The Essential Introduction to Aboriginal Art (25 Facts)
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Australian Aboriginal people and art. That’s why we made this guide, which was created in collaboration with leading Aboriginal curator Nici Cumpston (Barkindji) and Aboriginal scholar Jilda Andrews (Yuwaalaraay).
Australian Aboriginal art and culture is the oldest continuous tradition on the planet. In the last century it has also emerged as one of the world’s most important contemporary art movements. Whether on bark, canvas or in new media, Aboriginal artists have used art to express the power and beauty of their culture, across cultures: to show their enduring connection to, and responsibility for, ancestral lands and the continuity of their identities and beliefs.
In our increasingly globalized world, this ability to speak across cultural borders without forsaking any of its distinctive identity makes Australian Aboriginal art some of the most innovative and challenging contemporary art being produced anywhere today.
1. Aboriginal people are diverse, and their art is too.
Some people are familiar with the Western Desert art movement, sometimes known as “dot painting.” However, Aboriginal people are diverse, and so is their art practice, just like artists anywhere. In fact, there are two overarching groups of people who are Indigenous to Australia: mainland Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, who live on the islands off the northern coast of Queensland. There are about five distinct language groups among Torres Strait Islanders, and their art and cultural traditions are very different. All together, there are over 120 distinct Indigenous Australian language groups– there were originally 250 languages and over 500 dialects. Click here to see the zoomable map of Indigenous language groups in Australia, made by AIATSIS.
2. What materials do Indigenous Australian artists use?
Indigenous Australian artists use a wide variety of materials, including: natural pigment as well as synthetic polymer paint on eucalyptus bark, canvas, and composition board; sculptures made from various materials including wood, glass, and fiber; ceramics; photography; video art; street art; printmaking; and many more.
3. Indigenous Australian art is sophisticated.
Aboriginal artists make art for a lot of reasons and in a lot of ways, just like any artist. Aboriginal art draws from a sophisticated system of connections between people and place. These complex relationships have been refined and adapted over thousands of years.
4. Indigenous Australian art is contemporary.
Indigenous Australian people have been making art for more than 55,000 years, and the contemporary Aboriginal art movement is very strong. While anchored by traditional belief systems, artworks produced today are products of today, and as such, are examples of contemporary art.
5. Indigenous Australian art is always changing.
Just as American art has changed a lot over the last 400 years and continues to change, you can expect that Indigenous Australian art has changed a lot over 55,000 years and is continually evolving. Indigenous Australian artists are maintaining traditions while innovating every day.
6. What is the oldest Indigenous Australian art?
As of 2018, the oldest Indigenous Australian art is about 55,000 years old. At a rock shelter in northern Australia, people were using stone tools and red ochre (a natural pigment), to prepare paint for painting on rock and/or the body for ceremonies.
7. Where is Indigenous Australian art created?
Indigenous Australian art is made everywhere that Indigenous Australian people live. Indigenous Australians live across the entire continent of Australia, as well as in other countries.
8. 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. Artist and curator Nici Cumpston explains: “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.” 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 as a result of invasion, using art to assert their rights as traditional owners of land and sea.
9. What is the Dreaming?
According to teacher Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi (Warlpiri), 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.” The western terms, “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” refer to the diverse spiritual beliefs, cultural knowledge, and creation stories of many Indigenous Australian people. However, these Western terms are problematic, because they oversimplify the complex worldviews of culturally distinct groups within Indigenous Australia. These beliefs are deeply intertwined in everyday life with notions of country, survival, family and the ceremonies associated with keeping culture strong. Creation stories depicted in art revolve around ancestral beings, who could take many forms and created people, animals, plants, and features of the landscape.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, and artistic expression is one of many ways that it affects daily life. While some information embedded in these stories is appropriate for the public, the rest is often considered “secret/sacred” and is reserved for initiated members of the community. Learn more about the Dreaming and how it relates to the making of art in this article by Christine Nicholls.
