Historically, Australian Aboriginal peoples had three main forms of communicating — storytelling, songs, and visual communication through painting, drawing, and the use of ceremonial design. Without a written language, future generations, beyond generational learning, largely depended on the wide breadth of Aboriginal Art to communicate and understand past practices and culture.
Across Australia more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages existed and with each, dialects and language nuances were based on their geographical location, Aboriginal Art was also widely varied based on region.
Unlike Western Art, Aboriginal artworks were not as concerned with adhering to a particular artistic style. Rather, artists were tasked as the great record keepers of their day, arguably creating some of the most honest and authentic art out of pure necessity.
While certain symbols depicted in Aboriginal Art could only be decoded by experienced elders within the community, these pieces stand to be excellent visual references of what life was like for Aboriginal peoples. Through carefully examining Aboriginal Art, we are continually exposed to a unique insight into the varied landscape of Australia and the creators and culture of each artist.
The Kimberley Art
The Kimberley is a unique area located in the far North-West corner of Australia. Well known for its beautiful earthy Aboriginal paintings. Rock art in the region dates back at least 30,000 years with images painted, engraved, or sculpted with beeswax and native grass. Though most Kimberley artists have transitioned to canvas-based pieces, the characteristically ochre tones and minimalist designs still remain as motifs in modern pieces today.
Wandjina spirits are celebrated in the region of Derby. A mix of vibrant acrylic paintings is shared across four language groups in Fitzroy Crossing. Well-known ochre(ground earth pigments) paintings are produced in Warmun and Kununarra.
The ochre tones are reflective of the rich, iron-based Australian soil in the region which have been used by First Nation people for centuries. For example, the ancient rock paintings of Gwion Gwion figures dating back to 18,000 years ago utilized these methods.
One of the most prominent artists in the Warmun and Waringarri region, Rover Thomas, was a descendant of both Wangkajunga and Kukatja peoples. Thomas was eventually displaced from his desert homeland, leading him to become an overseer of the paintings produced by the Krill Krill ceremony.
These paintings depict the understated conflict between white settlers and aboriginal peoples. Thomas himself began painting and used map-like, minimalist imagery to further emphasize the often stark politics of the era.
Mowanjum community depicts Wandjinas in their art with ochre tones, documenting the implicit laws of the communities and the importance of preserving the created earth. These paintings give a deep insight into the complex current and past societies of the region, through the expression of the creator and the settlers.
You’ll also find vibrant, free-flowing acrylics in Fitzroy Crossing, a meeting place of desert and river people. Lively desert artists make up the majority here, painting images of country they were forced to leave.
Central Desert Art
Situated in the middle of Australia’s Northern Territory, the Central Desert is largely made up of Warlpiri speaking communities. Central Desert Art, originated from women of the region, who decorated various handmade items and on wooden boards. This application was partly a result of anthropologists Françoise Dussart and Meredith Morris’s encouragement in the early 1980s, but art from the region has roots that run back to 1971 in close-by Papunya. The Central Desert region of Australia is most famous today for the vibrant acrylic paintings being produced.
The iconography used in Central Desert paintings emphasises the importance in places of cosmological significance which correlate to practical sites relating to the activity of both ancestral beings and Aboriginal people between these sites. The emphasis reflects the semi-nomadic existence required to live in a desert environment.
Art from the Central Desert shares the spiritual ties between earth, animals, and the nature surrounding it. One prominent example of Çentral Dersert Art is the various water Dreamings throughout this country. These paintings share the power of the crucial life source that is water and appear often.
Aboriginal Symbols that are used in Central Desert paintings are not singular in their meaning but change according to the context in which they are placed. Concentric circles, for example, could represent the site of a fire, camping grounds, or a place to obtain drinking water.
Western Desert Art
The Western Desert, also known as the “Western Cultural Bloc” is a vast region that occupies over 600,000 kilometres—roughly 1/3 of Australia’s landmass. Throughout the stretches of seemingly uninhabitable land, numerous Aboriginal communities have found ways to survive and continue thousands-of-year-old communities and culture. Today, there are a high number of art centres all across the region, producing some of Australia’s finest examples of Aboriginal Art.
The beginning of the Western Desert painting movement was linked to an Australian schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon in the enforced community of Pupunya from 1971.
Bardon helped to cultivate a commercial Western Desert Aboriginal Art Movement which later empowered Aboriginal peoples, like the Pintupi, to return to their traditional homelands.
Stretching from Pupunya to as far as the Western coast of Australia, the paintings from the Western Desert region are diverse. Ochre tones and a common line and circle motif are well known in the communities of Kiwikurra and Kintore whilst Martumili artists, close the Western Coast, draw inspiration from the vast salt lakes in their country with free flowing brush strokes.
APY Lands Art
In the northwest corner of South Australia lies the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara region, sometimes referred to as the APY lands. Though sparsely populated, it’s home to roughly twenty communities that have become one of the greatest sources of Aboriginal Art.
Since 1921, the APY Lands has primarily served as an Aboriginal Reserve, but its transformation into a place filled with Aboriginal artists didn’t start until the Ernabella Mission was created in 1937 by the Presbyterian Church at Pukatja. In 1948, Ernabella started the longest-running Aboriginal art centre in Australia, which is still in operation today.
