Indigenous Australian art (also known as Australian Aboriginal art) is art made by the Indigenous peoples of Australia and in collaborations between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians . It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, ceremonial clothing and sandpainting. This article discusses works that pre-date European colonization as well as contemporary art by Aboriginal Australians based on traditional culture. These have been studied in recent millenia and have gained increased international recognition.
Rock paintings appear on caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, known as Bradshaws. They are named after the European, 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 colors and materials, but modern artists often use synthetic paints when creating aboriginal styles.
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. This is an Aboriginal way of showing recognition and wisdom-to be open to the environment.
Australian Petroglyphs and Rock Art
Bark painting is an Australian Aboriginal art form, involving painting on the interior of a strip of tree bark. This is a continuing form of artistic expression in Arnhem Land and other regions in the Top End of Australia including parts of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Traditionally, bark paintings were produced for instructional and ceremonial purposes and were transient objects. Today, they are keenly sought after by collectors and public arts institutions.
The designs seen on authentic bark paintings are traditional designs that are owned by the artist, or his "skin", or his clan, and cannot be painted by other artists. In many cases these designs would traditionally be used to paint the body for ceremonies or rituals, and also to decorate logs used in burials ceremonies. While the designs themselves are ancient, the medium 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.
The modern form of bark painting first appeared in the 1930s, when missionaries at Yirrkala and Milingimbi asked the local Yolngu people to produce bark paintings that could be sold in the cities of New South Wales and Victoria. The motives of the missionaries were to earn money that that would help pay for the mission, and also to educate white Australians about Yolngu culture (Morphy 1991). As the trade grew, and the demand for paintings increased, leading artists such as Narritjin Maymuru started being asked to mount exhibitions.
It was, however, not until the 1980s that bark paintings started being regarded as fine art, as opposed to an interesting Indigenous handicraft, and commanded high prices accordingly on the international art markets. Nowadays, the value of a fine bark painting depends not only on the skill and fame of the artist, and on the quality of the art itself, but also on the degree to which the artwork encapsulates the culture by telling a traditional story.
The barest necessities for bark artwork are paint, brushes, bark, fixative and a fire. The material of choice is the bark from Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetradonta). The bark must be free of knots and other blemishes. It is best cut from the tree in the wet season when the sap is rising. Two horizontal slices and a single vertical slice are made into the tree, and the bark is carefully peeled off with the aid of a sharpened tool. Only the inner smooth bark is kept and placed in a fire. After heating in the fire, the bark is flattened under foot and weighted with stones or logs to dry flat. Once dry, it is ready to paint upon.
Earth pigments - or ochres - in red, yellow and black are used, also mineral oxides of iron and manganese and white pipeclay, or calcium carbonate. Ochres may be fixed with a binder such as PVA glue, or previously, with the sap or juice of plants such as orchid bulbs.
After the painting is completed, the bark is splinted at either end to keep the painting flat. A fixative, traditionally orchid juice, is added over the top.
Bark paintings are based on sacred designs that include abstract patterns and designs (such as cross-hatching in particular colors) that identify a clan, and also often contain elements of the Eternal Dreamtime. Sometimes the elements of a story are obvious - such as men or animals - but sometimes the elements are symbolic. What appears to the tourist as a series of wavy lines punctuated by dots may actually be telling a complex Dreaming story describing the path of a creator spirit and events that happened along the way.
An uninitiated man or woman is only allowed to paint outside stories, the sort of story that might be told to a child. An initiated man can paint an inside story, which is restricted knowledge. Thus, a painting may be displayed in an exhibition, or put up for sale, but the artist, although having the right to paint the story, does not have the right to tell the story to another person. Alternatively, the story behind the painting may be one that may not be told to an uninitiated person. As buyers often want a story to go with the painting, this puts the artist in an unenviable position. The buyer may therefore receive a watered-down or distorted version of the story.
Most of the following is based on Morphy (1991), where far more detail may be found, and refers specifically to the Yolngu paintings from Yirrkala, although the same principles generally apply elsewhere.
Non-indigenous people who, like Morphy, have spent years studying the subject, still have an outsider's view and rely analogies. The Yolngu language and culture has words and concepts that are unfamiliar to non-indigenous cultures, which makes understanding the art form difficult. The following explanation only describes the physical aspects.
