Contemporary Aboriginal dancers
I am not an expert on Aboriginal art, but I taught for 15 years at the Australian National University, during which I taught Australian art and my husband worked at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. So we were very involved with Aboriginal issues and Aboriginal art during an eventful time.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, 16 August 1975, Northern Territory. This is the historical moment that is the theme of Paul Kelly's great song, "From Little Things Big Things Grow". Lignari led the strike by Aboriginal stockmen to reclaim their traditional land, beginning the process of overturning the concept of "terra nullius".
EX: Eddie Mabo with the Torres Strait Islander flag and in later life:
Eddie Mabo (c. 29 June 1936 – 21 January 1992)
was an Indigenous Australian man
from the Torres Strait Islands known
for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights and
for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia
which overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius ("nobody's
land") which characterised Australian law with regard to land
and title.[From Wikipedia]
Against this backdrop--native title battles, concept of terra nullius--that Aboriginal art became, as the late great Australian critic Robert Hughes has called it, “the last great modern art movement.”
--going to talk about the development of the contemporary
Aboriginal art movement, and the intriguing questions that these
works raise in a modern, Western society.
EXS: Emily Kngwarreye working on the painting “Earth’s Creation”, Utopia, NT, 1990s.
EX: Emily Kngwarreye , Emily Wall, "My Country" 1995, 53 panels, National Museum, Melbourne, VIC
One of the continuing vexed issues: is the production of
"artworks" by Aboriginal people properly placed in the realm of
ethnography or can it be seen as fine art in the Western art
--art market’s implications for tribal, indigenous people --what are we to make of our AESTHETIC response, as non-indigenous people, to images that for the maker have very different meanings?
Aborigines have been in Australia for 40-60,000 years, and are considered by many to be the oldest enduring and continuous culture. Aboriginal Australians are descendents of the first people to leave Africa up to 75,000 years ago, a genetic study has found, confirming they may have the oldest continuous culture on the planet. IMPORTANT: Aboriginal culture is NOT one culture, but consists of small nomadic groups, each with own language--in some places with populations as little as 1,000, three different languages will co-exist.
"In the late 18th century, there were more than 250 distinct Aboriginal social groupings and a similar number of languages or varieties. At the start of the 21st century, fewer than 150 Aboriginal languages remain in daily use, and all except only 13, which are still being transmitted to children, are highly endangered."
--no permanent settlements, very little material culture--what
used to be called “hard primitivism” as opposed to the “soft”
primitivism of Polynesians, for example
--some 200 distinct languages, as many as a thousand dialects of these
Aborigines have, of course, been making “art”--that is,
creating images--since ancient times, and their rock art
paintings, which are still maintained and preserved, are
believed to be among the oldest surviving imagery in the world.
But "painting", as Westerners understand it, is, as we shall
see, a very recent phenomenon.
EXS: Rock art--Wandjinas, still cared for--one of most prominent Creation myths. Wunnumurra Gorge, Barnett River. Kimberley, Western Australia.
Wandjina at the Sydney Olympics, 2000
From Blue Guide:
"The regional Aboriginal rock paintings centre around Wandjina spirits. Involved in the creation myths, these wondrous fertility guardians bring the monsoons and cyclones to ensure regeneration of life. They are in human form with hair that is also the area’s large, white cumulonimbus clouds. They can cause lightning to emanate from their feathered headdresses. The Wandjina live the dry months of the year in their self-portrait rock paintings. During The Wet, the local Aboriginal people preserve them by retouching the paintings while the Wandjina themselves are away tending to the rains."
The rock art of the Kakadu region provides an interesting insight into the process in which the convention of artistic styles develop. Prior to the end of the last ice age, rock art in Kakadu presented human and animal figures in animated poses.