APY Aboriginal Art centres represent over 400 artists working at Tjala Arts, Mimili Maku Artists, Iwantja Artists, Tjungu Palya Artists, and Kaltjiti Artists. The APY Lands have created distinctive and colour-filled artworks that express Anangu connections to culture and Country.
Today, the APY Lands is known for its vibrant and symbolic acrylic paintings. These beautiful paintings feature a wide variety of methods; traditional dot paintings contrast and mediate modern, wide paint strokes — sometimes in conjunction with one another.
Artists from APY lands use their modern resources to celebrate and capture the Dreaming as a testament to their commitment to preserving tradition while still embracing new technology.
Arnhem Land Art
Situated on the northern edge of Australia’s Northern Territory, Arnhem Land has been an important Aboriginal reserve since 1931. Though isolated, it’s one of the largest in the country to this day. It’s a place filled with prolific Aboriginal artists who draw upon their rich cultural background for inspiration.
Arnhem Land is often defined by a rocky landscape that dominates the region, tropical beaches, and a tropical climate. Aboriginal communities traditionally fashioned houses using bark, which later transitioned into bark art, which continues as a practice today.
Northeast Arnhem Land is home to Yolngu people, one of the largest Aboriginal groups in Australia, and one who has succeeded in maintaining a vigorous traditional indigenous culture. Malays and Macassans are believed to have had contact with the coastal Aboriginal groups and traded with them for many years prior to the European settlement.
Aboriginal people of the region focus on maintaining a traditional technique, with an emphasis on fine cross-hatching in natural earth pigments on bark and Larrakitj and fine weaving.
Tiwi Islands Art
The Tiwi Islands are situated approximately 100 km off the coast of Darwin. The two largest islands, Melville Island, (approx. 5,800 square km) and Bathurst Island (approx. 2,200 square km) house the majority of the Tiwi people.
The islands are located right along the tropical zone. Its three seasons have a major influence on the Tiwi people, and in turn, their artwork. These seasons are typically symbolised in three ways: smoke, which represents the dry season, cicada’s song, which represents the gradual coming of the rainy season, and tropical storms, which represent the rainy season.
While the Tiwi Islands Artists are known for preserving their ancient culture, they are also known to embrace innovation. For example, island inhabitants were one of the first to experiment with the printmaking process as a new form of artistic communication. This paved the way for intricate weavings and fabrics, which still remains an important part of the Tiwi economy.
Notably, each island within this area has a distinct set of artistic symbols. The Tiwi Islands can be divided into 9 different subsections, each with its own animal totems. Each inhabitant is usually tied to a specific totem, speaking to the important intersection of art and governing culture of the region.
Far North Queensland Art
Spanning a timeline of over 40,000 years, the Aboriginal population of Far North Queensland has produced some of the most intriguing rock art in the world. Primarily concentrated in the south-eastern area of Cape York, the traditional Aboriginal lands of the Guugu Yimithirr, Kuku Yalanji, and Kuku Thaypan peoples, and in the Laura region, these sites serve as a collective gallery of ancient art that depicts a story of life thousands of years ago. They’re composed of engravings, stencils, and rock paintings of various kinds and throughout different time periods.
Ornately decorated “Rainforest Shields” were as informative as they were protective. These shields were used in duels and large social gatherings. They are often decorated with symbols central to native life, such as fish, tools, game, and weather.
“Camp Dog” sculptures are also common creations these days, usually crafted out of traditional milkwood trees of the region. These sculptures show respect for the companion and hope for dogs to reach a dreaming state.
Torres Straits Art
The Torres Strait Islands are situated off the northernmost coastal edge of Queensland and are populated by Torress Straits Islander Peoples. There are over 274 that comprise the area, which was an important stop along the trade and exploration routes to and from the region.
Across the Torres Strait Islands, there is a large breath of ornate print-making depicting daily life, important stories, and foreign trade interactions constantly coming into contact with Native peoples.
While much of the art of the region was communicated orally through song or dance, the deep appreciation for the sea, sky, and waterways is clearly evident through printed works.
The Torres Straits are also the only known home to turtle shell masks. These masks were predominately used in funeral ceremonies as a way to honour the deceased. Turtle shell masks are still commonly constructed today, and many artists of the region see their creation as a way to reconnect with the traditions and cultural values of the generations before them.
Aboriginal peoples from the Pilbara region initially resisted the artistic medium to express their culture in a siimlar way to the growing Western Desert Art Movement. The thought behind this was that by creating an exchange in cultural knowledge, there was also a risk of devaluing their heritage. Traditionally, the Pilbara people are the owners of the Fortescue River region in the Pilbara.
At first glimpse, the surface of Pilbara is an arid, grim land that is beaten down by constant powerful sunlight with little moisture. However, for people with an indigenous understanding of the area, it’s also a home with concealed pools of fresh water, and a diverse weather cycle of its own. For locals, their Creation stories tell tales of, sprouting seeds, budding flowers, and blooming plants after precipitation.
Today, art from this region shares an ancient culture, juxtaposed by the modern history of mining for iron in the Pilbara, which its economy currently relies on.
Aboriginal Art serves as a unique language that is as mysterious as it is informative. We continue to learn deeply about the past and present through the raw depiction of life throughout Australia’s native lands.