A bark painting consists of several components, not all of which may be present in an individual painting, and that are generally applied in the following order:
In all cases, the bark is first covered with a layer of ochre, which is usually red or white, occasionally yellow, and rarely black. A painting is often divided into several distinct sections (or "feature blocks") by a series of dividing lines. Each feature block can be regarded as a complete composition, distinct from the other feature blocks. Sometimes different feature blocks depict different scenes in a story, and the painting as a whole tells the whole story.
Figurative designs resemble a real (or mythological) object or being. Thus, a figurative design of a possum “looks like” a possum, as opposed to being an abstract symbol for a possum, which is recognizable only to someone familiar with this symbolism. Most commercially available bark paintings contain recognizable figurative designs that often tells a traditional story.
Geometric designs are representational symbols, and their meaning often depends on context and on who painted the painting. The same symbol can also have different meanings. For example, a circle might represent a water hole, a campsite, a mat, a campfire, a nut, an egg, a hole left by maggots, etc., depending on context. Yolngu culture takes a holistic view of the world, in which these meanings may not be so very different after all. Morphy gives the example of a circle and a line, which a non-initiate is told represents a kangaroo water hole, and depicts a water hole with a creek running into it. At a later ceremony, when he says he knows it’s a “kangaroo water hole”, he is told That water hole was made by the old man kangaroo digging in the ground with his tail to make a well for water, using his tail as a digging stick. Later, he is told an even more complex story involving a female kangaroo.
Unlike the previous components of the painting, Clan designs are sacred and initially did not appear on public paintings, although nowadays they can be seen on commercial paintings. A clan design may consist of a combination of symbols, geometric designs, and cross hatching, One clan symbol, for example, consists of a series of interlocking diamonds painted in particular colors, whilst another includes symbols of a sugar-bag (wild honey). A Yolngu person can immediately identify the clan and moiety of the painter from that design, which then also provides further context for interpreting the symbolism of the geometric designs.
Cross-hatching is perhaps one of the most distinctive and beautiful features of Yolngu art. Closely spaced fine lines are drawn in particular colours, intersecting each other. The chosen colours may be a specific to a particular clan, and the effect is difficult to describe, but produces a deep impression on the viewer. Traditionally, the most sacred designs drawn on bodies during ceremonies were drawn with a quality called bir'yun, which is loosely translated as scintillation (as in the twinkling of stars) but carries a connotation of sunlight reflected off sparkling water. Such designs were often deliberately smeared before they could be seen by women or non-initiates, because of the power imparted, which would be dangerous for someone who was not able to handle it.
The content depicted by the painting is often either a traditional Dreaming story or a map. Sometimes it will be both, because the ancestral stories and songs often refer to the paths of creation ancestors as they travel across the land. Morphy gives an example of a painting that depicts a particular ancestral journey, but also shows where an airstrip was built.
Australian Aboriginal fibrecraft refers to the various ways Australian Aborigines created fibers traditionally. Materials used depended on where the people lived in Australia. Bark was used by many people across the continent. This technology is still used today to produce baskets, which are particularly popular in the tourism industry. Kurrajong bark is a popular bark, as is the bark of river wattles, sand figs, banyans, burney vines and peanut trees. In the north, the more tightly woven styles were made, whereas in the south, a looser stringed bag, popularly known as a dilly bag was made.
Hairstring was an important textile traditionally made by Australian Aborigines. People, particularly the women, cut their hair regularly using quartz or flint knives. This hair was never wasted. It was rolled on the thigh and then spun into long threads of yarn. It was then plaited to about the thickness of 8 ply wool. Purposes for the string were manifold. These included making the head ring for resting the coolamon, headbands to keep the hair off the face, spear-making (securing the head to the shaft), and even balls for ball games.
A general-purpose belt was made of the string, from which things could be hung, such as small game like goannas in order to free the hands on long walks and hunts.
Among some groups, including the Pitjantjajara, a small modesty apron was made of the string for young girls to wear when they reached puberty. People in Central Australia today may talk of a girl having her "string broken", which can mean sexual abuse, or having sex when she is not ready.