Bark paintings--used ceremonially to impart Creation stories and initiation rites by some tribes of the East--were found by famous explorer Baldwin Spencer in early 1900s
Bark painting collected 1912 by Spencer
Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901
These images, and indeed almost all of Aboriginal art until very recently, were made for religious purposes--as telling parts of initiation stories--and were usually ephemeral, created in the sand or on the body as part of ceremonies
Men in initiation body paint, Cox Peninsula, 1939, photo by Bill Nicholls
Postcard, early 20th century, showing staged Bora with sand painting, ca. 1910 [Bora is an initiation ceremony of the Aboriginal people of Eastern Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before European colonisation. The word "bora" also refers to the site on which the initiation is performed. At such a site, boys, having reached puberty, achieve the status of men. The initiation ceremony differs from Aboriginal culture to culture, but often, at a physical level, involved scarification, circumcision, subincision and, in some regions, also the removal of a tooth.]
While the relative permanence of rock art makes it an important
means of dating the introduction of motifs and styles, it was
not the most frequently used medium. Painting the bodies of
celebrants in initiation and similar rites, desert sand
paintings not unlike horizontal frescos and painted slabs of
bark for the interior of dwellings were from early days the most
favoured media. Most of the motifs found in bark and canvas
paintings are secular variations on the motifs in the
consciously ephemeral body and sand paintings.
Most important and the most cosmically ascetic aspect of Aboriginal imagery to understand: The Dreaming:
"When talking to an Aboriginal painter about a particular work,
he or she will first of all tell the visitor (as far as the
constraints of religious secrecy allow) about the tjukurrpa
(Dreaming), which is the painting’s source. He or she will
describe the specific interpretation which the symbols assume in
this story. The artist will point to the tract of country in
which the story takes place, often naming the sites in great
detail, and he will talk about the custodianship of the area
where the story is centred, naming both specific contemporary
custodians and the particular subsection of the kin system
through whom ownership is generally passed down. For the
artists, this is the essential background information to the
proper understanding and appreciation of their work. A painting
not informed by a Dreaming (if such a thing were seriously
possible) would be nothing more than frivolous decoration;
simply not art."
--Ian Green, ‘Make ’em flash, poor bugger’—-talking about men’s
paintings in Papunya in Margaret West, ed., The Inspired
Dream—Life as Art in Aboriginal Australia (1988).
Wally Caruana: “The Dreaming is a European term used by
Aborigines to describe the spiritual, natural and moral order of
the cosmos. It relates to the period from the genesis of the
universe to a time beyond living memory...The terms do not refer
to the state of dreams or unreality, but rather to a state of
reality beyond the mundane. The Dreaming focuses on the
activities and epid deeds of the supernatural beings and creator
ancestors such as the Rainbow Serpents, the Lightning Men, the
Wagilag Sisters, ...and Wandjina, who, in both human and
non-human form, travelled across the unshaped world, creating
everything in it and laying down the laws of social and
religious behavior....The Dreaming provides the ideological
framework by which human society retains a harmonious balance
with the universe--a charter and mandate that has been
sanctified over time.” (Caruana, Aboriginal Art, p. 10)
This is the framework in which we as Westerrners must consider Aboriginal art--all elements/motifs are totemic.
Aboriginal art is first and foremost representational--and, in most cases, the paintings tell a story that can have several layers of meaning.
EX: Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Sun, Moon and Morning Star Tjukurrpa, 1973.
Many of its conventions are recognisable to the viewer. Several
fish of diverse species are shown caught in a large fish trap or
a kangaroo is presented in x-ray style, showing its major organs
and skeleton. With a bit of assistance the viewer recognises the
half doughnut shapes and bisected angles in dot paintings as
camp sites and emu tracks.
Warmun community artist Rover Thomas’s magnificent depiction of Cyclone Tracy, a black path through coloured landscape, is easily recognised once its significance is explained.