10. What are some Indigenous Australian symbols and what do they mean?
While there are commonalities across some artworks, no two paintings are alike. On some websites you will find problematic diagrams that clearly identify what each symbol means, leading you to believe that you can easily “decode” Indigenous Australian art. These diagrams only refer to symbols from one specific regional art movement in Australia, and often an artist will use the same symbol to mean different things, or one symbol will have multiple layers of meaning. The symbols used are part of a deeply layered understanding of the world, and artists will often provide interpretations of their work to communicate its significance.
11. Is it okay to use Indigenous Australian symbols in my own artwork?
No! Indigenous Australian artists are often deeply offended by this practice. It is considered cultural appropriation (when a person from a dominant culture uses the designs or patterns of a minority culture without their permission). Would most Americans be okay with a Russian model wearing a Purple Heart on a garment in a fashion show? Probably not, because Purple Hearts are earned by citizens of the United States who sacrificed to serve in the military, and they don’t have anything to do with that Russian model’s identity or culture. In this instance, the medal’s meaning is not being respected. In the same way, Indigenous Australian designs are specific to those cultures and don’t have anything to do with your American culture and identity. Appropriating or stealing their symbols would disrespect their true meanings and limit Indigenous Australian artists’ capacity to interpret and represent their own cultural traditions.
Click here for more information about Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property.
If you are a teacher and want to do an art making project with your students, please contact Museum Educators Lauren Maupin (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Fenella Belle (email@example.com) for lesson plans and guidance.
12. Are Indigenous Australian paintings maps of land?
Sometimes! Some artists from the deserts of Australia use an aerial perspective to map out their country in their paintings. This perspective comes from their lived experience of walking their country, knowing every aspect of the land and then depicting that in their works of art. However, Indigenous Australian artists who paint come from many different backgrounds, so their paintings have vastly different meanings and perspectives particular to the artists themselves.
13. Why do Indigenous Australian artists use dots?
For centuries, Indigenous Australian people in various parts of Australia have used a dotting technique to share stories, either by drawing in the sand, painting on rock or as ceremonial body decoration. Artists in Papunya were using dots when they began painting in 1971, along with many other forms of mark-making. Some sources will explain that dots are used to disguise sacred/secret cultural information, and this was true at a certain moment in the 1970s for a few artists who covered their entire canvas or board in dots. Most artists who use this technique today are located in the desert regions of Australia and this is the technique they use to share their ancestral creation stories. The dotting technique creates a sense of motion or pulsing in the artwork, with a decorative quality of sparkle and shimmer that many artists and collectors seek out. The dots themselves are not a sacred form of patterning, and there are some artists, whose work is purely commercial, that are using dots so that non-Indigenous people can easily identify their artwork as “Aboriginal.”
14. Do all Indigenous Australian artists use dots?
No! Indigenous Australian art is as diverse as any other art form in both material and style. In many cases, you wouldn’t know a work of art was made by an Indigenous Australian unless you looked at the label.
15. What happened at Papunya and why is it important?
Papunya is a town in the central desert of Australia that was established in 1959 following many years of drought in the larger surrounding desert region, which made bush food and water scarce. Aboriginal people from multiple Indigenous language groups were removed from their country and brought together to live in this small community. Historically these people would never have lived this close together. By the late 1960s, Papunya was overpopulated, and conflicts among groups were rising. In 1971, senior men at Papunya painted a collaborative mural, which was a welcome opportunity to remember their country and express their close relationship to it. This event propelled the men to begin painting with acrylic on board and canvas, and then together they established the first Aboriginal owned and managed company that still exists today, Papunya Tula Artists, Pty Ltd. The artists and their paintings formed an art movement which gained recognition from the international art market and inspired neighboring desert communities to do the same.
16. What is an art center?
Art centers are community-based arts organizations, often in remote communities of Australia, but not always. Usually they are owned, governed and operated 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. For example, when the painting movement began at Papunya, the artists founded Papunya Tula Artists, Pty Ltd as their art center. The following organizations advocate for and support art centers:
17. Who is Emily Kame Kngwarreye and why is she important?
Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910 – 1996) was an artist of the Anmatyerre language group who worked alongside women in her community, initially using the batik technique to paint their ancestral creation stories on fabric. She was a dynamic, freely expressive artist who produced more than 3,000 paintings in her eight-year painting career that began when she was around 80 years old. As one of Australia’s most significant artists, her artwork Earth’s Creation sold for $1,056,000 in 2007. This made her the first Indigenous Australian artist and the first female Australian artist to exceed the $1 million mark. In 2017 the same painting sold again for $2.1 million. Click here to learn more.
