Indigenous Australian Art Is...
A Note On...
Aboriginal people are diverse, and their art is too.
This map of Indigenous Australia highlights the many distinct Indigenous language groups, and was made by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
First Nations Australian art reflects an immense diversity of peoples and cultures. There are two overarching groups of First Nations peoples in Australia: mainland Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people, who live on the islands off the northern coast of Queensland. All together, there are more than 120 distinct First Nations Australian language groups today. There were originally about 250 languages and more than 500 dialects. See the Terminology note to the left to learn what terms are most appropriate.
SOPHISTICATED, CONTEMPORARY, DYNAMIC
First nations australian art is sophisticated, contemporary and dynamic.
First Nations Australian artists make art for a lot of reasons and in a lot of ways. First Nations Australian art reflects a complex system of connections between people and place. These relationships have transformed over thousands of years and are constantly evolving. While anchored by traditional belief systems, artworks produced today are contemporary art.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have not just ‘survived’: they have transformed themselves in the light of this exposure to new influences and have developed new perspectives on old ideas – as all peoples have done throughout human history. These responses and their material manifestation in artistic form do not indicate de-authentification, but rather reveal a vibrant living culture.”
– DJON MUNDINE OAM (Bundjalung)
What is the oldest Indigenous Australian art?
Indigenous Australians have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years and the oldest Aboriginal rock art has been dated to be at least 40,000 years old. Indigenous Australian people have been using red ochre, a natural pigment sourced from sacred locations, for at least 42,000 years. In 1974, a male body was unearthed on Barkandji, Ngyiampaa and Mutti Mutti Country at Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes region of western New South Wales. The body was found positioned on his back, with his arms placed across his lap, and covered in red ochre. He was dated to be at least 42,000 years old and this discovery placed him as the the oldest known human being in the world to be buried in a ceremonial ritual. Red ochre and other natural pigments continue to be a source of material used by artists and for ceremonial purposes across Australia to this day.
“The distinctions between past and present are blurred in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, for there is a living connection between the two.”
– HETTI PERKINS (Arrente)
Where is Aboriginal AUSTRALIAN Art Made?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is made everywhere that people live, from the vast central and western deserts to urban areas like Sydney and Melbourne. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live and work across the entire continent of Australia, as well as in other countries around the world.
Of The Land
What materials do First Nations Australian artists use?
Many artists tap into their rich history of harvesting materials from the land, such as painting on eucalyptus bark with natural pigments, incising possum skins or twining fiber using plant material. Some artists embrace widely accessible materials and processes, such as acrylic on canvas, printmaking and others. Sometimes commercial and hand-harvested materials are combined. First Nations Australian artists are maintaining traditions while innovating every day
“Our objects are Country. They embody our knowledges, our histories and our connections to the world and to each other.”
– JILDA ANDREWS (Yuwaalaraay)
CONNECTED TO LAND
A lot of Indigenous Australian art has to do with ‘Country.’
The term Country is all-encompassing, and includes the land, sea, sky and everything contained therein. Some artists represent features of the landscape in their artwork to communicate their profound, ongoing relationship with Country. Other artists raise awareness about the dispossession of Country when the British invaded, using art to assert their rights as the original owners of land, and waterways including freshwater and the sea.
“Country is spoken about in the same way non-Aboriginal people may talk about their living human relatives. Aboriginal people cry about Country, they worry about Country, they listen to Country, they visit Country and long for Country.”
– NICI CUMPSTON (Barkandji)
What is the Dreaming?
The terms “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” refer to the diverse spiritual beliefs, cultural knowledge, and creation narratives of many Indigenous Australians. However, these English terms oversimplify the complex worldviews of culturally distinct groups. Dreaming beliefs are deeply intertwined in everyday life with notions of Country, survival, family and the ceremonies associated with keeping culture strong. Creation narratives feature ancestral beings, who have taken many different forms to create people and Country. They also established social, ceremonial and environmental practices that continue to shape daily life. It is easy to assume that these events happened at a particular time, but the Dreaming is not marked by a year, a date or an event: it exists in the past, present and future. While some information embedded in Dreaming narratives is appropriate for the public, other information is considered sacred and is only known to certain members of the community. Learn more about the Dreaming and how it relates to the making of art in this article by Christine Nicholls.