Among some tribes, adults wore a loincloth-like pubic covering, which also hung from the waist belt. This was made either of the string itself, or of other material, including paperbark. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the men wore pearl shells as a pubic covering, which they call Riji, and which are considered extremely sacred. The string could be dyed various shades using dyes such as ochre. Some string was only worn for ceremony, such as skirts worn by the women.
Many Aboriginal groups traditionally made many shapes out of the string (cat's cradle). A researcher once watched and photographed a young Aboriginal woman from Yirrkala make over 200 separate string figures. Each one involved complicated movements of her fingers and thumbs. She was able to remember the correct sequence of finger movements for nearly every figure she made, with only an occasional mistake which she quickly corrected. As she made each figure she gave it a name. Some examples included dangurang - a lobster, bapa - lightning, matjur - an ibis flying into a tree and gapu - the ripples on a pool.
The Bangarra Dance Theatre's 2005 production of CLAN incorporated traditional desert string games into one of their performances, creating intricate patterns as they thread themselves through long, elastic strings.
Grasses were combined with the hair to create a tougher fibre. This varied depending on the area in Australia. In the arid areas, it was spinifex, whereas in the Top End, it was palms such as pandanus.
Pandanus and sand-palm are used in areas such as the Daly River region and Arnhem Land to weave carry baskets, dilly string bags, wall hangings, floor mats and fish-nets. The women of Peppimenarti and Oenpelli are famous for such weaving, however each community has their own distinct styles and techniques.
Spirals of Sacred Geometry
Snake - DNA - Twins
The imagery of the Aboriginal culture, as can be seen in many of the sacred sites, rock and cave paintings, used few colors as they were often made from what was available locally. Some colors were mined from ‘ochre pits’, being used for both painting and ceremonies, with ochre also traded between clans and at one time could only be collected by specific men within the clan. Other pigments were made from clay, wood ash or animal blood.
There were variations in the symbolic representation of some rock art and paintings, depending on the tribe or region of Australia that you belong to, which is still evident today in the modern art work of Aboriginal artists. The dotted motifs of much of today's Aboriginal modern design work has become the trademark of the contemporary Aboriginal Art movement. Its iconic status developed from a culture stretching back into the history of an ancient land, evolving and weaving into desert dreamtime stories.
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 color, 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 colors 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 does not 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;
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.
Aborigines decorated their bodies with tattoos that conveyed messages particularly at ceremonial times. The patterns represented the totems of individuals or denoted information about the tribe itself.
Aboriginal paintings are the oldest living art tradition in the world and yet represents one of the most fascinating and popular art investments to date. Art goes to the very core of what it means to be human. And art, whether largely decorative or rich in religious or historic import, is a window into the cultures and individuals who create it. Art reveals much of how they see themselves, their world, and their place in it.
One of the best ways of deciphering what ancient art has to say about past cultural beliefs and social structures is to study art created by living peoples. Nowhere is that more effective than among the Aboriginal people of Australia, many of who did not encounter Europeans until well into the twentieth century.
Aboriginal people, inheritors of one of the oldest living artistic traditions in the world, came to Australia about 50,000 years ago. They have given us some of the earliest examples of a developed artistic and aesthetic sense. Working with the Aboriginal people of the Barunga region of southern Arnhem Land, Australia, I set out to identify factors that influence the creation of art, asking specifically whether different social activities and materials produce different kinds of art.
Aboriginal artists in Barunga today emphasize designs that are believed to have their genesis in the actions of ancestral beings, which endow them with power. Aesthetic value is judged by how accurately the artist represents the dictates and stories of the ancestors. Most senior artists also have major roles in ceremonies, and many become important ritual leaders - the recognized custodians of ancestral knowledge.
Analyzing the impact of social conditions and available materials on their living art should illuminate for archaeologists the range of past artistic styles and the societies that produced it.
Within the Barunga artistic system, the inherent properties of the materials impose important constraints on artistic style. Rock art is the most significant example. Though rarely produced today, rock art remains an integral part of Aboriginal peoples' living traditions in this region.
