Facts on Aboriginal Art


Aboriginal art is a broad category which includes many different kinds of artwork, including dot painting on canvas, bark painting, body painting, batik, wood carving, decorative and wearable arts, and more. This range of creative forms forms a rich history of traditional art-making practice in Aboriginal societies going back thousands of years.

Contemporary Aboriginal art draws on this richness in various ways and encompasses the full spectrum of art forms.

Traditional Arts

Traditional art-making methods in Australian Aboriginal societies are diverse and reflect the depth and richness of the oldest living culture on earth. Rock carving, ochre cave painting, bark painting, decorative work on tools and ceremonial items, traditional weaving, body painting and much more. In Central Australia, body painting was used extensively in ceremonies, particularly by women; sand paintings were also used to tell important stories. The symbols and codes used in these traditional forms are now incorporated in Indigenous art practice.

Traditional materials

Paints were made from the rich ochres that were harvested in particular places such as the Ochre Pits west of Alice Springs and traded across the country. These soft stone pigments were mixed with fats such as emu or kangaroo oil to make a durable paint. Traditional fibres included grass, human hair, fur and animal fibres, wood, bark, and the resin from spinifex.

Decorative arts included carving hollow log coffins, dance masks, head dresses, shields and pearl-shell for body ornaments. Pearl shell was traded from the north-west corner of Australia and from Cape York in Queensland as far south as South Australia. Trade routes were extensive before white settlement but were broken by the spread of the cattle industry in the mid 19th century. Traded along with the materials were ideas, beliefs and stories about the Dreaming, so that there are echoes and resonances in Aboriginal stories across the country.

Colours were once derived from red and yellow ochres, white clay and charcoal mixed with plums or seeds for black. Today artists have access to the full spectrum of colours and depending on regional style, acrylic work can be very bright.

Dot Paintings

Dot paintings account for much of the Aboriginal art made in Central Australia. Commonly used motifs such as the concentric circle, C shape and wave patterns are easily recognisable and identify these artworks as belonging to a long tradition with its own symbols.

One theory about the origin of dot painting is that dot paintings mimic the ceremonial designs used for sand paintings. Another is that an aerial perspective on the landscape reveals its many-dotted nature, from the circular clumps of spinifex to daub-like rocks along a ridge, the currents in sandhills or the many little animal tracks across the ground.

Instead of making aerial photographic works or literal maps, Indigenous painters of Central Australia depict the complex relationships between landscape, ceremony, and community which make up what Westerners call "the Dreaming" and is called here Tjukurrpa (Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri, Pintupi) or Altyerre (Arrernte, Anmatjerre). It is worth noting that Aboriginal painters rarely paint pictures of things. Instead they paint for a place, plant, animal or relationship. The paintings are a part of the expression of the stories and ceremonies for which they are responsible, such as certain bush medicines, sacred sites or animals.

Much confusion about Aboriginal art stems from the contradictions between Western individualist traditions of art-making and a simplistic understanding of the relationships of Aboriginal artists with the land. However, it is easy to see why so many people respond to the power in a great painting, whatever their culture.

Albert Namatjira

The first Aboriginal painter to achieve mainstream success was Albert Namatjira, a watercolourist fgrom Hermannsburg. He learned to paint landscapes in watercolour from artist Rex Battrabee who visited the Hermannsburg mission in the 1930s. His distinct style and technical proficiency earned him fame and increased the profile of Indigenous painters. In 1957 the Australian government exempted him from the legislation preventing Aboriginal people from having full rights as citizens (this discriminatory law was removed by a referendum in 1967).

Namatjira died in 1959 but he has left a powerful legacy in Australian art and many artists follow in his footsteps. These realistic landscape watercolours of Central Australia are now referred to as the Namatjira School of paintings.

Painting on Canvas

The development of contemporary Aboriginal painting from the Central desert regions is a remarkable story of fruitful contact between black and white Australians.

In the early 1970s, school teacher Geoffrey Bardon, working in the community of Papunya, recognised the power of sand dot paintings and encouraged male artists to put their work onto the doors of the school. This led to paintings on board and eventually canvas. The movement quickly grew and the Aboriginal-owned company Papunya Tula was formed, representing artists from the Western Desert, predominantly of the Luritja/Pintupi language groups. Famous artists from this movement include Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. This movement boomed under the stewardship of Daphne Williams in the 1980s and is still an Aboriginal-owned co-operative.

In the Kimberley, painters working primarily in ochres have a specific style represented by artists Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie from the East Kimberley. These works are characterised by large flat spaces, use of traditional ochres, and use dot trails and flat areas to depict landscapes or concepts. Many works incorporate Christian themes. Rover Thomas represented Australia at the 1990 Venice biennale.

In Utopia, a movement made up primarily of women artists with strong craft traditions began batik-making in the 1980s, culminating in the introduction of canvas in 1988, which introduced the world to the greatest painter of the Central Australian region, Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Her painting 'Earth's Creation' recently achieved the highest price for any Aboriginal painting in Australia and also the highest price for any work by a female artist. In 2008, Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia, was held in Osaka in Japan.

Today most Indigenous communities have an arts centre where painters gather to work on their paintings. Local styles and regional specialties (such as the pottery of Hermannsburg) are easily recognisable. Utopia has no arts centre but is still home to a thriving painting community dominated by women who choose to paint independently at home. The Petyarre sisters are among the important painters from this region.

The rise of the Aboriginal art movement in Central Australia has also fed Aboriginal art in the North and the cities, where urban painters such as Trevor Nickolls and Gordon Bennet incorporate traditional dot motifs into representational and more overtly political paintings.

Along with the introduction of canvas came acrylics and the bright colours which have been taken up by artists in various regions, allowing them to enhance their visual language.

The value of the industry

In the 1980s rapid growth in buying Indigenous art was fuelled mainly by institutional purchases from National and State galleries. This reflected a broader shift in Australian consciousness of Aboriginal culture as important. Aboriginal Art was breaking free of its anthropological category and being recognised as contemporary art. Private collectors soon caught up to the cultural shift and now the industry has grown to become the second largest industry in Alice Springs (after tourism) and a significant one in Australia.

A 2007 Senate committee report found that the Indigenous art industry is worth about half a biillion dollars. A significant amount of that money goes to the artists and their families and painting has become a very important source of livelihood for people living in otherwise marginalised economies. In 2010 there will be a new report from an inquiry into indigenous art that will institute a voluntary code of conduct for people working in the industry to ensure that this money stays with the painters and their communites. As at 2009 the Federal Governemnt is also considering a resale royalty scheme.

Of course, the cultural value of Indigenous art is immeasurable and this is reflected in the extensive collections in every State and National gallery in Australia, significant awards such as the Telstra Award, and dedicated collections internationally such as the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

Aboriginal word glossary