Indigenous Australian art is art produced by Indigenous Australians, covering works that pre-date European colonization as well as contemporary art by Aboriginal Australians based on traditional culture.
It has a history which covers over 40,000 years, and represent a large range of native traditions and styles. These have been studied in recent decades and gained increased international recognition. Aboriginal Art covers a wide medium including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, and ceremonial clothing, as well as artistic embellishments found on weaponry and also tools.
Art is one of the key rituals of Aboriginal culture and was and still is, used to mark territory, record history, and tell stories about the dreamtime. Similar to how Christians have their own story of the creation of the Earth, the Dreamtime is how the Aboriginals believed the world was created.
But the importance of art to traditional Indigenous life is difficult for non-Indigenous people to understand. To quote Howard Morphy (1991): "Art was, and is, a central component of the traditional Yolngu way of life, of significance in the political domain, in the relationships between clans, and in the relations between men and women. Art was and remains an important component of the system of restricted knowledge, and at a more metaphysical level is the major means of recreating ancestral events, ensuring continuity with the ancestral past, and communicating with the spirit world. For example, a rock painting of a RainbowSerpent.jpg is not just a picture of a 'Rainbow Serpent'. It is a manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent - she resides in the painting, and will come out and devour you if you behave inappropriately towards the painting.
To quote Morphy (1991) again: "Paintings as ancestral designs do not simply represent the ancestral beings by encoding stories... As far as the Yolngu are concerned, the designs are an integral part of the ancestral beings themselves... The designs themselves possess or contain the power of the ancestral being."
Perhaps one of the earliest forms of Indigenous art, and one which is still very much alive, is body painting. For example, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land cover their bodies in elaborate and exquisite decorations prior to ceremonies or traditional dances. The preparation can take many hours, and the finest artists will be sought after for this. The designs drawn on the body are traditional designs, often involving fine cross-hatching and lines of dots, which are owned by the clan of the person who is being decorated.
Body painting is thought to have been the inspiration for many of the designs now found in Bark Painting.
Traditionally, paints were often made from water, animal fats or spittle mixed with ochre and other rock pigments and sometimes had vegetable fibers added. Painting was then performed on people's bodies, rock walls or bark (particular that of the paperbark gum). Tools used included primitive brushes, sticks, fingers and even a technique of spraying the paint directly out of the mouth onto the medium resulting in an effect similar to modern spraypaint. Aboriginal Art can be made up of a series of dots, lines, or just the outline of a shape.
There are a wide variety of styles of Aboriginal art. Three common types are
More simple designs of straight lines, circles and spirals, are also common, and in many cases are thought to be the origins of some forms of contemporary Aboriginal Art.
A particular type of Aboriginal painting, known as the Bradshaws, appears on caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. They are named after the European pastoralist, Joseph Bradshaw, who first reported them in 1891. To Aboriginal people of the region they are known as Gwion Gwion. Traditional Aboriginal art is composed of organic colours and materials, but modern artists often use synthetic paints when creating aboriginal styles.
Aboriginal art involves story telling, myths, rituals, sorcery and magic.
Aboriginal rock art has been created for a long period of time, with the oldest examples, in West Australia's Pilbara region, and the Olary district of South Australia, estimated to be up to around 40,000 years old. Rock art gives us descriptive information about social activities, material culture, economy, environmental change, myth and religion.
Bark paintings are paintings made by Australian Indigenous artists on pieces of flattened bark taken from trees such as the stringybark. The designs seen on authentic bark paintings are traditional designs that are owned by the artist, or his or her "skin", or clan, and cannot be painted by other artists. While the designs themselves are ancient, the means of painting them on a piece of flattened bark is a relatively modern phenomenon, although there is some evidence that artists would paint designs on the bark walls and roofs of their shelters.
Bark paintings are now regarded as "Fine Art", and the finest bark paintings command high prices accordingly on the international art markets. The very best artists are recognized annually in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
There are several different types of Rock art across Australia, the most famous of which is Murujuga in Western Australia, the Sydney Rock Engravings around Sydney in New South Wales, and the Panaramitee rock art in Central Australia.
The rock art at Murujuga is said to be the world's largest collection of petroglyphs and includes images of extinct animals such as Thylacine. Activity prior to the last ice age until colonisation are recorded.
The Sydney Rock Art has its own peculiar style, not found elsewhere in Australia, with beautiful carved animals, humans, and symbolism.
See Aboriginal stone arrangements for more details.