Surprisingly, rock art is not representative of the overall artistic tradition. Rock is a distinctive base material with an unusually large, rough canvas that is generally vertical. This makes rock ideal for some types of figures and artistic techniques, such as scenes that depict many figures, but not others. For example, rock does not lend itself to an artistic technique like cross-hatching, which is easily produced on smooth, flat surfaces.
Moreover, rock is part of the landscape and, therefore, already rich in social identity. Information such as language group and clan need not be communicated in rock art ‹ it has been part of the raw material since the Barunga creation era (The Dreaming). At that time, the "ancestral beings" traveled the land, creating topographic features and finally "sitting down" to become forever a part of a specific place. Every facet of the landscape thus is imbued with ancestral associations and social identity.
Barunga society is sharply divided into two complementary, descent-based branches (a structure anthropologists call "moiety"), which permeate relationships, spirituality, and many other aspects of life. Moiety is an important means by which Aboriginal people conceive of place.
During The Dreaming, the ancestral beings assigned everything - people, animals, plants, places - to a moiety, either Dhuwa or Yirritja. Each is associated with particular colors and proportions. Dhuwa is linked to shortness and dark colors, such as black and red; while Yirritja is tied to tallness and light colors, such as white and yellow. Thus, the black cockatoo and the short-necked turtle are Dhuwa, while the white cockatoo and long-necked turtle are Yirritja.
One of the most important principles of Barunga art is to join Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties so they are "in company." Nearly all art forms combine light and dark colors, regardless of the social identity of the artist or of the audience.
In rock art, moiety is encoded in the stone through the color of the rock and the moiety of the land. Thus, a rock painting can conform to the principle of joining Dhuwa and Yirritja even if the painting is made in a single color.
The clearest social influence on art is the gender of the artist. Women work mainly with fiber, while men emphasize wood and paint. Sharp, gender-based differences between art forms may be interpreted as a way of reflecting and reinforcing gender differences in Barunga society.
Art is a link to the ideological realm for male artists who depict totemic species and ancestral and mythological figures. This highly structured art is an affirmation that the artist is meeting his responsibilities to the ancestral world, actually maintaining it in some way. Aboriginal people say that men's art has "meaning." It communicates information about Dreaming stories and is tied to land and rights of inheritance.
Women's art, on the other hand, has neither this explicit spiritual dimension nor clear-cut links to land. It follows traditional rules of production but lacks the layers of meaning contained in men's paintings. Women describe their art as having "patterning" rather than meaning. However, this should not be taken to mean that women do not have religious power or knowledge. It is simply that this knowledge and authority has different material manifestations than those of men.
The gender difference is not absolute. Barunga people make it clear that men can make baskets or bags, and women can make painted or carved objects. Another important influence on artistic style is the intended audience. Art produced for ceremonies is stylistically much simpler than that produced for non-Aboriginal audiences.
The striking example is the didgeridoo. Among the oldest musical instruments, it is about 1.2 meters (4 feet) long, made from a hollowed tree limb. It produces a complex, low-pitched humming sound. Though central to many Aboriginal ceremonies, didgeridoos also sell briskly to tourists ‹ and the two versions are very different.
Didgeridoos for Aboriginal audiences are of simple, polished wood or they are painted in plain colors or in geometric bands of color. This rule is strictly adhered to, even if innovative materials are used in production. But didgeridoos created for sale to tourists are made "flash" through the use of cross-hatching and a wide range of figurative motifs.
So in some respects, there are two Barunga artistic systems: one highly decorated with variable designs for non-Aboriginal people and another with simpler and more restricted motifs.
Aboriginal artists produce work they judge to be marketable to outsiders, who typically want a memento bearing designs clearly identifiable as "Aboriginal." Plain, polished wood or simple bands of color do not serve this purpose.
Art produced in a ceremonial context for an Aboriginal audience usually is created in the company of other Aboriginal people, rather than by a single artist working alone. The presence of other people with religious authority reinforces the principle that art should follow the dictates of the ancestors and inhibits artistic innovation and stylistic diversity.
The dual forms suggest Barunga artists are protecting the private features of their culture, while at the same time exploiting the economic opportunities presented by the non-Aboriginal art market. Similar stylistic differences may well have existed long before tourists reached the outback. Certain art forms may have been designed only for particular culture groups, while others were allowed to see only less-spiritual variations.
The implications for archaeology are wider still. In Ancestral Connections, anthropologist Howard Morphy reports a similar dichotomy in the Aboriginal art of northeast Arnhem Land. Paired with the results of my study, this suggests a possible link in Australian Aboriginal societies between ceremonial contexts and geometric art (as opposed to designs based on figures).
The possibility can be tested ethnographically by studying contemporary Indigenous societies, and archaeologically by examining the art of both contemporary and past societies in other parts of the world. While specific social and material influences on Barunga art cannot automatically be applied to other societies, we should consider such factors when analyzing the art of past societies.
But caution is required: Human societies are wonderfully complex and diverse. Even a category as clearly defined as gender can find vastly different expressions. While researchers can identify links between material culture and human behavior in the present, earlier societies may have included social structures quite different from anything we are aware of today.
The most important implication of this work is to emphasize that different artistic styles can be produced by the same people in the same place at the same time. Styles can vary drastically according to the materials used and the social strategies being pursued. A single, all-encompassing explanation based on one art form will rarely suffice, since it most likely tells only part of the story.
Aboriginal stone arrangements are a ritual art form constructed by Indigenous Australians, and are a form of rock art. Typically, they consist of stones, each of which may be about 30 cm in size, laid out in a pattern extending over several metres or tens of metres. They were made by many different Australian Aboriginal cultures,and in many case are thought to be associated with rituals.
Particularly fine examples are in Victoria, where the stones can be very large (up to 1 metre high). For example, the stone arrangement at Wurdi Youang consists of about 100 stones arranged in an egg-shaped oval about 50m across. Each stone is well-embedded into the soil, and many have "trigger-stones' to support them.
The appearance of the site is very similar to that of the megalithic stone circles found throughout Britain (although the function and culture are presumably completely different). Although its association with Indigenous Australians is well-authenticated and beyond doubt, the purpose is unclear, although it may have a connection with initiation rites. It has also been suggested that the site may have been used for astronomical purposes (Morieson 2003). Other well-known examples in Victoria include the stone arrangements at Carisbrook and Lake Bolac.
Australia's largest collection of standing stones is said to be at Murujuga, also known as the Burrup peninsula or the Dampier archipelago, in Western Australia, which includes tall standing stones similar to the European menhirs, as well as circular stone arrangements.
A very different example is found near Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, where there are detailed images of the praus used by Macassan fisherman fishing for Trepang, several hundred years before European contact. Here the stones are small (typically 10–20 cm), sit on the surface of the ground, and can easily be moved by hand, which also implies that they can be easily damaged or altered by modern hands, so that caution is needed when interpreting such sites. Similar examples are found scattered throughout Australia, mainly in remote or inaccessible places, and it is likely that there were many more prior to European settlement of Australia.
In South East Australia are found Bora rings which consist of two circles of stones, one larger than the other, which were used in an initiation ceremony and rite of passage in which boys were transformed into men.
Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is the modern art work produced by Indigenous Australians. It is generally regarded as beginning with a painting movement that started at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, Northern Territory in 1971, involving artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, and facilitated by white Australian teacher and art worker Geoffrey Bardon. The movement spawned widespread interest across rural and remote Aboriginal Australia in creating art, while contemporary Indigenous art of a different nature also emerged in urban centres; together they have become central to Australian art.
Leading Indigenous artists have had solo exhibitions at Australian and international galleries, while their work has been included in major collaborations such as the design of the Musee du quai Branly. Contemporary Indigenous artists have won many of Australia's most prominent art prizes: the Wynne Prize has been won by Indigenous artists on at least three occasions; Shirley Purdie won the religious-themed Blake Prize in 2007 with Linda Syddick Napaltjarri a finalist on three occasions. Indigenous artists, including Rover Thomas, have represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 1997.
In 2007, a painting by Emily Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, was the first Indigenous art work to sell for more than $1 million. Works by contemporary Indigenous artists are held by all of Australia's major public galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia, which in October 2010 opened a new wing dedicated to its Indigenous collection.