The Dreaming is “…an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment… [it] provides for a total, integrated way of life.”
– JEANNIE HERBERT NUNGARRAYI (Warlpiri)
What are some aboriginal symbols and what do they mean?
First Nations Australian artists use symbols that are part of a deeply layered understanding of the world, and artists will sometimes provide written interpretations of their work. Symbols reflect the diversity of Indigenous Australian people and are drawn from Country itself. On some websites you will find diagrams that identify what symbols mean, leading you to mistakenly believe that you can easily decode First Nations Australian art. These diagrams only refer to symbols from the Western Desert art movement (not all Indigenous Australian art). Often an artist will use the same symbol to mean different things, or one symbol will have multiple layers of meaning. Please note: artists are often deeply offended when non-Indigenous people use Aboriginal symbols in their own artwork. Read more about why this is inappropriate here.
Are first nations Australian paintings maps of land?
Some artists from the deserts of Australia use an aerial perspective to map their Country in their paintings. This perspective comes from their lived experience of walking their Country, knowing every aspect of the land and its spiritual significance, and then depicting that in their art. Not all artworks are maps. This is just one way that artists paint their Country. First Nations Australian artists are diverse and express their connection to Country with a wide variety of materials and techniques.
Do all indigenous Australian artists use dots?
No! Indigenous Australian art is as diverse as any other art form in both materials and style. Dots are a universal form of mark-making, and have been used in some Indigenous Australian cultures for centuries to share stories, either by drawing in the sand, painting on rock or as ceremonial body decoration. Some sources will explain that dots are used to disguise sacred or secret cultural information, and this was true at a certain moment in the 1970s for a few artists in Papunya who covered their entire canvas in dots. Techniques like dotting, crosshatching and line repetition create a pulsing or shimmering visual effect in the artwork that many artists and collectors seek out. However, not all Indigenous Australian artists use techniques like these. Read more about dots here.
“The designs we use are the designs we always used. The dots are just as traditional as the circles and other designs, and we use them now to paint our Country.”
– MICK NAMARARI TJAPALTJARRI (Pintupi)
“I have come across people who don’t really understand that there are artists living and working in the cities here in Australia. So sometimes they find it difficult to understand that we are creating artworks that are about our identity as Aboriginal people.”
– YHONNIE SCARCE (Kokatha/Nukunu)
What happened at Papunya and why is it important?
Papunya is a town in the central desert of Australia that was established in 1959 by the Australian Government to “assimilate” Aboriginal people. By 1971, white Australians and Aboriginal people from multiple language groups were living together in what had become an overcrowded settlement characterized by poverty and conflict. Drawing from their rich heritage, a small group of men began painting their connection to the Dreaming as a tool for self-determination, using discarded paints, cardboard and other found materials. After several non-Indigenous people helped create commercial opportunities for the painters to display their art, they soon founded their own company, Papunya Tula Artists. It was the first Aboriginal-owned art center in Australia and it marked the beginning of the Western Desert Art Movement. In the 1980s, their success blossomed and many of those artists became the most famous artists in Australia, enabling Aboriginal art to be embraced and celebrated worldwide for the first time. Today, the Western Desert art movement continues its legacy and many other Aboriginal art movements and communities have gained international renown. Read more about the story of Papunya here.
“These old men had a picture in their mind from Country and ceremony, and they were starting to think about how they were going to do that new form of painting. From there it blew up like a balloon. They started small, and from small they blew up, from Australia, to the United States, overseas, like a balloon.”
– PUNATA STOCKMAN NUNGURRAYI (Pintupi)
What is an art center?
