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Indigenous Australian art

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Indigenous Australian art

Aboriginal pictographs known as Barnett River, Kimberley, Western Australia

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 increased international recognition.[1]

Traditional Indigenous art

Rock painting

Aboriginal Namadgi National Park featuring a Kangaroo, Dingoes, Echidna or Turtles, totems and stories are created using dots.
This photo shows the painting of Baiame made by an unknown Wiradjuri artist in "Baiame's cave", near Singleton, NSW. Notice the length of his arms which extend to the two trees either side.

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 [9]

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.[10] Examples have been found that are believed to depict extinct megafauna such as Genyornis[11] and Thylacoleo[12] as well as more recent historical events such as the arrival of European ships.[13]

Rock engravings

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 Sydney in New South Wales, and the Panaramitee rock art in Central Australia. The Sydney engravings have their own peculiar style not found elsewhere in Australia, showing carved animals and humans.

The rock art at Murujuga is said to be the world's largest collection of petroglyphs[14] and includes images of extinct animals such as Thylacine. Activity prior to the last ice age until colonisation are recorded.

Dot painting

Dot painting consists of various paint colours like yellow (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 used to paint dot pictures on rocks, caves etc. Mostly Indigenous nature like animals or lakes and of course, the dreamtime. They used to paint stories and legends on caves and rocks to represent their religion.

Bark painting

Bark paintings are regarded as fine art, and the finest art command 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

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 the praus 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

Ochre Pits in central Australia where a variety of clay earth pigments were obtained.


Certain symbols within the Aboriginal modern art movement retain the same meaning across regions, although the meaning of the same symbols may change within the context of the whole 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. When this symbol is used and depending on the Aboriginal tribe you belong to, it can vary in meaning from campfire, tree, hill, digging hole, waterhole or spring. 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 icons should be taken in context of the entire painting, the region from which the artist originates, the story behind the painting, 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)[15]

Religious and cultural aspects of Aboriginal art

Aboriginal art at Uluru

Traditional Aboriginal art almost always has a mythological undertone relating to the Dreamtime of Australian Aborigines. Wenten Rubuntja, an Aboriginal landscape artist says it's 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
Aboriginal art showing Barramundi fish
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

Picture of Albert Namatjira at the Albert Namatjira Gallery, Alice Springs Cultural Precinct, in 2007.
Rainbow serpent by John Mawurndjul, 1991

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.[16]

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, Jeannie Petyarre ( Pitjara ) 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 centers have stopped selling these artists' paintings online, instead placing prospective clients on a waiting list for work.[17]

Current artists in vogue include Jacinta Hayes, popular for her iconic representation of "Bush Medine Leaves" and "Honey Ants", Rex Sultan (who studied with Albert Namatjira), Trephina Sultan and Reggie Sultan, Bessie Pitjara and Joyce Nakamara, amongst others.[18]

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.[19]

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,[20] 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 1970s dot paintings.[21]


Albert Namatjira refuelling for a trip to Alice Springs, around 1948.

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  )

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."[22]

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.[23]

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),[24]

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,[25] 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.[26]

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.[27][28]