Certain symbols within the Aboriginal modern art movement retain the same meaning across regions, although the meaning of the same symbols may change within the context of the whole painting. When viewed in monochrome other symbols can look similar, such as the circles within circles, sometimes depicted on their own, sparsely or in clustered groups. When this symbol is used and depending on the Aboriginal tribe you belong to, it can vary in meaning from campfire, tree, hill, digging hole, waterhole or spring. Use of the symbol can be clarified further by the use of colour, such as water being depicted in blue or black.
Many paintings by Aboriginal artists, such as those that represent a 'dreamtime story', are shown from an aerial perspective. The narrative follows the lie of the land, as created by ancestral beings in their journey or during creation. The modern day rendition is a reinterpretation of songs, ceremonies, rock art and body art that was the norm for many thousands of years.
Whatever the meaning, interpretations of the icons should be taken in context of the entire painting, the region from which the artist originates, the story behind the painting, the style of the painting, with additional clues being the colours used in some of the more modern works, such as blue circles signifying water.(Source: Aboriginal Symbols - Indigenous Australia)
Traditional Aboriginal art almost always has a mythological undertone relating to the Dreamtime of Australian Aborigines. Many modern purists will say if it doesn't contain the spirituality of Aborigines, it is not true Aboriginal art. Wenten Rubuntja, an Aboriginal landscape artist says it's hard to find any art that is devoid of spiritual meaning;
"Doesn't matter what sort of painting we do in this country, it still belongs to the people, all the people. This is worship, work, culture. It's all Dreaming. There are two ways of painting. Both ways are important, because that's culture." - source The Weekend Australian Magazine, April, 2002
Story telling and totem representation feature prominently in all forms of Aboriginal artwork. Additionally the female form, particularly the female womb in X-ray style features prominently in some famous sites in Arnhem Land.
In 1966, one of David Malangi's designs was produced on the Australian one dollar note, originally without his knowledge. The subsequent payment to him by the Reserve Bank marked the first case of Aboriginal copyright in Australian copyright law.
In 1988 an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander memorial was unveiled at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra made from 200 hollow log coffins, which are similar to the type used for mortuary ceremonies in Arnhem Land. It was made for the bicentenary of Australia's colonisation, and is in remembrance of Aboriginal people who had died protecting their land during conflict with settlers. It was created by 43 artists from Ramingining and communities nearby. The path running through the middle of it represents the Glyde River.
In that same year, the new Parliament House in Canberra opened with a forecourt featuring a design by Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, laid as a mosaic.
The late Rover Thomas is another well known modern Australian Aboriginal artist. Born in Western Australia, he represented Australia in the Venice Biennale of 1991. He knew and encouraged other now well-known artists to paint, including Queenie McKenzie from the East Kimberley / Warmun region, as well as having a strong influence on the works of Paddy Bedford and Freddy Timms.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the work of Emily Kngwarreye became very popular. Although she had been involved in craftwork for most of her life, it was only when she was in her 80s that she was recognised as a painter. She was from the Utopia community north east of Alice Springs. Kngwarreye painted for only a few years near the end of her life. Her styles, which changed every year, have been seen as a mixture of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary Australian. Her rise in popularity has prefigured that of many Indigenous artists from central, northern and western Australia, such as Kngwarreye's niece Kathleen Petyarre, Minnie Pwerle, Dorothy Napangardi, Jeannie Petyarre (Pitjara ) and dozens of others, all of whose works have become highly sought-after. The popularity of these often elderly artists, and the resulting pressure placed upon them and their health, has become such an issue that some art centers have stopped selling these artists' paintings online, instead placing prospective clients on a waiting list for work.
Despite concerns about supply and demand for paintings, the remoteness of many of the artists, and the poverty and health issues experienced in the communities, there are widespread estimates of an industry worth close to half a billion dollars (Aus) and growing rapidly.
The dots were used to cover secret-sacred ceremonies. Originally, the paintings were used in addition to the oral history of Aboriginal dreamings and so they were made for cultural purposes and not the art market. The dots are, in effect, a form of camouflage:
"In 1972, the [Papunya Tula] artists succeeded in forming their own company with an Aboriginal Name: Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd...however a time of disillusionment followed as artists were criticised by their peers for having revealed too much of their sacred heritage. Secret designs restricted to a ritual context were now in the market place, made visible to kardiya outsiders and Aboriginal women. In response to these objections, all detailed depictions of human figures, fully decorated tjurungas (bullroarers) and ceremonial paraphernalia were removed or modified. Such designs and their 'inside' meanings were not to be written down and 'traded'. Any contravention broke the immutable plan of descent, the link of the initiated men with his totemic ancestor through his father and his father's father.
