Aboriginal Culture


Aboriginal culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples of Australia have been living continuously on the Australian continent for more than 40,000 years. This is the oldest continuous living culture in the world.

But it is incorrect to speak of a homogeneous society or a static culture. Before the arrival of Europeans, it is estimated that over a million indigenous people living on the continent and surrounding islands with approximately 250 separate language groups. The country occupied and the languages spoken were often very different from each other. Their historic experiences after European settlement varied too.

For almost two hundred years from 1788, the indigenous population was dominated by the non indigenous settlers with little or no say in the running of their own affairs, without citizenship and no right to vote.

In many areas, particularly the remote areas, the Aboriginal People have held to their traditional and cultural ways and at the same time have adapted to both internal and external influences. They do this with their attachment to their land expressed and reinforced by ceremony and Aboriginal Art.

Aboriginal Art had been produced for thousands of years for private purposes: to tell Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories, to maintain the law and customs and to maintain the knowledge for survival and attachment to their land.

It was expressed in a variety of forms: drawing in the soft earth; painting each other's bodies, walls of caves and utility items; carving hollow log coffins, pearl-shell for body ornaments, dance masks, head dresses and shields. They used the traditional colours: the red and yellow earth, white clay and charcoal mixed with plums for black.

Aboriginal Art was used to sustain and maintain rights and customs. Bark paintings were submitted as evidence of legal title to the land in a Lands Claim. Aboriginal artist Paddy Stewart Japaljarri and Yuendumu men painted the doors of the primary school in traditional designs using acrylic paint to teach the youth traditional law. Aboriginal Women from the Utopia region produced batik for the commercial market to demonstrate their economic viability in their land claim.

The phenomenon that is called 'contemporary Aboriginal art' is a continuation of a long artistic tradition but it had been adapted for use as public art. The materials may have changed but the Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories and designs are traditional.

Individuals inherit both direct (through patrimonial) and indirect (through Matrimonial) rights and responsibilities to land, ceremonies and their connection to the ancestral beings. These elements are carried into the making of public art but there are multi levels of interpretation. There are 'inside stories' restricted only to those of appropriate ritual standing and the 'outside stories' which are available for all.

The phenomenal success in the international art market of Aboriginal Art has been at times referred to as the work of untutored Aboriginal Artists (as in the case of Emily Kame Kngwarreye's work), a statement made without regard to the thousands of years of the production of art as part of this culture.

The present level of awareness of Aboriginal Art is indebted also to non indigenous individuals who lived and worked in communities and championed the art to promote a better understanding of Aboriginal culture. Individuals like the missionary like Pastor Reuther at Lake Eyre, teacher Geoffrey Bardon at Papunya, Daphne Williams who organised a system to get Papunya Aboriginal art to the market and many others who continue to support Aboriginal Artists and their communities.

The Contemporary Art of indigenous Australia has had a significant impact culturally, socially and economically on the Central Australian Aboriginal artist. Aboriginal Art is hung in international galleries around the world and has brought economic rewards to the artists and their communities.

The interest in Aboriginal Art and its origins has brought the two worlds closer. For the Aboriginal Artists, the creation of the art provides another venue to produce art for traditional purposes – ceremony, connection with the ancestors and education of the young.

Aboriginal word glossary