postage Stamp Aboriginal Painting, circa 2002

Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings

Understanding and appreciating the work of the artist

Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings

This article for small group tours into Outback Australia for mature and senior travellers as a couple or solo traveller is to assist you in understanding and appreciating Aboriginal art as you travel and explore with your program leader and expert local guides.

There are three main art producing areas of Australia:

  1. Central and Western Desert in the area north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory;
  2. the Kimberleys in the north of Western Australia and
  3. Arnhem Land in the “Top End” of Queensland.

The history of the art development in each location differs resulting in distinctive styles of painting.

Central and Western Desert

The unique art development has its origins in the settlements, the Aboriginal reserves, established during the governmental policy of assimilation and accompanied the move in the early 1970s to prioritise land rights, hand control of the settlements to Aboriginals and provide them with assistance to move back to their traditional areas in outstations. The impetus was the arrival of a qualified art school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, in Papunya in 1971, one of the last of the settlements to be established and where different tribes Pintupi, Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Luritja and Warlpiri) had been sent. Bardon encouraged the men to paint murals using acrylics with their own – not that of the “white man” – depiction of the Honey Ant Dreaming.


The Dreaming:  peoples and areas have their own Dreaming and almost all Aboriginal art derives from this base, whether they are traditional or abstract designs. The paintings are interpretations of the creation ancestors and their journeys and usually depict an episode in the Dreaming.  In the Dreamtime, creation ancestors went on epic journeys and created flora, fauna and landforms along their way. It is from the experiences of the ancestors that social mores have evolved, including marriage and kinship. There are Dreaming paths all over the continent which connect significant sites through routes covering thousands of kilometres.  The Dreamtime is kept alive and spiritual beliefs reaffirmed through ceremonies: dances, songs, designs made in sand and painted on the body, the making of sacred objects and other rituals. The Dreaming pervades all aspects of life: codes of behaviour, laws and customs, relationships, respect for the land, hunting, farming and food gathering. Aboriginal law means the artists are only allowed to portray stories to which they are entitled through birthright.  Aboriginals paint their spiritual link with their country, what is in their heads, from the Dreaming belonging to their father and grandfather, through the stories they are told and from the ceremonies they have seen, the body and sand paintings.

The Honey Ant Dreaming is a major ancestral myth of the Papunya area where the small hills close to the main settlement are the petrified bodies of Honey Ant ancestors. Bardon meticulously catalogued the early works of Papunya and understanding the importance of identified the main Dreaming stories, such as the Lizard and Fire Dreaming, and the Tingari stories representing travel across the land in relation to events at specific sites, as a means of describing the artwork for the non-Aborginal market.   In the Kimberleys, the supernatural Wandjina beings control rain and fertility; in Arnhem Land, main Dreamings include the two Wagilag Sisters and the Djan’kawu brother and two sisters who crossed sea and land meeting the Rainbow Serpent and creating rivers and mountain ranges.

Thus the art can be viewed and interpreted on four levels:

  1. “as a depiction through inherited forms and techniques from the Dreaming, both as general mythology and as a moment or moral in the particular artist’s
  2. Dreaming; as a cartography of a place owned by the dreamer-painter; including journeys across it, both by the sacred originators and the artists as a hunter or wanderer;
  3. as a witness that the duty of representing and singing the Dreaming has been done, thus constituting a restatement of title or deed to the land indicated; and
  4. finally as an individual interpretation of these duties and practices varying somewhat and thus keeping alive, the obligations and pleasures of paint.” (B. Smith and T Smith, Australian Painting, OUP, Melbourne, 1992 p 120)

The foundations of Aboriginal art lie in the traditional art of impermanent sand designs, visual images on rock and bark and body painting which is integral to ceremonies and modern acrylic paintings are often based on these designs.

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

Spears, coolamons (women’s carrying vessels) and sacred wood or stone men’s oval shaped message boards (tjurunga) were also engraved for decorative or ceremonial purposes.  An early experiment in 1940 by an anthropologist, Charles Mountford who presented Aboriginals with painting tools, remarked upon the artistic balance of the design elements and graphic design which came naturally having its origination in their practices of drawing in the sand. Nevertheless, the artists at Papunya were originally confronted by having to translate their three- dimensional art onto the two- dimensional canvas.