18. When did Indigenous Australian art become famous?
Since they arrived in 1770 and earlier, many non-Indigenous Australians have been fascinated by Indigenous Australian cultural objects. These objects were frequently stolen and sent back to England and Europe as examples of an “exotic” culture. Early exhibitions of Aboriginal art were often used to justify the invasion of Australia by suggesting that Aboriginal people were “primitive” and that their culture was disappearing. Indigenous Australians quickly capitalized on this offensive practice by making art specifically for sale to this audience in order to support their communities and preserve their culture. It was not until the 1960s that opinions about the value of Indigenous Australian art began to change, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, museums and collectors began to embrace Indigenous Australian art as an important contribution to the contemporary international art market in its own right.
19. Are Indigenous Australian artists making political art?
In some ways, all Indigenous Australian art is political because each artwork is an expression of continuing existence and belonging to place after invasion. Some artists are explicitly referencing histories and realities of violence and oppression toward Indigenous Australians and/or the land, or challenging stereotypes of Indigenous Australian people.
20. The stereotypes about Indigenous Australians tell an incomplete and untrue narrative.
Stereotypes of Indigenous Australians have created racially discriminatory ideas and biases about the value and contributions of Indigenous Australian culture, art and people, by simplifying their diverse identities into a single story and assuming that everyone is alike. However, there is no singular Indigenous Australian culture, people or identity and Indigenous Australian cultures have always been dynamic and changing. Indigenous Australians come from all walks of life, have a wide variety of skin colors and facial features, connect to their land and culture in very different ways, all while making unique and meaningful contributions to our global, contemporary world. By reflecting on our biases, highlighting complexities, talking to people about their stories and acknowledging the limitations of singular narratives, we can confront stereotypes and prevent their continued use.
21. What makes Indigenous Australian art authentic?
Indigenous Australian art is any artwork made by an Indigenous Australian. An “Indigenous Australian” is a person of Indigenous descent who identifies as such and is accepted as a member of their Indigenous community.
22. Where can I buy Indigenous Australian art?
In the United States, there are two art galleries that specialize in Aboriginal art: Harvey Art Projects in Ketchum, Idaho and Booker-Lowe Gallery in Houston, Texas. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy online or visit Australia. The best way to buy Aboriginal art from remote communities is to purchase from the art centers. See question 15 for a list of art centers and organizations that support them. To purchase artwork by urban-based artists, consult this list of festivals and annual exhibitions, and check out Australian art galleries in the major hubs of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth:
23. Where can I see Indigenous Australian art in the United States?
The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia is the national center for Indigenous Australian art and culture in the United States, and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other art museums, like the Seattle Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have smaller collections of Indigenous Australian art. To find out if there is Indigenous Australian art to see in your area, check out the “Aboriginal art exhibitions in the United States” section of our homepage.
24. What is the correct term: Aborigine, Aboriginal person, Aboriginal, Indigenous Australian?
In a way, none of these are correct. Like many Indigenous people around the world, Indigenous Australians prefer to be identified by their specific language group(s). Each language group is a sovereign nation, uniquely identified by its connection to country. But, if you need to generalize, “Aboriginal person,” “Aboriginal people,” “Torres Strait Islander” and “Indigenous Australian” are respectful terms; “Aborigines” and “Aboriginals” are not considered respectful.
25. How can I learn more about Indigenous Australian art and culture?
We suggest the following summarizing resources on Aboriginal art and culture:
- The Little Red, Yellow Black Book by Bruce Pascoe. Published by AIATSIS. Also available online here.
- 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 Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Published by the National Gallery of Victoria
- National Gallery of Australia (NGA) Collections
- NGA Educational Resources
- Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Collections
- Art Gallery of New South Wales Education Resources
- Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Indigenous Collections
- National Gallery of Victoria Indigenous Collections