Indigenous Australian art or Australian Aboriginal art is art made by the Indigenous peoples of Australia and in collaborations between Indigenous Australians and others. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpting, ceremonial clothing and sand painting. This article discusses works that pre-date European colonization as well as contemporary Indigenous Australian art by Aboriginal Australians. These have been studied in recent years and have gained much international recognition.
Traditional Indigenous Art
There are several types of aboriginal art, and ways of making art, including rock painting, dot painting, rock engravings, bark painting, carvings, sculptures, and weaving and string art.
Australian Indigenous art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. The oldest firmly dated rock art painting in Australia is a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment found during the excavation of the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter in south-western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Dated at 28,000 years, it is one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date. Rock art, including painting and engraving or carving, can be found at sites throughout Australia. Rock paintings appear on caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia known as Bradshaws. They are named after the European, Joseph Bradshaw, who first reported them in 1891. To Aboriginal people of the region they are known as Gwion Gwion or Giro Giro. Other painted rock art sites include Laura, Queensland, Ubirr, in the Kakadu National Park, Uluru, and Carnarvon Gorge.
Aboriginal rock art has been around for a long period of time, with the oldest examples, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region and the Olary district of South Australia, estimated to be up to around 40,000 years old. Examples have been found that are believed to depict extinct megafauna such as Genyornis and Thylacoleo as well as more recent historical events such as the arrival of European ships.
Rock engraving depends on the type of rock being used. Many different methods are used to create rock engravings. There are several different types of Rock art across Australia, the most famous of which is Murujuga in Western Australia, the Sydney rock engravings around Plymouth in New South Wales, and the Panaramitee rock art in Central Australia. The Sydney engravings, depicting carved animals and humans, have their own peculiar style not found elsewhere in Australia.
The rock art at Murujuga is said to be the world’s largest collection of petroglyphs and includes images of extinct animals such as the thylacine. Activity prior to the last ice age until colonisation is recorded.
Dot painting consists of various paint colours like yellow (representing the sun), brown (the soil), red (desert sand) and white (the clouds and the sky). These are traditional Aboriginal colours. Dot paintings can be painted on anything though in aboriginal times they were painted on rocks, in caves, etc. The paintings were mostly images of animals or lakes, and the Dreamtime. Stories and legends were depicted on caves and rocks to represent the artists’ religion and beliefs.
On modern artwork, dots are generally applied with one of two instruments, (1) bamboo satay sticks and (2) ink bottles. The larger flat end of bamboo satay sticks are more commonly used for single application of dots to paintings, but the sharp pointier end is used to create fine dots. To create superimposed dotting, artists may take a bunch of satay sticks, dip the pointy ends into the paint and then transfer it onto the canvas in quick successions of dotting.
Bark paintings are regarded as fine art, and today the finest art commands high prices on the international art markets. The best artists are recognized annually in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
Aerial Desert “Country” Landscapes
From ancient times, Australian aboriginal culture also produced a genre of aerial landscape art, often titled simply “country”. It is a kind of maplike, bird’s-eye view of the desert landscape, and it is often meant to tell a traditional Dreaming story. In the distant past, the common media for such artwork were rock, sand or body painting, but the tradition continues today in the form of colored drawings with liquid based color on canvas (see section Papunya Tula and “Dot Painting” below).
Stone arrangements in Australia range from the 50m-diameter circles of Victoria, with 1m-high stones firmly embedded in the ground, to the smaller stone arrangements found throughout Australia, such as those near Yirrkala which depict accurate images of thepraus used by Macassan Trepang fishermen and spear throwers.
See Aboriginal stone arrangements for more details.
Carvings and Sculpture
- Carved shells – Riji
- Mimih (or Mimi) small man-like carvings of mythological impish creatures. Mimihs are so frail that they never venture out on windy days lest they be swept away like leaf litter. It is said their necks are so thin a slight breeze might snap their heads off. If approached by men they will run into a rock crevice; if no crevice is there, the rocks themselves will open up and seal behind the Mimih.
- Fibre sculpture
Weaving and String-Art
- Basket weaving – see Australian Aboriginal fibrecraft
- Necklaces and other jewellery, such as those from the Tasmanian Aborigines
Certain symbols within the Aboriginal modern art movement retain the same meaning across regions although the meaning of the symbols may change within the context of a painting. When viewed in monochrome other symbols can look similar, such as the circles within circles, sometimes depicted on their own, sparsely, or in clustered groups. Depending upon the tribe of which the artist is a murnanember, symbols such as campfire, tree, hill, digging hole, waterhole, or spring can vary in meaning. Use of the symbol can be clarified further by the use of colour, such as water being depicted in blue or black.
Many paintings by Aboriginal artists, such as those that represent a “dreamtime story”, are shown from an aerial perspective. The narrative follows the lie of the land, as created by ancestral beings in their journey or during creation. The modern day rendition is a reinterpretation of songs, ceremonies, rock art and body art that was the norm for many thousands of years.