The dots as a painting style was born out of the artists’ dilemma to paint works that retain cultural identity, are meaningful to the artists and their people, but are also appropriate for public viewing.  As the art movement spread in the 1970s and early 1980s there were heated debates about whether images traditionally meant only to be seen by the initiated to a level of responsibility should be viewed by the public as this transgressed Aborginal law. Dots were a stylistic solution, used to obscure and mask sensitive imagery and direct symbolism and are characteristic of desert art.  After a while the dots were not just used to conceal but became the basis of the work itself and used to represent many things such as burnt ground, fruit, sparks and clouds.

Some helpful interpretations of common markings in desert art:

  • Circles (and concentric circles) may indicate waterholes, a campsite, a stone, a well, a rock hole or fire, a hole or fruit.
  • Lines may mean lightening, watercourses or ancestral paths.
  • Soft wavy parallel lines can signify fire, smoke, water or blood; extremely wavy lines a rainbow, a snake, lightening, a string, a cliff or honey bee storage.  A wavy line connected with concentric circles may depict waterholes and running water.
  • Arrows or little markings that look like eyelashes denote footprints.
  • Arcs may be boomerangs, or clouds, cliffs or sandhills
  • “U” shapes usually indicates a sitting place or a person sitting and “u” shapes around concentric circles may be people sitting around a campfire or participants in a ceremony.
  • Straight parallel lines, meeting at a concentric circle, are a travelling sign with the concentric circles representing a resting place.
  • Decorated oval boards are carried by dancers in ceremonies and used to indicate ceremonial aspects.
Aboriginal Symbols / Morten Serkland / CC BY-SA 4.0


The main communities in the Central and Western Desert are Papunya, Kintore and Kiwirrkura (in Western Australia to which Pintupi people moved in the 1980s), Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia, Haasts Blaaf and the paintings are identifiable by the stylistic similarity of each community.



The early Papunya artists generally restricted their painting to the ochre-based colours of black, red, yellow and white, with landscapes are depicted as though the viewer is looking down from above.  Shapes are simple and few: arcs, concentric circles and U shapes predominate.

Indigenous Painting

Typical of early paintings in Papunya is Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra’s Water Course (1972) with graphic designs that refer to body and ceremonial ground paintings. Three red concentric circles represent waterholes, and the wavy lines each with a tri colour band of red, white and black to allude to different levels of rain intensity during the wet season: dots and white bands of hatching represent the flow of water across the land.   A group of ancestral spirits of the Pintupi, the Tingara, and their sites and journeys are often depicted in the Papunya works, by interlinking geometric squares or concentric circles to mean sacred secret sites, ceremonial grounds or waterholes, joined by series of networked lines which mark the path of the ancestors’ travels, such as  Simon Tjakamarra’s Tingari Dreaming (1986) whereas  Anatjari Tjampitjinpa’s Ceremonial Ground (1981)  is a series of roundels with no journey lines depicting participants in an initiation ceremony, the larger circles representing older men of higher ritual status, all standing around a ceremonial ground painting.

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s Sunrise Chasing away the night (1977) shows the night fading from the left and the sun casting dawn light on the right: the white dots are painted stones and the central roundel represents a ceremonial ground.   Moon Dreaming (1978) is of a large moon in shades of orange, the black shapes represent stone axes and other ceremonial objects.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarria’s Bushfire II (1972) and Warlugulong (1977) which have an ancestral theme of Lungkata the Blue-Tongued Lizard who created a bushfire to punish his sons for not sharing their catch.  The painting is of the site where the bushfire first starts, with a series of roundels (camps) and the tracks of an ancestral Possum.  He has painted over parts with patches of dots, representing charred earth, clouds of smoke and ash and to conceal secret aspects.