First Nations Australian artists are expressing their relationships to Country and belonging. Often the knowledges shared in artworks are collective rather than individual and stories are owned and governed by family groups within communities. Art centers are community-based arts organizations led by the Indigenous people of the community. They provide materials and studio space for artists, and manage the sale and marketing of artwork on a national and international scale. The following organizations advocate for and support art centers across Australia:
Are aboriginal artists making political art?
In some ways, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is political because each artwork is an expression of continuing presence and belonging to Country amidst the violence of British colonization and its aftermath. Indigenous Australian cultures are one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. Some artists explicitly reference histories and realities of violence and oppression toward First Nations Australians and/or the land, or challenge stereotypes of First Nations Australian peoples.
“…any expression of Aboriginal art is an act of political defiance”
– GARY FOLEY (Gumbaynggirr)
When did first nations Australian art become famous?
The attitudes toward First Nations Australian art has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Since Europeans arrived in 1770 and earlier, they have engaged with First Nations Australian cultural objects. These objects were frequently stolen and sent to international institutions as examples of an “exotic” culture. Early exhibitions of Indigenous Australian art were used to justify the invasion of Australia by suggesting that Aboriginal people were “primitive” and their culture was disappearing, shaping stereotypes that still persist today. Artists quickly capitalized on this offensive practice by making art specifically for sale to this audience to support their communities economically and to preserve their cultures. It was not until the 1960s that opinions about the value of First Nations Australian art began to change, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, museums and collectors in Australia and beyond began to embrace Indigenous Australian art as an important contribution to the contemporary international art market in its own right.
“I never considered the art as something exotic from another culture. Was I supposed to? I always saw it as art that vied for a high position in the international contemporary art scene.”
– STEVE MARTIN
Where can I buy indigenous australian art?
The best way to buy First Nations Australian art is to purchase from community art centers or the commercial gallery that an artist has selected to represent them. Another good way to purchase Indigenous Australian art is through an Aboriginal art fair or festival:
Concerned about ensuring you buy authentic Aboriginal art? “Real” or “authentic” First Nations Australian art is any artwork made by a First Nations Australian. Read this guide about how to buy Indigenous Australian art ethically. There are several structures that support and protect Indigenous Australian artists and their work: Arts Law and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). Click here to read protocols around intellectual property and Indigenous arts.
HOW CAN I KEEP EXPLORING FIRST NATIONS AUSTRALIAN ARTS AND CULTURES?
We suggest the following summary of resources on Indigenous Australian arts and cultures:
- The Little Red, Yellow Black Book by Bruce Pascoe. Published by AIATSIS. Also available online here.
- Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton.
- Aboriginal Art by Howard Morphy. Published by PHAIDON.
- Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana. Published by Thames and Hudson.
- Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art by Ian McLean. Published by Reakton Books.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in the Classroom. Editions 1 and 2. Published by the Art Gallery of South Australia.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Online Resources produced by the Art Gallery of South Australia
- Explore the Dreaming in this article by Christine Nicholls.
- Explore past winners of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
- Cultural Appropriation 101 by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia
- Indigenous Australian Copyright guide by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia
- Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala
- Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala. Edited by Henry F. Skerritt and Kade McDonald. Published by DelMonico Books.
- Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together: 50 Years of Papunya Tula Artists
- Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together: 50 Years of Papunya Tula Artists, Edited by Henry F. Skerritt and Fred Myers. Published by University of Virginia Press.
- Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, edited by Margo Smith and Howard Morphy.
- Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia Strategic Plan
- ngaratya (together, us group, all in it together) An exhibition of new works by six Barkandji/Barkindji artists sharing travels together on Country – engaging Barkandji/Barkindji Country, our Mother, as an active participant.
- National Gallery of Victoria Indigenous Collections
- Art Gallery of South Australia, Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
“By bringing our art all this way, maybe we can open eyes and minds. Making peace is what we do with art.”
– DJAMBAWA MARAWILI AM (Yolŋu)