Rover Thomas (Joolama), Cyclone Tracy, 1991, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Then on Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone
Tracy destroyed Darwin. The city was regarded by Aboriginal
people of the Kimberley as the centre of European culture and,
as cyclones, rain and storms are usually associated with
ancestral Rainbow Serpents, elders interpreted the event as
the ancestors warning Aboriginal people to reinvigorate their
cultural practices. In Thomas' painting, the black form represents the cyclone itself gaining intensity as it heads towards Darwin. Minor winds, some carrying red dust, are shown feeding into the main image.
Beyond shared conventions, Aboriginal art in every region and in every style continues to be representational to those who understand its motifs
I want to focus on the two major styles, connected to different regions of the country:
1) X-Ray style of Arnhem Land and Upper Northern Territory. In these works, the cross-hatch designs and colours represent totemic or kin groups associated with stewardship of a particular site. They can represent special relationships with the species or event depicted.
John Mawandjul, Kandakidi, Red Kangaroo, 1997)
Lofty Nadjamerrek, Kolobarr, the Plains Kangaroo, 1980s. (depicting “rarrk”)
Just as one learns representational conventions in order to
interpret a painting, there are associated stories and
observations learned by Aboriginal initiates. The extent of
esoteric knowledge conveyed by the art, a painting for instance,
depends upon the status of the observers. Still, a considerable
amount of information about a painting is secular. The meaning
of the cross-hatches, on the other hand, is not explained; they
seem simply decorative to the uninitiated observer, while to the
initiated and those skilled in looking, these signs take on
additional representational and symbolic significance.
John Mawandjul, Rainbow Serpent, 1991
Rainbow Serpent is a creation symbol story shared by
several tribes/groups, so it appears in many regions.
The serpent as a Creation Being is perhaps the oldest
continuing religious belief in the world, dating back several
thousands of years. The Rainbow Serpent features in the Dreaming
stories of many mainland Aboriginal nations and is always
associated with watercourses, such as billabongs, rivers, creeks
and lagoons. The Rainbow Serpent is the protector of the land,
its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow
Serpent can also be a destructive force if it is not properly
The most common version of the Rainbow Serpent story tells that
in the Dreaming, the world was flat, bare and cold. The Rainbow
Serpent slept under the ground with all the animal tribes in her
belly waiting to be born. When it was time, she pushed up,
calling to the animals to come from their sleep. She threw the
land out, making mountains and hills and spilled water over the
land, making rivers and lakes. She made the sun, the fire and
all the colours.
As an example of how these paintings work in terms of conveying
through repeated motifs an important story for an Aboriginal
group, I will concentrate on Wagilag Sisters story
Basic aspects of this story, this songline:
The story goes that the two Wagilag sisters, one of whom was
pregnant, were fleeing their home and were being followed by
clansmen. On their travels they come across many animals and
plants and brought them in to life by naming them. Eventually,
the Wagilag sisters set up camp beside a fertile waterhole at
Mirarrmina. There, one of the sisters pollutes the waterhole and
the pregnant sister gives birth, which causes Wititj the python
to wake up angry and incensed. Wititj creates a storm on
emerging from the waterhole and attempts to wash the two Wagilag
sisters in to the well with his downpour (the first monsoon).
The two Wagilag sisters dance and sing sacred songs in an
attempt to diffuse the situation and keep them safe, but when
the sisters become too exhausted to continue, the python is able
to swallow them up (including child and dog)! However, soon
after, Wititj develops stomach pains and groans skywards above
the land where he attracts the attention of other great snakes
who also rise up in to the sky. The great snakes talk and they
discover they all have different names but they wonder why the
python is ill. Realising he made a mistake, Wititj lies about
what he has just eaten but the pain becomes so unbearable Wititj
falls back to the land and vomits up the sisters who regain
their life from the stinging bites of caterpillars. Undeterred,
Wititj beats them with clapsticks and eats them again. Later,
the Wagilag sister's clansmen, asleep in the hollow left by the
python's fall, were visited in their dreams by the sisters who
revealed to the clansmen the secrets of the songs and dances
which had been performed in an effort to stop the rainstorm.