From 1973 to 1975, Papunya Tula artists sought to camouflage overt references to ceremony and became reticent. They revealed less of the sacred heart of their culture. The openness of the Bardon era was at an end. Dotting and over-dotting, as an ideal means of concealing or painting over dangerous, secret designs, became a fashion at this stage. The art was made public, watered down for general exhibition, pointing to the uniqueness of the Geoffrey Bardon years - which like innocence, cannot be rediscovered." (Judith Ryan in Bardon 1991: ix-x)
Eventually the style, known as the Papunya Tula school, or sometimes popularly as 'dot art', became the most recognisable form of Australian Aboriginal painting. Much of the Aboriginal art on display in tourist shops traces back to this style developed at Papunya. The most famous of the artists to come from this movement was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Also from this movement is Johnny Warangkula, whose Water Dreaming at Kalipinya twice sold at a record price, the second time being $486,500 in 2000.
In 1983, some members of the Papunya movement, unhappy with the way their paintings were sold to private dealers, moved to Yuendumu and began painting 36 doors at the school there with their Dreaming stories, which started an art movement there. In 1985 the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association was founded at Yuendumu, which co-ordinates the artists in the area. Some of the best-known painters from this movement include Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Tjapaltjarri Sims, Maggie Napangardi Watson and Judy Napangardi Watson.
One of the main reasons the Yuendumu movement was established, and later flourished, was due to the feeling of exploitation amongst artists:
"Many of the artists who played crucial roles in the founding of the art centre were aware of the increasing interest in Aboriginal art during the 1970s and had watched with concern and curiosity the developments of the art movement at Papunya amongst people to whom they were closely related. There was also a growing private market for Aboriginal art in Alice Springs. Artists' experiences of the private market were marked by feelings of frustration and a sense of disempowerment when buyers refused to pay prices which reflected the value of the Jukurrpa or showed little interest in understanding the story. The establishment of Warlukurlangu was one way of ensuring the artists had some control over the purchase and distribution of their paintings." (Source: Warlukurlangu Artists)
Other cases of exploitation include:
In March 2006, the ABC reported art fraud had hit the Western Australian Aboriginal Art movements. Allegations were made of sweatshop-like conditions, fake works by English backpackers, overpricing and artists posing for photographs for artwork that weren't theirs. A detective on the case said:
"People are clearly taking advantage...Especially the elderly people. I mean, these are people that, they're not educated; they haven't had a lot of contact with white people. They've got no real basic understanding, you know, of the law and even business law. Obviously they've got no real business sense. A dollar doesn't really have much of a meaning to them, and I think to treat anybody like that is just… it's just not on in this country." Call for ACCC to investigate Aboriginal Art industry, ABC PM, March 15.
The late Ginger Riley Munduwalawala (c.1937-2002), a Mara elder from Borroloola in south-east Arnhem Land, revealed in 1999 that he had "risked his career by revealing he had signed at least 50 forged paintings under duress while drunk." This admission sparked a brief investigation into Aboriginal art forgeries. The Age (2002) Ginger Riley, the 'boss of colour', diesinquiry into issues in the sector. Its terms of reference were:
Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, with particular reference to:
- the current size and scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector;
- the economic, social and cultural benefits of the sector;
- the overall financial, cultural and artistic sustainability of the sector;
- the current and likely future priority infrastructure needs of the sector;
- opportunities for strategies and mechanisms that the sector could adopt to improve its practices, capacity and sustainability, including to deal with unscrupulous or unethical conduct;
- opportunities for existing government support programs for Indigenous visual arts and crafts to be more effectively targeted to improve the sector's capacity and future sustainability; and
- future opportunities for further growth of Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector, including through further developing international markets.
The inquiry was conducted over ten months, gathering evidence from around the country, including public hearings in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Sydney and Canberra.
In February 2007, the Senate inquiry heard from the Northern Territory Art Minister, Marion Scrymgour, that backpackers were often the artists of Aboriginal art being sold in tourist shops around Australia. Of particular concern was the art on didgeridoos:
"The material they call Aboriginal art is almost exclusively the work of fakers, forgers and fraudsters. Their work hides behind false descriptions and dubious designs. The overwhelming majority of the ones you see in shops throughout the country, not to mention Darwin, are fakes pure and simple. There is some anecdotal evidence here in Darwin at least, they have been painted by backpackers working on industrial scale wood production." Sydney Morning Herald (2007) Backpackers fake Aboriginal art, Senate told
The report also raised the prospect of law reforms if necessary to change the way the industry was regulated.
There are many Indigenous Australian artists. Amongst the most famous are: