Discover the Ancient Origins and Rich Traditions of Aboriginal Art in Australia: From Dreamtime Stories through Colonisation and into the Contemporary Art World.
With a history dating back tens of thousands of years, Australian Aboriginal Art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art making in the world. From sand and body painting in the desert regions, to bark painting and rock art in the North, the art forms used by the First Peoples of Australia vary greatly but all serve to communicate their ancestral ties and connection to their lands.
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Aboriginal Art Articles to Read:
- Aboriginal Art of Australia: Understanding its History
- Dreamtime Stories and The Dreaming in Aboriginal Art
- Aboriginal Art Symbols
- Aboriginal Dot Painting: Evolution and History
Also known as the Dreamtime, Jukurrpa, and Songlines, Aboriginal Art shares stories of the artist's Dreaming. Supernatural beings travelled over the empty land in an intricate web of Dreaming tracks, they created everything. Rainbow Serpents, Lighting men and a whole host of beings created the world of Aboriginal people. Not only did they create the landscape and all that resides within it, but they also laid down the laws of social and religious customs which to this day remain at the core of Aboriginal identity and dictate much of daily life. The connection to the Dreaming, which encompasses the past, present, and future, is passed down through generations and is shared, celebrated, and reinforced through Aboriginal Art.
The earliest carbon dated artwork is 28,000 years old, a charcoal painting on a rock fragment found in the Northern Territory at the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter. Many other works are thought to be much older and share images ranging from now-extinct megafauna, to the more recent arrival of European ships.
Aboriginal rock painting of Megafauna, Quinkan rock art, Laura, QLD
Aboriginal rock painting of European ship at Djulirri, Arnhem Land, NT
Discoveries made in 2017 at the Madjedbebe rock shelter, a significant site of human migration in Arnhem Land, are estimated to be up to 80,000 years old (currently confirmed at 65,000 years +/- 5,000 years). Thousands of artifacts were unearthed along with a stunning collection of rock art. Today, Madjedbebe is situated on the edge of the Jabiluka wetlands. But 65,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower, it sat on the edge of a vast savanna plain joining Australia and New Guinea in the supercontinent of Sahul. Evidence of the use of ochre and 'reflective paint substances' were found among the oldest artifacts. These materials provide proof of the incredible antiquity of Aboriginal Art and the importance of art as a means of totemic connection, storytelling, and recording history.With this incredible antiquity in mind, we are skipping ahead many tens of thousands of years to our focus
Aboriginal Art since colonisation
Aboriginal Art really only began to emerge in the public domain around 120 years ago.
In the early days of colonialism, early settlers and explorers wrongly thought that Aboriginal people had no artistic ability because they could not see traditional art forms such as rectangular pictures and sculptures on pedestals that they associated with art. This perception stemmed from the lack of understanding of the cultural and social significance of Aboriginal artforms and it was decided responsibility for collecting Aboriginal Art would fall to the Museums rather than the National Gallery of Australia. It was generally believed, Items such as boomerangs, baskets and shields were artifacts only and lacked artistic merit.
One instantly recognisable type of Aboriginal Art today is bark painting which was traditionally used to decorate shelters and as part of burial rites. The use of bark painting was first described by Europeans in 1802 when the French disembarked on Maria Island in Tasmania where they found and desecrated a local burial tomb. The tomb was described as a ‘conical structure roughly made of pieces of bark’ which were decorated with painted designs.
The first collections of bark paintings made on the basis of artistic and aesthetic merit, as opposed to ethnographic interest, were put together from 1912 by Walter Baldwin Spencer(1860-1929) when he visited the buffalo hunting camp of pastoralist, Paddy Cahill(c1863-1923) at Oenpelli (now Gunbalanya) in western Arnhem Land.
Artist, Paddy Compass Namadbara(c. 1892-1978) recollected in a 1967 interview with researcher Lance Bennett that Spencer asked chosen artists to create bark paintings on small, transport-friendly bark sheets, which they had never done before. This transformed the traditional bark-hut paintings into a new medium: bark paintings.
3 bark paintings commissioned by Baldwin Spencer, 1912-13
Spencer made several collections for the National Museum of Victoria in his role as director and asked Paddy Cahill to commission bark paintings from Gaagadju artists which were exchanged for sticks of tobacco. In all, approximately 170 paintings were commissioned in this way between 1912 and 1922.
The first exhibition where bark paintings were included for the very first time was at the Museum of Victoria in Glorious Days, 1913. And later, a major exhibition was held in 1929 titled, Australian Aboriginal Art.
An article from The West Australian (Fri 30 Aug 1929) reads;
A NEGLECTED PHASE.
Ancient Carvings and Paintings.
''On the Mootwingee rock-shelter near Broken Hill, in New South Wales, and on the Glen Isla and Langi Ghiran shelters, in the Grampians in Victoria, as well as in many other spots in Australia, there are rock carvings and paintings, done long ago by the aboriginals of Australia. Elsewhere are carved trees and bark drawings. The ethnological and art interest in these relics has long been neglected, but during last month the trustees of the National Museum of Victoria, acting upon a suggestion from the committee of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, decided to arrange for a special exhibition of objects illustrating Australian Aboriginal Art. The co-operation of the authorities controlling other museums was secured, as well as that of private collectors and an excellent series of objects, embracing a variety of decorated implements, ceremonial objects, personal ornaments and bark drawings[paintings], together with photographs of rock-shelter drawings and paintings and casts of rock engravings, were brought together....''
One of the key aspects from this exhibition was showing the connection between bark painting and other forms of Aboriginal Art, such as body painting and rock art through photographic images.
The exhibition fostered a new appreciation looking at the aesthetics of the artworks and it is from this time that the perception of Aboriginal Art began to change. Still, there continued to be a lack of understanding of the cultural and social significance Aboriginal Art and the meaning behind it.
There is a long-standing debate that continues even today of whether to approach visual Aboriginal Art from an anthropological or artistic perspective, but this first major exhibition and subsequent exhibitions helped to educate people that bark paintings were in fact a form of art.
Mardayin ceremony body designs from eastern Arnhem Land, NT. Photo: Donald Thomson
Early bark catalogue from the Milingimbi Education and Cultural Association collection
As you can see in the images there is a direct relationship between bark painting and body painting. Body painting painted on the skin of a tree rather than the skin of a person. And this is partly why bark paintings are usually displayed vertically rather than horizontally.
Other examples include images from rock art and images painted on shelters. It should be noted that when considering rock art many people consider it in the past but it is ongoing and continues today.
Aboriginal Wandjina rock art in Wunnumurra Gorge, Barnett River
L ©Wattie Karruwara, c.1962 - R ©Alec Mingelmangan, 1975
In continuing this evolution of the appreciation and display of Aboriginal Art in the early 20th century, a major exhibition of Australian art was held in 1941, aptly titled Art of Australia 1788-1941, 1941 began a four-year tour of the United States and Canada, starting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The curator of the exhibition, Theodore Sizer (1892 -1967), after purveying the submitted work, mostly uninspired factual works by white people, he chose to change the focus to a historical viewpoint so as to be able to include Aboriginal Art in the show. On considering the work he said “the native art was immeasurably superior in artistic merit’’, this shows an early appreciation and understanding of Aboriginal Art.
The exhibition gave Australian Aboriginal Art unprecedented exposure in countries where it was formerly little known and after the war anthropological interest in Aboriginal Art grew at pace.
In 1948 an American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land was led by an ethnologist, C P. Mountford (1890-1976). The Expedition was sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Government and collected over 600 bark paintings and sculptures, which were partly distributed in 1956 to major state galleries in Australia. Mountford hoped these gifts would encourage them to start or reactivate collecting-programmes of their own, and they did, the Art Gallery of New South Wales taking the lead.
In the decade that followed with the release of the official film productions, the widespread display of art, craft and scientific collections in museums and galleries, and high-level coverage in National Geographic ensured that a global audience numbering millions of people was exposed to Aboriginal Art.
In the 1960s the two main threats to the Aboriginal culture were Christianity and mining. The Methodist Overseas Mission played a major role in Arnhem Land, establishing, in the west, the early mission station at Warruwi (Goulburn Island) in 1916; Minjilang, Croker Island in 1941; Maningrida in 1957; Milingimbi mission in central Arnhem Land in 1923; Yirrkala in 1935; and Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in 1942 in the east.
And whilst Aboriginal people did not necessarily object to missionaries and Christianity, they did not want to lose their culture. With this in mind Aboriginal artists began to use their art as a way to communicate the strength of their culture and the importance of their religion and relationship with the land to Europeans.
It was around this time in 1958 that the assistant director of the Art Gallery of New South Whales, Tony Tuckson (1921–73) was inspired to develop a collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.
Tuckson was a visionary; he believed Aboriginal art belonged in an art gallery context, a concept which, at the time, was still considered revolutionary. With the support of Aboriginal art enthusiast and philanthropist Dr Stuart Scougall (1889–1964) Tuckson set about changing the cultural landscape of Australia forever.
Tuckson and Scougall travelled to the small Tiwi community of Milikapiti (Snake Bay) on Melville Island to commission works for the Gallery directly from the artists, thus becoming pioneers in redefining the representation of Indigenous Australia. The Milikapiti artists responded immediately with an overriding passion to communicate their cultural identity, and converted their age-old tradition of carving and painting for ceremony into contemporary art.
The artists created a number of contemporary sculptures based on tutini from the Tiwi funeral ceremony, Pukumani but free from ceremonial connections.
Contemporary Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri acknowledged this distinction stating tutini ‘used for ceremony are made from bloodwood timber, and the ones for exhibitions and galleries are made from heavy, hard, ironwood timber’. Ever since this pivotal moment Tiwi artists have been carving and painting their ochre jilamara (designs) for two audiences: ceremony and art gallery.
Pukumani Poles, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1958
When exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1959 the Tiwi tutini challenged mainstream society. Many critics opposed the placement of the tutini in an art gallery, promoting racist ideas that the sculptures were primitive and did not belong. Tuckson persevered and later that year, with the continued support of Scougall, travelled to Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land to commission more work, this time from the Yolngu people.
Two examples of the assertion of Yolngu sovereignty through the use of art, specifically miny’tji (sacred rarrk or crosshatching designs) include the Dhuwa and Yirritja Church Panels of 1962–63, and the Bark Petition of 1963.
Yirkala Church Panels 1962-63
Howard Morphy, the leading living anthropologist of the Yolŋu, emphasizes that the artists “decided how they would use their art in communicating with outsiders and how their sacred law could be presented in public contexts.”
The Bark Petition was a direct response to the threat of mining on the Gove Peninsula, adjacent to Yirrkala. It combines written statements and signatures with clan miny’tji, protesting the mine and proclaiming Yolngu land rights. The mine, however, went ahead, destroying much of the local environment and many sacred sites.
Whilst unsuccessful it did pave the way towards the first Native Title Legislation being passed 14 years later and more recently Yolngu artists used their miny’tji in the exhibition Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country to fight for Native Title over their seas. In 2008 they were successful, winning exclusive fishing rights to the Blue Mud Bay region.
Another example of Aboriginal Art being used in this context was in 1996 when the extraordinary 8 by 10 metre Ngurrara canvas was produced by senior traditional owners of the Great Sandy Desert. This collaborative work was painted at Pirnini by men and women, in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia as evidence to their connection to their land.
Artists at Pirnini in the Great Sandy Desert ,1996
Ngurrara, collaborative painting, ©Ngurrara Artists, 1997
In 1997 tribunal members deciding on the native title travelled to Lake Priniri, where each artist stood on the section they painted, and spoke about their connection to county in their own language. It became crucial evidence in their claim for native title, but it would be 10 long years before it would be officially recognised though some claimants were still dismissed.
During these times Aboriginal people used art as a tool and a means of communication. Whilst it was a new concept some thought that strategies were required so as to maintain their cultural integrity and not overshare sacred elements of their culture.
Aboriginal Art from the Central Deserts.
It is important to note that during this time bark painting was regarded as the authentic form of Aboriginal Art and art from the desert was little known about.
Simply, trees required for bark painting did not grow in the desert region. Aboriginal people did however create rock art and they painted on their bodies, on the ground, and on objects.
Nosepeg Tjupurrula, Uta Uta Tjangala (painted back) and George Tjangala west of Papunya, June 1972. Image: Llewellyn Parlette
Artists creating a ground painting, 2002, Excerpt from, Wamulu, pg 52 - 53
The early 1970s was a time of great uncertainty in the desert. Aboriginal people were being taken from their traditional lands by force and herded into government settlements, making way for the cattle industry and mining, as well as atomic bomb testing. These artificial communities where different language groups were forced together caused many problems both socially and culturally. People were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing their culture. This was government policy at the time to assimilate Indigenous people into Western society, and it had been in place since the 1930s in Haasts Bluff and Hermannsburg and from the 1950s in Papunya community.