Indigenous Australian art can claim to be "the world’s longest continuing art tradition". Prior to European settlement of Australia, Indigenous people used many art forms, including sculpture, wood carving, rock carving, body painting, bark painting and weaving. Many of these continue to be used both for traditional purposes and in the creation of art works for exhibition and sale. Some other techniques have declined or disappeared since European settlement, including body decoration by scarring and the making of possum-skin cloaks. However, Indigenous Australians also adopted and expanded the use of new techniques including painting on paper and canvas. Early examples include the late nineteenth century drawings by William Barak.
In the 1930s, artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner introduced watercolour painting to Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous man at Hermannsberg Mission, south-west of Alice Springs. His landscape paintings, first created in 1936 and exhibited in Australian cities in 1938, were immediately successful, and he became the first Indigenous Australian watercolorist as well as the first to successfully exhibit and sell his works to the non-Indigenous community. Namatjira's style of work was adopted by other Indigenous artists in the region beginning with his close male relatives, and they became known as the Hermannsburg School or as the Arrernte Watercolourists.
Namatjira died in 1959, and by then a second initiative had also begun. At Ernabella, now Pukatja, South Australia, the use of bright acrylic paints to produce designs for posters and postcards was introduced. This led later to fabric design and batik work, which is still produced at Australia's oldest Indigenous art centre.
While the initiatives at Hermannsburg and Ernabella were important antecedents, most sources trace the origins of contemporary Indigenous art, particularly acryclic painting, to Papunya, Northern Territory in 1971. An Australian school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya and started an art program with children at the school and then with the men of the community. The men began with painting a mural on the school walls, and moved on to painting on boards and canvas.
At the same time, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, a member of the community who worked with Bardon, won a regional art award at Alice Springs. Soon over 20 men at Papunya were painting, and they established their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Limited, to support the creation and marketing of works.
Although painting took hold quickly at Papunya, it remained a "small-scale regional phenomenon" throughout the 1970s, and for a decade none of the state galleries or the national gallery collected the works. However, the painting movement developed rapidly in the 1980s, spreading to Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia and Haasts Bluff in the Northern Territory, and Balgo, Western Australia.
By the 1990s artistic activity had spread to many communities throughout northern Australia, including those established as part of the Outstation movement, such as Kintore, Northern Territory and Kiwirrkurra Community, Western Australia. Since then, expansion has continued, with at least 10 painting communities developing in central Australia between the late 1990s and 2006.
Indigenous art cooperatives have been central to the emergence of contemporary Indigenous art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres.
In 2010, the peak body representing central Australian Indigenous art centres, Desart, had 44 member centres, while the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA), the peak body for northern Australian communities, had 43 member centres. The centres represent large numbers of artists - ANKAAA estimates its member organisations alone include up to 5000 artists.
Indigenous art frequently reflects the spiritual traditions, cultural practices and socio-political circumstances of Indigenous people, and these have varied across the country. The works of art accordingly differ greatly from place to place. Major reference works on Australian Indigenous art often discuss works by geographical region. The usual groupings are of art from the Central Australian desert; the Kimberley in Western Australia; the northern regions of the Northern Territory, particularly Arnhem Land, often referred to as the Top End; and northern Queensland, including the Torres Strait Islands. Urban art is also generally treated as a distinct style of Indigenous art, though it is not clearly geographically defined.
Indigenous artists from remote central Australia, particularly the central and western desert area, frequently paint particular 'dreamings', or stories, for which they have personal responsibility or rights. Best known amongst these are the works of the Papunya Tula painters and of Utopia artist Emily Kngwarreye. The patterns portrayed by central Australian artists, such as those from Papunya, originated as translations of traditional motifs marked out in sand, boards or incised into rock. The symbols used in designs may represent place, movement, or people and animals, while dot fields may indicate a range of phenomena such as sparks, clouds or rain.
In Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, men have painted their traditional clan designs. The iconography however is quite separate and distinct from that of central Australia. In north Queensland and the Torres Strait many communities continue to practice cultural artistic traditions along with voicing strong political and social messages in their work.