Yuendumu painting coming out of the Warlukurlangu (which means Fire Dreaming) Artists Association established by the women of the Warlpiri people in 1986 is characterised by use of a brilliant colour palette rather than just ochre, and dense patterns of interwoven dots.  The artists painted women’s Dreamings, often associated with the collecting and preparation of bush foods and were notable for using a less contrived, freer, and more contemporary style than other desert painting at the time. Many works are produced collaboratively. Liddy Napanangka Walker, the kurdungurlu (owner of the Dreaming), Topsy Napanangka (the custodian of the Dreaming) and July Nampijinpa Granites painted Warkirpirri Jukurrpa in which depicts the Dogwood Dreaming site. The palm tree like images are clusters of seed pods and the small “u” shapes are the women collecting and winnowing dogwood seeds.  Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, (owner of the Dreaming), Paddy Sims and Larry Spencer collaborated to paint Star Dreaming (1985) relating to the fire ceremony. The central motif is a ceremonial ground painting upon which the fire ceremony is performed.  Participants shake smouldering branches and the embers float into the sky to create the constellations represented by the circles and starts surrounding the ground painting.


An exception to the use of vibrant colours amongst artists of Yuendumu is Dorothy Napangardi whose  Sandhills (2004) represents her country through minimalistic renditions of sandhills of Mina Mina in fine, repetitive lines of fine white dots on a black background which highlight grains of sand shifting under the surface and create a marble like effect depicting the residue of the salt crust left when the huge soakages of this large claypan area dry out. The Mina Mina is also a significant women’s ceremonial site and Dreaming story when a group of ancestral Napangardi women gathered to collect ceremonial digging sticks while travelling to another site in the east.  The tracks of the women match those of the salt lines in the desert and a row of eucalyptus trees are the remains of the digging sticks at the site.

Liddy Napanangka Walker, Topsy Napanangka, July Nampijinpa Granites: Warkirpirri Jukurrpa in 1985

Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Paddy Sims and Larry Spencer: Star Dreaming (1985) 

Dorothy Napangardi Sandhills (2004)



The paintings of the Arrernte, Alyawarre and Anmatyerre people coming out of Utopia are more abstract in nature and contain images based on flora and fauna similar to those in the batik-making days of the 1970s.  A well-known artist of this region is Emily Kame Kngwarreye, experienced in ceremonial art, who moved from batik designs to painting with acrylic on canvas in 1988 when she was in her seventies.  Her painting was more abstract than had been seen from an Aboriginal painter but are still based on the Dreamings and landscape created by the ancestors.  Ntange Dreaming (1989) is an image of her place in the ceremonial status, her role in Anmatyerr society and her relationship with the landscape of her birth.  The basis of the painting is the designs (awely) painted on women’s bodies in ceremonies, overlaying these are lines of dots signifying the seed of the native grasses (ntange) that are collected and ground into past to make damper. Anoranngait, healing plant (1990) depicts a shrub with healing power which is boiled to a light green liquid which is scooped up and splashed over the body of a sick person.  The stippled patterns depict the medicinal plant and the pink reddish colours evoke a shimmering heat haze.  Yam awely (1995) was painted later towards the end of her life with free- flowing brush strokes, a gestural style, originating from the sand drawings made by desert women as part of their storytelling.

Gloria Tamerre Petyarre’s Bush Medicine Dreaming paintings depict leaves from a particular plant that contains medicinal properties – the leaves are gathered by the women, boiled, resin is added and they are mixed into a paste which is used as bush medicine for a number of illnesses.  The paintings are full of movement as the leaves appear to undulate. Petyarre was one of the women who started making batiks at Utopia in 1977 and her paintings show aspects of country full of movement hinting at life amongst the desert plants, of local native flora and fauna, with roots in women’s ceremonial body designs.

Angelina Ngale (Pwerle)’s Bush Plum Dreaming paintings of the conkerberry bush or wild plum/bush plum (anwekety) in the country of Alparra where her ancestors are connected with this prolific berry bush, a sweet black berry grown for a few weeks of the year, and collected, stored and soaked in water before consumption, also used for medicinal purposes. In the Dreamtime, winds carried the seeds over the ancestors’ land and the first Anwekety of the Dreamings then grew, bore fruit and dropped seeds. The paintings have their roots in traditional body painting when the body is covered with emu oil and decorated using ochre paints with specific designs all related to the wild plum, and participants dance and sing the story of the anwekety as part of nature’s cycle to ensure the profundity and productivity of the berry.