In 1971, a school teacher and art teacher named Jeffrey Bardon arrived in Papunya, he noted that elders telling stories drew pictures in the sand to accompany the tales. He encouraged the schoolchildren to paint a mural in a similar traditional style, culturally however it was the elders place to do so and they intervened. The artists relished the opportunity to paint traditionally which was in contrast to the settlements policies. The artists were painting their country they had been taken from, and they were reconnecting to it by painting. With this view they asked Bardon for more and more materials and this was really the genesis for a revolution in Australian Art and the beginnings of the Modern Aboriginal Art Movement.
Papunya itself is the epicentre of the Honey Ant Dreaming, where associated Songlines converge and is famously known for its namesake, the ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ mural.
This renowned mural adheres to the strict protocols necessary for the art form, giving it a spiritual context and was painted on the schools wall. At the center of the community, the mural was seen and admired by many people and is broadly understood, to be the catalyst for an artistic revolution in Aboriginal Art.
Kaapa Tjanpijinpa standing in front of the Honey Ant Dreaming Mural, Papunya School, 1971
In “an act of cultural vandalism” (Ryan in Bardon, 1991), the mural was painted over, but its influence had already reached far into the community. Smaller paintings of Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories) appeared on an array of surfaces, like Masonite boards, matchboxes and tin cans.
Traditionally, these images were created in sand and as body and ground painting for cultural ceremonies. Hard surfaces and acrylic paint were a new, Western way of making permanent art.
As the work gained popularity, it also drew criticism, like in Arnhem Land, concerns were raised about sharing too much of their sacred culture which would otherwise be restricted. Sharing certain elements “broke the immutable plan of descent,” interfering with the link that the men had with their ancestors. Again, like in Arnhem Land, strategies began being used to preserve the cultural integrity of the paintings.
Again, like in Arnhem Land, strategies were used to preserve the cultural integrity of the paintings. One example of this is the idea of masking certain elements using dots. Clifford Possums painting on the left is a very good example of how traditional concepts can be depicted in a contemporary way. The painting depicts a possum, with the footprints that look like human forms and circular shapes that represent the sites of the ancestor's travels and there is a great bush fire. However, Possum has used the idea of the clouds of fire, the smoke of fire, covering up the tracks of the ancestor as a conceptual device to convey the same message.
L Bush-fire II, ©Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, 1972 R Sandhill country west of Wilkinkarra, Lake Mackay, ©Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, 1972
This creates something that is spiritually more active for Aboriginal people because it is painting the idea of the powers and forces of the ancestors within the earth itself. Artists soon began taking this concept to extremes, such as the painting by Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, which shows a sacred site, but all the icons and symbols that were seen in the earlier paintings from the desert have disappeared entirely. These works may appear to be abstract, but they are far from it. These pictures are not simply art paintings, they are entrancing and when viewed in person, they have an amazing movement that can be described as humming with ancestral power.
However, not all desert communities were happy with this new painting movement in the 1970s. Not far away geographically, the elders from Yuendumu community (est. 1946) whilst undertaking the establishment of the Mens Museum in the same year for cultural purposes felt that the painters in Papunya were throwing away their cultural way and did not want to participate in it at the time.
But the seed had been sown and in the 1980s community art initiatives started popping up across the country including for the Warlpiri People at Yuendumu.
In the early 1980s, Warlpiri people too were experimenting with acrylic paints and a cumulative decision had been made by the community – it was important for the Warlpiri people living in Yuendumu, to share their knowledge, their ancestral traditions and culture, to the world beyond the desert.
In 1982, Terry Davies, the school principal, invited a group of Warlpiri elders to paint their sacred Dreamings onto the classroom doors of the school. This act opened up a two-way education between the Aboriginal and white communities, introducing Aboriginal Art and associated stories to those who had never seen it before. 30 doors were painted with important Dreaming stories, teaching the Yuendumu children about their ancestry and connection to country. These doors remained at the school for 12 years before being acquired by the South Australian Museum when the school was eventually upgraded.
3 of the doors, courtesy Warlukurlangu Artists of Yuendumu
The doors were a way for Warlpiri people to connect the Yuendumu youth to their culture, particularly important to Aboriginal people since white settlers now dictated much of daily life. Not only were these tangible paintings essential for imparting knowledge, but also as a source of pride for Aboriginal people in the community. These rich, vibrant, and public paintings were a way to preserve their culture and history, and more-so to celebrate it.
Unlike more traditional examples of Aboriginal artwork, the Yuendumu doors are brightly coloured with a full palette. Able to use more than the ochres and earth tones of their own ancestors, the artists took advantage of western mediums to create Dreamings full of vitality and eye-catching patterns and hues. Intricately detailed, the Yuendumu doors are an important example of the successful transference of Aboriginal Art from its original ancient designs to a large-scale, western medium.