In Indigenous communities across northern Australia most artists have no formal training, their work being based instead on traditional knowledge and skills. In southeast Australia other Indigenous artists, often living in the cities, have trained in art schools and universities. These artists are sometimes referred to as 'urban' Indigenous artists, although the term is sometimes controversial, and does not accurately describe the origins of some of these individuals, such as Bronwyn Bancroft who grew up in the town of Tenterfield, New South Wales, Michael Riley who came from rural New South Wales near Dubbo and Moree, or Lin Onus who spent time on his father's traditional country on the Murray River near Victoria's Barmah forest. Some, like Onus, were self-taught while others, such as artist Danie Mellor or artist and curator Brenda Croft, completed university studies in fine arts.
Anthropologist Nicholas Thomas observed that contemporary Indigenous art practice was perhaps unique in how "wholly new media were adapted so rapidly to produce work of such palpable strength". Much contemporary Indigenous art is produced using acrylic paint on canvas. However other materials and techniques are in use, often in particular regions. Bark painting predominates amongst artists from Arnhem Land, who also undertake carving and weaving. In central Australian communities associated with the Pitjantjatjara people, pokerwork carving is significant.
Textile production including batik has been important in the northwestern desert regions of South Australia, in the Northern Territory's Utopia community, and in other areas of central Australia. For a decade before commencing the painting career that would make her famous, Emily Kngwarreye was creating batik designs that revealed her "prodigious original talent" and the modernity of her artistic vision. A wide range of textile art techniques, including dyeing and weaving, is particularly associated with Pukatja, South Australia (formerly known as Ernabella), but in the mid 2000s the community also developed a reputation for fine sgraffito ceramics. Hermannsburg, originally home to Albert Namatjira and the Arrente Watercolourists, is now renowned for its pottery.
Amongst 'urban' Indigenous artists, more diverse techniques are in use such as silkscreen printing, poster making, photography, television and film. One of the most important contemporary Indigenous artists of his generation, Michael Riley worked in film, video, still photography and digital media. Likewise, Bronwyn Bancroft has worked in fabric, textiles, "jewellery design, painting, collage, illustration, sculpture and interior decoration". Nevertheless, painting remains a medium used by many 'urban' artists, such as Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley, Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Judy Watson, and Harry Wedge.
Art historian Wally Caruana called Indigenous art "the last great tradition of art to be appreciated by the world at large", and contemporary Indigenous art is the only art movement of international significance to emerge from Australia.
Modern Indigenous art has been described by leading critic Robert Hughes as "the last great art movement of the 20th century", and by poet Les Murray as "Australia's equivalent of jazz".
Paintings by the artists of the western desert in particular have quickly achieved "an extraordinarily widespread reputation", with collectors competing to obtain them. Some Indigenous artists are regarded as amongst the foremost Australian painters; Emily Kngwarreye has been described as "one of the greatest modern Australian painters", and "among the best Australian artists, arguably amongst the best of her time." Critics reviewing the Hermitage Museum exhibition in 2000 were universal in their praise, one remarking: "This is an exhibition of contemporary art, not in the sense that it was done recently, but in that it is cased in the mentality, technology and philosophy of radical art of the most recent times. No one, other than the Aborigines of Australia, has succeeded in exhibiting such art at the Hermitage".
Not all of the assessments have been universally favourable. Museum curator Philip Batty, who had been involved in assisting the creation and sale of art works in central Australia, expressed concern at the effect of the non-Indigenous art market on the artists – particularly Emily Kngwarreye – and their work. He wrote "there was always a danger that the European component of this cross-cultural partnership would become overly dominant. By the end of her brief career, I think that Emily had all but evacuated this intercultural domain, and her work simply became a mirror image of European desires". Outstanding art works are mixed with poor ones, with the passage of time yet to filter the good from the bad.
The contemporary Indigenous art movement has influenced many non-Indigenous Australian artists, particularly through collaborative projects. Indigenous artists Gordon Bennett and Michael Nelson Jagamarra, have engaged in both collaborative artworks and exhibitions with gallerist Michael Eather, and painter Imants Tillers, the Australian-born son of Latvian refugees. The Australian Research Council and Land & Water Australia supported an artistic and archaeological collaboration through the project "Strata: Deserts Past, Present and Future", which involved Indigenous artists Daisy Jugadai Napaltjarri and Molly Jugadai Napaltjarri.
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