  • Emily Kame Kngwareye:

Ntange Dreaming (1989)


Anoranngait, healing plant (1990)


Yam awely (1995)

Gloria Tamerre Petyarre Bush Medicine Dreaming paintings

Angelina Ngale (Pwerle) Bush Plum Dreaming paintings

Other communities include Lajamanu, an example of which is Abie Jangala’s Falcon Dreaming (1987) which depicts dense white dots over a base colour and simple bold design to relate the story of a creation being falcon carrying a snake in its beak while on a desert journey, and Haasts Bluff with its variety of styles and strong colours and an example of which is Mitjili Napurrula’s Ulwalki (Watiya Tjuta) (1988) depicts the trees from which spears are made with tall closely spaced trees with many branches in oranges, reds and yellow which relate to the areas of red sandhills and ground bushes where the trees can be found.

Abie Jangala displays a number of her works including Falcon Dreaming.

Mitjili Napurrula Ulwalki (Watiya Tjuta) (1988)

The Kimberleys

The main art communities are the Warmun community at Turkey Creek, Fitzroy Crossing and Balgo Hills.

Warmun community

Warmun art is an expression of Gija country drawing on traditional Dreaming stories.  The Bungle bungle ranges (Purnululu), sandstone canyons, a place where an encounter between two spirit beings took place and which are important sacred hunting and living sites which form basis for contemporary Warmun paintings. These paintings use natural ochres which are thickly applied and highly textured and this together with the fact that many paintings are lateral rather than topographical mean they are quite different from the Central and Western Desert paintings.  The early Warmun artists painted the large country “maps” which look beneath the outer layer of the land to the structure underneath such as hills in cross section outlined by dots.  Jack Britten’s Purnululu (Bull Creek Country) (1985) depicts the Bungle bungles,  with lines and dots to replicate the rock surfaces and refer to body painting designs. The spirit figure, Manginta, is an image translated from ceremonial boards to paintings and other ancestral figures are painted  as in Paddy Jiminji’s Spirits (1983), depicting Manginta and another devil, Jimpi who accompany the spirit of a female relative of Rover Thomas as she moves through the desert to Darwin which town has been destroyed by the Rainbow Serpent (Cyclone Tracy).  There are also narratives of modern-day events such as Rover Thomas Cyclone Tracy (1995) in which the central black shape denotes cyclone and the winds carrying the sand and dust that feed into it; All that big rain coming from the topside (1991) depicting a waterfall at Texas Downs: the upper half showing channels of water running to the cliff edge and the lower half portraying cascading water with the light shining through.  Rover Thomas painted large rich and earthy blocks of colour: black, brown and yellow defined by white or black dots as can be seen in Roads Meeting(1987) where a red track representing the path of ancestral beings and first nations people crosses the black bitumen road of the settlers. The life of Rover Thomas crossed with that of another well-known artist from this region with whom he has exhibited: Queenie McKenzie. Whereas Thomas flattens out the country and strips it to the bare bones, depicting the flat, sparse expanse of the desert, combining complex mythical elements with the organic elements of the landscape,  McKenzie also depicts country or events set in landscapes viewed from both a horizontal and vertical perspective: hills and trees are painted in profile; rivers, fences and roads are viewed from above, her paintings display the richness of the east Kimberley landscape, crowded with rocky and twisted hills, boab trees, people hunting and gathering.  An example is McKenzie’s Gija country (1995) shows a landscape with mythological significance with hills, sand dunes and a white oval representing a mythological woman’s cave.

More recent art experiments with different shading of ochres, such as horizontal or vertical block monochromatic shades (Lena Nyadbi’s  Jimbala (2003) depicting spearhead design used in women’s ceremonial body painting.). Another second generation of Warmun artists depicting country and using traditional ochres is Patrick Mung Mung’s Ngarrgooroon Country (2006)).