Whatever the meaning, interpretations of the symbols should be made in context of the entire painting, the region from which the artist originates, the story behind the painting, and the style of the painting, with additional clues being the colours used in some of the more modern works, such as blue circles signifying water.(Source: Aboriginal Symbols – Indigenous Australia)
Religious and Cultural Aspects of Aboriginal Art
Traditional indigenous art almost always has a mythological undertone relating to the Dreamtime of indigenous Australian artists. Wenten Rubuntja, an indigenous landscape artist, says it is hard to find any art that is devoid of spiritual meaning:
Doesn’t matter what sort of painting we do in this country, it still belongs to the people, all the people. This is worship, work, culture. It’s all Dreaming. There are two ways of painting. Both ways are important, because that’s culture. – source The Weekend Australian Magazine, April 2002
Story-telling and totem representation feature prominently in all forms of Aboriginal artwork. Additionally, the female form, particularly the female womb in X-ray style, features prominently in some famous sites in Arnhem Land.
Graffiti and Other Destructive Influences
Many culturally significant sites of Aboriginal rock paintings have been gradually desecrated and destroyed by encroachment of early settlers and modern-day visitors. This includes the destruction of art by clearing and construction work, erosion caused by excessive touching of sites, and graffiti. Many sites now belonging to National Parks have to be strictly monitored by rangers, or closed off to the public permanently.
Contemporary Indigenous Art
Modern Aboriginal Artists
In 1934 Australian painter Rex Batterbee taught Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira western style watercolour landscape painting, along with other Aboriginal artists at the Hermannsburg mission in the Northern Territory. It became a popular style, known as the Hermannsburg School, and sold out when the paintings were exhibited in Melbourne, Adelaide and other Australian cities. Namatjira became the first Aboriginal Australian citizen, as a result of his fame and popularity with these watercolour paintings.
In 1966, one of David Malangi’s designs was produced on the Australian one dollar note, originally without his knowledge. The subsequent payment to him by the Reserve Bank marked the first case of Aboriginal copyright in Australian copyright law.
In 1988 the Aboriginal Memorial was unveiled at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra made from 200 hollow log coffins, which are similar to the type used for mortuary ceremonies in Arnhem Land. It was made for the bicentenary of Australia’s colonisation, and is in remembrance of Aboriginal people who had died protecting their land during conflict with settlers. It was created by 43 artists from Ramingining and communities nearby. The path running through the middle of it represents the Glyde River.
In that same year, the new Parliament House in Canberra opened with a forecourt featuring a design by Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, laid as a mosaic.
The late Rover Thomas is another well known modern Australian Aboriginal artist. Born in Western Australia, he represented Australia in the Venice Biennale of 1991. He knew and encouraged other now well-known artists to paint, including Queenie McKenzie from the East Kimberley / Warmun region, as well as having a strong influence on the works of Paddy Bedford and Freddy Timms.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the work of Emily Kngwarreye, from the Utopia community north east of Alice Springs, became very popular. Although she had been involved in craftwork for most of her life, it was only when she was in her 80s that she was recognised as a painter. Her works include Earth’s Creation. Her styles, which changed every year, have been seen as a mixture of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary Australian. Her rise in popularity has prefigured that of many Indigenous artists from central, northern and western Australia, such as Kngwarreye’s niece Kathleen Petyarre, Minnie Pwerle, Dorothy Napangardi, Lena Pwerle, Angelina Ngale (Pwerle) and dozens of others, all of whose works have become highly sought-after. The popularity of these often elderly artists, and the resulting pressure placed upon them and their health, has become such an issue that some art centres have stopped selling these artists’ paintings online, instead placing prospective clients on a waiting list for work.
Current artists in vogue include Jacinta Hayes, popular for her iconic representation of “Bush Medicine Leaves” and “Honey Ants”, Rex Sultan (who studied with Albert Namatjira), Trephina Sultan and Reggie Sultan, Bessie Pitjara and Joyce Nakamara, amongst others.
Despite concerns about supply and demand for paintings, the remoteness of many of the artists, and the poverty and health issues experienced in the communities, there are widespread estimates of an industry worth close to half a billion Australian dollars each year, and growing rapidly.
Papunya Tula and “Dot Painting”
In 1971–1972, art teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged Aboriginal people in Papunya, north west of Alice Springs to put their Dreamings onto canvas. These stories had previously been drawn on the desert sand, and were now given a more permanent form.
The dots were used to cover secret-sacred ceremonies. Originally, the Tula artists succeeded in forming their own company with an Aboriginal Name, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, however a time of disillusionment followed as artists were criticised by their peers for having revealed too much of their sacred heritage. Secret designs restricted to a ritual context were now in the market place, made visible to Australian Aboriginal painting. Much of the Aboriginal art on display in tourist shops traces back to this style developed at Papunya. The most famous of the artists to come from this movement was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Also from this movement is Johnny Warangkula, whose Water Dreaming at Kalipinya twice sold at a record price, the second time being $486,500 in 2000.
