Aboriginal Art

'When I look at my tjukurrpa [dreaming] paintings it makes me feel good - happy in kuturu (heart), spirit. Everything is there: all there in the caves, not lost. This is my secret side. . . The people keep their ceremony things and pictures - they make them new. They bring young boys for learning to the caves - telling the stories, giving the laws from grandfathers' fathers, learning to do the paintings - tjukurrpa way.'

Larry Jakamarra Nelson, a Warlpiri man and teacher of the old traditions who lives at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory


For thousands of years Aboriginals have used art as a means of telling stories about the past, present and future. It is used as part of sacred ceremonies and is deeply connected to the Dreamtime. It is an expression of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Art is also used for non-sacred purposes such as explaining stories to children or recording memorable or significant events.

Aboriginal art, unlike western art, is less about individual expression and more about collective shared experience(s). Aboriginal Australians traditionally used art as a means of expression in different forms such as cave paintings, rock engravings, designs cut into trees, ground mosaics, wooden articles such as boomerangs and on their clothing and bodies (scarification). There is significant meaning to whatever they drew, engraved or painted onto such surfaces as sand, earth, rock, trees or wood.

"In Aboriginal languages, there is no one definition for the term art. Aboriginal art is our expression, our culture, our living. An extension of our identity. Not just an item for a wall or living room."

Brenda Croft ñ Boomalli

Types of Art

Aboriginal Art can be found in different forms. Some types of traditional art is said to date back as far as 40,000 years but in more recent times Aboriginal art has had a new influence on and from contemporary art in Australia.

'Aboriginal peoples have been producing visual art for many thousands of years. It takes many forms - ancient engravings and rock art, designs in sand or on the body, exquisite fibre craft and wooden sculptures, bark paintings and more recently an explosion of brilliant contemporary painting'

Mickey Durrng, Aboriginal tribal leader and artist, Howard Island

Rock Art

Aboriginal rock art is a traditional form of art, which has been used by Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. Some of the oldest surviving pieces of rock art found are estimated to be between 20,000 and 40,000 years old. Some images represented the actual spiritual energy of the creative ancestors and when repainted or retouched as part of a ritual their sacred power was released. Rock art can be found as both engravings - usually situated outside - and rock painting found in sheltered areas like caves.

Bark Painting

Bark painting by Aboriginal people is a long tradition, perhaps extending back thousands of years. They were usually drawn with charcoal, and painted or scratched onto smoke-blackened bark. Bark painting was mostly used as part of everyday life. They were used to illustrate stories which were told to young people during the long hours of the wet season when they were confined to stay in their shelter.

Body Painting

The art of body painting carries deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal people. Body decoration includes face and body painting used in rituals as well as the transformation of the body to form living images of ancestral beings. Scarring was mainly used as part of ceremonies to mark age, initiation or to raise a person's status. For Indigenous Australians, body painting is not necessarily just about visual artistic creativity, it relates to rituals, laws and religion.

'Body paint for us is really important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some people don't recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing.'

Djakapurra Munyarryun, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Contemporary Art

Since the turn of the last century Aboriginal art has used new materials and resources to carry on the traditional and significant role art plays in their culture. Modern times have led to the use of acrylic paint and canvas to portray the traditional beliefs of the Aboriginal people through art. Acrylic paintings by Australian Aboriginal people are one of the most exciting developments in modern Australian art. Paintings, dances and songs relating to the Dreamtime are repeating the work of Ancestors, thus keeping the Dreaming alive.

'It is no longer good enough to have Aboriginal Art on the walls of our places of importance - the Spirit of the land coming through that Art must be allowed to shape and mould us going forward.'

Patrick Dodson, Director of the Kimberly Institute


Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was born in 1902 and is a Western Arrernte man from the lands west of Alice Springs. He is best known for his watercolour Australian outback desert landscapes. He is also notable for being the first Northern Territory Aboriginal to be freed from the restrictions of discriminatory legislation that made Aboriginals wards of the State. In 1938 his first exhibition was held in Melbourne and subsequent exhibitions in Sydney and Adelaide also sold out. Queen Elizabeth II became one of his more notable fans and he was awarded the Queen's Coronation medal in 1953 and met her in Canberra in 1954. Due to his growing wealth, Namatjira soon found himself the subject of "humbugging", a ritualised form of begging. Arrernte are expected to share everything they own, and as Namatjira's income grew, so did his extended family. At one time he was single-handedly providing for over six hundred people. He died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia on August 8, 1959 in Alice Springs. Albert Namatjira is hailed as one of the greatest Australian artists and a pioneer for Aboriginal rights. Today, Namatjira's work is on public display in some of Australia's major art galleries.

Dorothy Napangardi

'When I paint I think of the old days, as a happy little girl knowing my grandfather's Dreaming.'

Dorothy Napangardi http://www.crownpoint.com/artists/174/about-artist

Dorothy Napangardi was born in the 1950s and is a distinguished Australian Aboriginal artist from Mina Mina in Central Australia. She had little formal schooling, but was taught through the historic Dreaming of her people. She has five daughters (two of them artists) and four grandchildren who live in Yuendumu and Alice Springs. She lives in Alice Springs and Sydney. Napangardi began painting in 1987, after she had moved from her home in the outback to Alice Springs. There, she enrolled at the Institute for Aboriginal Development to learn to use Western painting materials, and in 1990 began exhibiting at Gallery Gondwana in Alice Springs. In 2001 Napangardi won first prize in the 18th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award, for her work Salt on Mina Mina. Napangardi's work is found in many museums and collections worldwide. She is one of the most sought-after of contemporary Aboriginal artists, with her art fetches record prices at auctions. The highest auction price so far is $129,750.00 for her work entitled Karntakulangu.

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