Fitzroy Crossing

The Fitzroy Crossing painters of Western Australia also combine modern day events with personal experiences and traditional stories and are often vibrant lateral landscape paintings of the country.  Daisy Andrews uses brilliant oranges and reds of desert sand, mountain ranges and richly hued skies – jewel like paintings of country which have been a voyage of reconnection as she was forced to leave her lands as a young woman. Daisy Andrews 


Balgo Hill 

Balgo (which means “dirty wind”) Hill is an isolated desert community situated on a slope with strong Papunya Pintupi links and the Warlayirti Arts Centre located in the middle of the camp.  It is cut off for several months in the wet season and the dry winter season the wind whips up the sand around the buildings. Close to the settlement is an orange red rocky outcrop contrasting with the deep blue hue of the sky. The desert is covered with spinifex.  Strong bright and numerous colours are used and the painting bears close resemblance to the Central Desert art.  Donkeyman Lee Tjupurrula’s Tingari Dreaming at Walawala (1989) depicts the Tingari Dreaming stories and the ancestor’s travels through the desert with a succession of sites: waterholes and ceremonial sites and the abundance of the land as creeks are flooded. There are artists which lack iconography and are more abstract such as Milliga Napaltjarri’s Artist’s Country nearPurrungu (1993) of vibrant abstract patterns on dark ground resembling new growth after rains or the fruiting of plants and Eubena Nampitjin’s Untitled (1999) who uses reds, yellows and oranges and have a spontaneous vibrant quality to depict the landscape.



North Queensland and the Top End (Arnhem Land)

 In Arnhem Land, the development of contemporary art differs from that of the desert.   Images have been produced for sale for hundreds of years: in the 1700s painted barks and carvings were trades with the Macassans and white anthropologists traded goods for paintings, and in the 1900s paintings on bark were made for tourists.

Here contemporary art is centred on the main communities of Gunbalanya, Maningrida and Ramingining in Western and Central Arnhem land, the Tiwi people of the Bathurst and Melville Islands and Yirrkala, Galiwink’ku and  Ngukurr in eastern Arnhem land where there is a lush landscape of swamps and wetlands, abundant in wildlife such as water geese, crocodiles, water snakes, turtles, fish, lizards.

For generations traditional images have been portrayed on cave walls and bark and now the art is characterised by its unique bark design, with an ochre colour palette (red, yellow, black and white pigments).  Other mediums include lino cuts, screen-prints and etchings but rarely are acrylics or canvas used, due to the easy availability of bark, its better painting surface and a desire to stick to traditional methods. Raark is finely cross hatched clan designs which were painted onto sacred objects and the bodies of participants in rituals.  Traditional bark paintings have a regular geometric structure with raark to create a visually animated surface suggesting the glow of ancestral forces.

Most of the Arnhem Land art is a continuation of traditional stories and long portrayed imagery. Images are both sacred and secular: the secular tell stories of hunts and events; the sacred depict aspects of myths – the spirit beings of the Dreamings.  One dominating  myth is of the Wagilag Sisters who fled to central Arnhem land having committed incest with a kinsman and who camped at the Mirarrmina waterhole, the hole of the Rainbow Serpent (also known as the Great Python) by whom they were swallowed. Other major spirit figures include Baru, the salt water crocodile, who brought fire  the Fire and Water Dreaming relate to the cleansing of the land every year), the Wangarra who created the Yolngu world which has a sacred clan waterhole at its spiritual centre and has been depicted as a circle, symbolic of eternity and the cycles of life and yawkyawks,  young female spirits who live in the waterways and who escaped an ancestral giant by transforming into mermaid like figures and swimming away.

Within this framework however, some artists have a high level of interpretation (the figurative art from the central coastal areas around Maningrida and Ramingining), others stay in within the confines of traditional representation (Yirrkala and Galiwin’ku).