Each door depicts a different Dreaming story the Warlpiri people are so intimately connected to. While Dreamings are passed from generation to generation with deeper meanings than the art world is privy to, in each painting we are given a glimpse of the profound connection to the land, to ancestry, and to the strength of Warlpiri culture.
A significant exhibition from this time on an international scale was the commission and inclusion of Yuendumu artists to create a ground painting for the 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth) in Paris and the impact it had on the recognition of non-Western art from across the world including the importance of Aboriginal desert art from Australia.
Ground painting installation, 1989, Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth), Paris
One particular artist of note and reverence in the desert after this time is Emily Kame Kngwarreye(1910-1996). Born in 1910 in the Utopia Homelands, Kngwarreye produced an incredible spectrum of work over an 8-year period.
Her remarkable artworks are inspired by her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder, and her lifelong custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan Country, Alhalkere. Her first introduction to Western art techniques began with ‘batik,’ a method of wax-resist dyeing cloth but Kngwarreye eventually gave up on this labour-intensive art form.
When acrylic painting was introduced to the community in 1988, Emily gravitated to it. Her first acrylic painting was ‘Emu Woman’, it was an instant hit and she became an overnight sensation. Demand for her artwork skyrocketed, seemingly overnight which caused her many problems within the community under pressure from family members and white people alike to produce work.
Emu Woman, ©Emily Kame Kngwarreye, 1988
Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming), ©Emily Kame Kngwarreye, 1989
Over the next eight years, Kngwarreye produced some 3000 paintings, roughly one per day. While her career was relatively short, she was highly prolific, with her individual style changing as she progressed as an artist.
Separate from the predominant ‘Aboriginal style’, Kngwarreye’s paintings are rooted in marks painted on sand and the body. Her art details strong connections to her community and country through ancestral history and law, and the kinship she shared. Kngwarreye’s art transitioned from dots to stripes, symbolic of rivers and terrain. Her later paintings contained larger and larger dots, then patches of bright, bold colours and rings during her ‘colourist’ phase. Black and white paintings with bold lines, representing body painting, gave some of her final pieces a more expressionist feel.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (body painting series), 1996, MCA
Kngwarreye maintained a deep connection to her ancestry and ceremonial traditions. ‘Yam Dreaming’ was particularly important for her, for several reasons. First, the yam was an important source of food for her people, though not always easy to find. Second, her middle name ‘Kame’ means ‘yellow yam flower.’ These personal ties are shown in her work, which Kngwarreye herself described as ‘based on all aspects of the community’s life.’
Kngwarreye will always be one of the most significant artists in Australian contemporary art.
For greater depth about Emily and her art practice, please visit: Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Life and Art
Aboriginal Art from the Kimberley
Around the same time as the Western Desert Movement was gaining momentum a significant event shaped Aboriginal Art in the North-west Kimberley region of Australia and strongly influenced the art being produced.
In 1974 Cyclone Tracy caused widespread damage and destruction, killing 71 people, injuring hundreds, and leaving over 30,000 people homeless. The storm hit at a time when Darwin had a population of around 42,000 people, and it is estimated that over 70% of the city's buildings were destroyed or damaged.
For the Indigenous people of the Kimberley, Darwin was seen as the centre of European culture. The interpretation of Cyclone Tracy was that of a rainbow serpent destroying this central European culture and was seen by Aboriginal people as a warning from the ancestors to keep their culture strong.
The event led to a number of ceremonies sharing the strength of their culture being performed in public before white people. The aim, to show Europeans that despite the destruction, their language and traditions were still intact. This in turn had a significant impact on the Aboriginal Art of the region as it inspired a number of artists to create works that reflected the strength of their culture and on the meaning of the cyclone and its impact.
In the years leading up to the cyclone, there had been a lot of cultural and social dislocation for the Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region having been forced from their traditional lands. Many Aboriginal people in the Kimberley worked on cattle stations that had been set up in the late 19th century. These workers suddenly lost their jobs when owners were forced to start paying wages as a result of the 1967 referendum when Aboriginal people were finally recognised as human beings with equal rights within the constitution. Previously they had not been recognised as Australian citizens. With the loss of work most were forced to leave the stations and formed townships and leased settlements on the edges of white towns.
The cyclone was seen as an opportunity to show that their culture was resilient, and that they were still proud of their heritage and traditions. This led to an increase in the production of artwork that reflect traditional stories and narratives of the Kimberley people.