See also


  1. ^ Caruna, W.(2003)'Aboriginal Art' Thames and Hudson, London, p.7
  2. ^ Barker, Bryce (18 June 2012). "Australia’s oldest rock art discovered by USQ researcher".  
  3. ^ Collis, Clarisa (June 2012). "Ancient artists of rock and soul".  
  4. ^ Doring, Jeff Gwion Gwion: Chemins Secrets Et Sacrés Des Ngarinyin, Aborigènes D'Australie (Gwion Gwion: Secret and Sacred Pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal People of Australia) Könemann 2000 ISBN 9783829040600 p. 55
  5. ^ Worms, Ernest Contemporary and prehistoric rock paintings in Central and Northern North Kimberley Anthropos Switzerland 1955 p. 555
  6. ^ "Rock Art Sites & Tours". Quinkan & Regional Cultural Centre. 2009. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  7. ^ Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012). "Ubirr art site". Australian Government. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  8. ^ Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2013). "Rock art sites". Australian Government. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  9. ^ "Pre-history of Carnarvon Gorge". Australian Nature Guides. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  10. ^ Rock Art, Aboriginal Art Online, retrieved April 2008.
  11. ^ Masters, Emma (31 May 2010). "Megafauna cave painting could be 40,000 years old". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  12. ^ Akerman, Kim; Willing, Tim (March 2009). "An ancient rock painting of a marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, from the Kimberley, Western Australia".  
  13. ^ Middleton, Amy; AAP (2 August 2013). "Aboriginal rock art may depict first sea arrivals". Australian Geographic. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  14. ^ Department of Environment and Conservation (6 February 2013). "Creation of Western Australia's 100th National Park - Murujuga National Park". Government of Western Australia. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Team AusEmade (2008-09-28). "Aboriginal Symbols". Retrieved 2013-08-16. 
  16. ^ Caruana, Wally (2003). Aboriginal Art (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. p. 226.  
  17. ^ Warlayirti Artists, 'Supply and Demand', retrieved July 2007
  18. ^ Nazvanov, DR Greg. The Australian Aboriginal Art Investment Handbook, 2010.ISBN 1445776073
  19. ^ Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (2007), Indigenous Art: Securing the Future - Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, Canberra: The Senate
  20. ^ "Papunya Tula Artists". Retrieved 2013-08-16. 
  21. ^ Papunya Collection, National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  22. ^ Sydney Morning Herald (2007) Backpackers fake Aboriginal art, Senate told
  23. ^ Wright, Felicity and Morphy, Frances 1999-2000. The Art & Craft Centre Story. Canberra: ATSIC (3 vols).
  24. ^ Craig Quartermaine (23 August 2013). "Winner of the West Australian Indigenous Art prize announced". SBS World News Australia. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  25. ^ "musée du quai Branly: Oceania". Retrieved 2013-08-16. 
  26. ^ "Musée du Quai Branly Australian Aboriginal Art Museum at the Aboriginal Art Directory. View information about Musée du Quai Branly". 2010-07-15. Retrieved 2013-08-16. 
  27. ^ "Home". AAMU. AAMU. August 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  28. ^ "The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection". Campaign for the Arts at the University of Virginia. Rector & Visitors, U.Va. August 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 

Further reading

  • Bardon, G. (1979) Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert, Adelaide: Rigby
  • Bardon, G. (1991) Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert, Ringwood VIC: McPhee Gribble (Penguin)
  • Bardon, G. (2005) Papunya, A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement, University of Melbourne: Miegunyah Press
  • Donaldson, Mike, Burrup Rock Art: Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art of Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago, Fremantle Arts Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9805890-1-6
  • Flood, J. (1997) Rock Art of the Dreamtime:Images of Ancient Australia,Sydney: Angus & Robertson
  • Johnson, V. (ed) (2007) Papunya painting: out of the desert, Canberra: National Museum of Australia
  • Kleinert, S. & Neale, M. (eds.) (2000) The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  • McCulloch, S. (1999) Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture, St Leonards (Sydney): Allen & Unwin,
  • McIvor, Roy (2010). Cockatoo: My Life in Cape York. Stories and Art. Roy McIvor. Magabala Books. Broome, Western Australia. ISBN 978-1-921248-22-1.
  • Morphy, H. (1991) Ancestral Connections, London: University of Chicago Press
  • Morphy, H. (1998) Aboriginal Art, London: Phaidon Press
  • Myers, F. R. (2002) Painting Culture: The making of an Aboriginal High Art, Durham: Duke University Press
  • Rothwell, N. (2007) Another Country, Melbourne: Black Inc.
  • Ryan, M.D. and Keane, M. and Cunningham, S. (2008) Indigenous Art: Local Dreamings, Global Consumption, in Anheier, Helmut and Raj Isar, Yudhishthir, Eds. Cultures and Globalization: The Cultural Economy, London: Sage Publications, pp. 284–291
  • Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (2007), Indigenous Art: Securing the Future - Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, Canberra: The Senate
  • Wright, F. (with Morphy, F. and Desart Inc.) (1999–2000) The Art and Craft Centre Story (3 vols), Woden: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

External links

  • Indigenous Art Code the industry code set up to promote integrity, transparency and accountability in dealing with Indigenous art [1].
  • Aboriginal Art Directory Comprehensive list of art centres, museums, galleries, along with Aboriginal art news and reviews [2].
  • Arts Law Centre of Australia - Indigenous art legal issues
  • Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists
  • Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association
  • National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award
  • Culture Victoria – images and videos related to traditional art and artefacts
  • Australian Art Collector magazine's Guide to Indigenous Art Centres
  • Lockhart River Art
  • Remembering Forward. Australian Aboriginal Painting since 1960 at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
  • , Howard Morphy, John Carty and Dr Michael PickeringCountry, memory and art: Understanding Indigenous artDiscussion on , National Museum of Australia, Audio on demand, 8 December 2010
  • Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, National Museum of Australia online exhibition
  • Warlukurlangu
  • Aboriginal art project in Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
  • Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrech.
  • Contemporary aboriginal art collection.
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