There are differences in style: Western and central Arnhem, crosshatching is confined within outlined images and there is a concentration on the central figure with a plain background, an emphasis on figuration, roundness and curves and x-ray style (internal organs displayed in section as part of the external image).  In east Arnhem, the cross hatching generally covers the whole canvas or back right to the edges with the background filled in with cross hatching and is limited to reproducing clan designs and other traditional imagery.


  Tiwi people: Bathurst Island and Melville Island (the Tiwi people)


Jean Baptist Apuatimi’s Yirrikapayi 2007 depicts a well- known Tiwi story of an ancestor named Yirikapayi dived into the sea and was stabbed in the back with a spear and who metamorphosed into a crocodile. The barbs of the spear became the serrations along his back and tail.  The painting is an intricate matrix of irregular squares and triangles which appear to ripple across the surface resembling a crocodile’s scaly skin sliding through water.


Jean Baptist Apuatimi Yirrikapayi 2007 –


Western Arnhem Land: Gunbalanya


A well-known painter from this area was Peter Marralwanga, a ceremonial elder who held senior status in the realm of the ritual and because of this was able to depict ancestors in ways that challenged traditional depictions.  He painted spiritual figures in complex and dymamic positions crammed into the framework of the bark so that their energy was physically compressed and waiting to be freed.  Ngal Kunbirriyaymi (1982) depicts a yawkyawk (waterweed for hair and a mermaid like figure), the daughter of an ancestral creator and the sister of Ngalyod.   Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent (1980) depicts a powerful ancestor responsible for the creation of particular sites. In this painting the crosshatched patterns make up the snake’s body and emulate the glistening surface of the skin, and suggests the presence of ancestral power.   The snake is swirling to suggest the dangerous whirlpools which are formed in the river Manabinbala.  The band of black and yellow bars are the vertebrae, its head is that of a crocodile with rows of sharp teeth and it wears a feather tassel as is worn in ceremony thus showing the serpent’s place in the ancestral realm.

Central Arnhem land: Maningrida and Ramingining

Again, the central theme is the serpent or python and the journeys of the Wagilag sisters.  Some typical examples of this region are John Mawrundjul’s  Ngaylod and Yawk yawk girls (1980) and Philip Gudthaykudthay’s Witij, olive python (1994)

For a detailed explanation of this ancestral being and the myth see


Another well-known artist is George Milpurrurru who depicts a favourite theme of prolific magpie geese being eaten by a water snake.


East Arnhem land: Galiwin-ku and Yirrkala

The differences in style with Western and central Arnhem land is amply demonstrated by the work of two artists from these areas:  Yanggarriny Wunungmurra’s  Gangan (1997) contains dense cross hatching and formal clan design which is typical of Yirrkala work.  Mick Daypurryun’s Untitled (1992) depicts a series of linked waterholes created by the Djang-kawu sisters, the ancestors the Galiwin-ku (Elcho Island).

  • Mick Daypurryun – Djang’kawu Untitled (1992)
  • Yanggarriny Wunungmurra  Gangan (1997)


Most of the art producing areas work through established arts centres which are Aboriginal owned businesses which sell and distribute the art and which catalogues the art – the name of the centre and the number is usually on the back of the painting, and it is advisable to buy paintings from art galleries coming  from the art centres to ensure provenance and so that the proceeds of sale are going directly to the artists and the Indigenous community.

Examples are in the Western and Central Desert:

  • the Papunya Tula Artists (Papunya),
  • Warlukurlangu Arts (Yuendumu);
  • in the Kimberleys; the Warmun Art Centre and Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation.
  • See au for ones in the Kimberley, Darwin and Katherine and Arnhem Land areas.
  • Utopia is an exception as it has not had a community arts centre and has relied on direct artist-dealer relationships,  but is currently establishing the Utopia Arts Centre in Arlparra.


The other thing to note is that artists from the same region tend to have the same surname and many of them  are related to well-known artists, so care needs to be taken as regards exactly who the artist is.  Simply recognising the name is not necessarily a good thing!


Sources for most of the essay:

  • Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010 edited by Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (Good map on 252)
  • Contemporary Aboriginal Art A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture Susan McCulloch, 2001 edition (Map on page 16)

External articles to assist your visit to Australia:


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