Devastation from Cyclone Tracy, Darwin, 1974
Cyclone Tracy, ©Rover Thomas, 1991
One night Rover had a dream in which he received a revelation from the spirit of his aunt who had died as a result of the floods caused by Cyclone Tracy. Rover saw this as a warning against the decline of cultural practices and his dream inspired the Krill Krill ceremony which included dances, songs and the use of painted boards tracing the woman’s after-life journey from her death near Derby back to the place of her birth near Turkey Creek.
Rover Thomas and his Uncle Paddy Jaminji first started painting dance boards on dismembered tea chests for this ceremony in 1977. From the early 1980s Thomas was painting on canvas with ochre, pigments sourced from the land surrounding him, giving his works a textured finish.
Rover covered a great number of themes in his work, from the rapid changes occurring in Aboriginal life, the displacement of his people from their ancestral lands and subjugation, and the conflicts between white settlers and Aboriginal people that often ended in bloodshed and tragedy.
One series of paintings from this time depicted massacre sites from the frontier wars in the Kimberley. Notable works include ‘Ruby Plains Massacre' and 'Camp at Mistake Creek'.
Ruby Plains Massacre 1, ©Rover Thomas, 1985
Rover Thomas inspired many East Kimberley artists who followed including Queenie Mckenzie, Freddie Timms and Paddy Bedford
With traditional mythology and storytelling so essential to his work, Thomas created a style that presented the landscape of his art as both a physical location and a spiritual site. Considered an innovator, his style changed the way the art world viewed Australian Aboriginal Art, redefining the framework in which it was conceptualised.
As his style evolved, he took inspiration from his desert upbringing, creating pieces which give a map-like, aerial perspective of the land, littered with symbolic images. Deceptively simple yet powerful, Thomas’ works brought a modernist, abstract style to Aboriginal Art. His love of his land, his people, and painting pushed him to create.
The universal appeal of his artwork brought him into the spotlight and in 1990 he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, a significant moment for Australian Aboriginal Art and highlighted the important contributions of Indigenous artists in the Australian art scene. His work also drew comparisons between Western art and Aboriginal Art with Thomas himself, whilst visiting the National Gallery, likening the works of American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko to his own work saying: ‘That bugger paints like me!’
Two Men Dreaming, ©Rover Thomas, 1985
Light Red Over Black, ©Mark Rothko, 1957
Urban Aboriginal ArtAlong the East Coast of Australia in urban populations Aboriginal Art is deeply connected to the impact of colonialism and the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.
Ceremony, Tommy McRae Sketchbook, c.1891
Corroboree, William Barak, c.1895
In the 1980s, there was a revolution in the urban Aboriginal Art scene, as artists began to be recognised as true artists rather than makers of kitsch. The first cooperative of Aboriginal artists was established in Sydney, and this movement helped to give artists access to studio space and materials, as well as opportunities for exhibitions and sales. Artists like Trevor Nichols, who was one of the pioneers of this movement, often used their work to address political issues of the time. Other notable artists include, Richard Bell, Lin Onus and Gorgon Bennett.
Deaths in custody, ©Trevor Nickolls, 1990
Pay The Rent, ©Richard Bell, 2009
Possession Island, ©Gordon Bennet, 1991
Over time, Indigenous artists in urban areas have sought to revive traditional practices and reinterpret official Australian history through their art.
Photography also became an important medium for Indigenous artists, allowing them to take control of the representation of Indigenous people and challenge stereotypes.
The movie star: David Dalaithngu on Bondi Beach, ©Tracy Moffat, 1985
Aboriginal Art serves as a window into the rich and deeply rooted culture of the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia, providing a glimpse into their connection to the land and the Dreaming, and offering a source of great pride for the artists who produce it.
Please note, we have skimmed over much to maintain a readable and accessible text. Notable exclusions are Torres Strait Islander Art, art from Far North Queensland and the Pilbara regions, along with artist spotlights on the artists noted above along with key figures such as Albert Namatjira, Ginger Riley, and Sally Gabori, among many others.
Additionally, special mention to Wally Caruana who's 2009 key note speech at the Toledo Museum of Art on contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art has shaped key elements and the structure of our text. We highly recommend his book, Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana
Aboriginal Art Articles to Read:
- Aboriginal Art of Australia: Understanding its History
- Dreamtime Stories and The Dreaming in Aboriginal Art
- Aboriginal Art Symbols
- Aboriginal Dot Painting: Evolution and History