The Papunya Collection at the National Museum of Australia contains over 200 artifacts and paintings, including examples of 1970’s dot paintings.
There have been cases of some exploitative dealers (known as carpetbaggers) that have sought to profit from the success of the Aboriginal art movements. Since Geoffrey Bardon’s time and in the early years of the Papunya movement, there has been concerns about the exploitation of the largely illiterate and non-English speaking artists.
One of the main reasons the Yuendumu movement was established, and later flourished, was due to the feeling of exploitation amongst artists:
“Many of the artists who played crucial roles in the founding of the art centre were aware of the increasing interest in Aboriginal art during the 1970s and had watched with concern and curiosity the developments of the art movement at Papunya amongst people to whom they were closely related. There was also a growing private market for Aboriginal art in Alice Springs. Artists’ experiences of the private market were marked by feelings of frustration and a sense of disempowerment when buyers refused to pay prices which reflected the value of the Jukurrpa or showed little interest in understanding the story. The establishment of Warlukurlangu was one way of ensuring the artists had some control over the purchase and distribution of their paintings.” (Source: “Warlukurlangu Artists”. warlu.com. Archived from the original on 2005-07-23.)
Other cases of exploitation include:
- painting for a lemon (car): “Artists have come to me and pulled out photos of cars with mobile phone numbers on the back. They’re asked to paint 10-15 canvasses in exchange for a car. When the ‘Toyotas’ materalise, they often arrive with a flat tyre, no spares, no jack, no fuel.” (Coslovich 2003)
- preying on a sick artist: “Even coming to town for medical treatment, such as dialysis, can make an artist easy prey for dealers wanting to make a quick profit who congregate in Alice Springs” (op.cit.)
- pursuing a famous artist: “The late (great) Emily Kngwarreye…was relentlessly pursued by carpetbaggers towards the end of her career and produced a large but inconsistent body of work.” According to Sotheby’s “We take about one in every 20 paintings of hers, and with those we look for provenance we can be 100% sure of.” (op.cit.)
In March 2006, the ABC reported art fraud had hit the Western Australian Aboriginal Art movements. Allegations were made of sweatshop-like conditions, fake works by English backpackers, overpricing and artists posing for photographs for artwork that was not theirs. A detective on the case said:
“People are clearly taking advantage…Especially the elderly people. I mean, these are people that, they’re not educated; they haven’t had a lot of contact with white people. They’ve got no real basic understanding, you know, of the law and even business law. Obviously they’ve got no real business sense. A dollar doesn’t really have much of a meaning to them, and I think to treat anybody like that is just… it’s just not on in this country.”Call for ACCC to investigate Aboriginal Art industry, ABC PM, 15 March.
In August 2006, following concerns raised about unethical practices in the Indigenous art sector, the Australian Senate initiated an inquiry into issues in the sector. It heard from the Northern Territory Art Minister, Marion Scrymgour, that backpackers were often the artists of Aboriginal art being sold in tourist shops around Australia:
“The material they call Aboriginal art is almost exclusively the work of fakers, forgers and fraudsters. Their work hides behind false descriptions and dubious designs. The overwhelming majority of the ones you see in shops throughout the country, not to mention Darling, are fakes, pure and simple. There is some anecdotal evidence here in Darwin at least, they have been painted by backpackers working on industrial scale wood production.”
The inquiry’s final report made recommendations for changed funding and governance of the sector, including a code of practice.
Aboriginal Art Movements and Cooperatives
Australian Indigenous art movements and cooperatives have been central to the emergence of Indigenous Australian art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres.
Many of the centres operate online art galleries where local and international visitors can purchase works directly from the communities without the need of going through an intermediary. The cooperatives reflect the diversity of art across Indigenous Australia from the north west region where ochre is significantly used; to the tropical north where the use of cross-hatching prevails; to the Papunya style of art from the central desert cooperatives. Art is increasingly becoming a significant source of income and livelihood for some of these communities.
The winners of the West Australian Indigenous Arts Awards were announced on 22 August 2013. From over 137 nominations from throughout Australia, Churchill Cann won the Best West Australian Piece (A$10,000) and North Queensland artist Brian Robinson won the Best Overall prize (A$50,000),
Aboriginal Art in International Museums
The Museum for Australian Aboriginal art “La grange” (at Neuchâtel, Switzerland) is one of the few museums in Europe that dedicates itself entirely to this kind of art. During seasonal exhibitions, works of art by internationally renowned artists are being shown. Also, the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, has an “Oceania” collection, which includes works by Australian Aboriginal artists Lena Nyadbi, Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, Judy Watson, Gulumbu Yunupingu, John Mawurndjul, Tommy Watson, Ningura Napurrula and Michael Riley.
Two museums that solely exhibit Australian Aboriginal art are the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art (AMU), in Utrecht, The Netherlands and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.
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