SO: as the following images indicate, this story can be told
visually in a variety of ways, in which the recurring motifs are
easily "read" by those who know the story and the significance
of its parts
Yilkari Kitani, Wagilag Story, 1937.
Yilkari Kitani, painting this very bark, 1937.
Dawidi Djulwarak, Wagilag Story, 1960.
Philip Gudthaykudthay, Wagilag Sisters with child, 2007. .
Dawidi, Wagilag Creation Story, 1960
Dawidi, Wagilag Story, 1987.
The other great stylistic development that most of us recognize as Aborigianl art are the so-called “dot paintings” of the desert communities.
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjar, Women's Dreaming [Women's Dreaming (No.27)] c.1973
John Tjakamarra, no title, c. 1973.
Yumari, Uta-Uta-Tjangal, 2001.
Hogan, Kungkarangalpa, det., 2013.
Australian passport with Uta-Uta Tjangal’s Yumari design.
Notice the development from earlier paintings to later ones. As with the x-ray style, until quite recently, these were generally religious and ephemeral, the work being done as ground (sand) paintings, body decoration or constructions. Public awareness of the forms in the desert depended upon photographs by ethnographers, which were first taken in the early 20C, or rock art and more transportable decorations on implements seen by visitors to the region willing to brave difficult travel.
**We can trace the beginnings of this style, and of what we call contemporary Aboriginal art, to a single moment and place: Papunya in the early 1970s. Of course, there had been a recognition of some Aboriginal art from earlier times, but collected by anthropologists and ethnographers: e.g. 1947 Yirkala drawings, made for the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt
Munggurawauy Yununpingu, Ancestral fire at Biranybirany, 1947.
On butcher paper--extraordinary example of early transmission of Yirkala people’s storylines
Bark painting began to be sold in the early 1960s. However, in
this case the impetus was from outstation missionaries who
attempted unsuccessfully to introduce watercolours. So, in
effect, Aboriginal art has been available to the wider public
since the 1960s. Of course, a number of anthropological and
gallery exhibits pre-date this by a century and more; German and
Swiss anthropological collections, such as the ethnographic
museum in Basel, were important archives of early Aboriginal
artefacts in Europe. The most important inaugural exhibition in
Australia was arguably the 1929 National Museum of Victoria’s
‘Primitive Art’ show, which included an anthropological display
of director Baldwin Spencer’s collection of bark paintings
acquired in 1912. But it was not until 1959 that any Australian
art gallery began to collect Aboriginal work as art rather than
as ethnographic artifacts, when the Art Gallery of New South
Wales under artist and curator Tony Tuckson began to display
works by artists from Tiwi and Arnhem Land cultures.
Tony Tuckson filming Tiwi poles, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1959.
Tiwi poles in Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, today.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that what we think of as modern Aboriginal art came to the attention of the broader world and entered into the elaborately monetized matrices of the art market.
Map of Papunya region; note Papunya, Hermannsburg, Yuendumu..
The introduction of acrylic paints to replace ground
ochres and other naturally occurring materials began in the
early 1970s at the Papunya School in central Australia. Geoffrey
Bardon, a teacher at the school, asked senior Aboriginal men in
the community for permission and advice on the Honey Ant
Dreaming for a mural at the school.
Tribal elders and Honey Ant Mural, Papunya, NT, 1971.
Geoffrey Bardon with Honey Ant Mural, Papunya, NT, 1972.
Following considerable discussion about the propriety of depicting sacred knowledge in a secular setting, Papunya elder Old Tom Onion Tjapangati, who owned Honey Ant Dreaming, gave permission to a number of local men to paint the mural. At about the same time, Bardon provided artist board and paints and with the help of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, one of the mural painters who had used modern materials, the Papunya men began painting in acrylic on board. Initially, respect for ceremonial proprieties caused more naturalistic depictions to replace the sacred iconography. Eventually, recognition that conventional motifs could be described without revealing sacred secrets allowed a return to traditional style. Art board was quickly replaced by the more portable unstretched canvas.
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Water Dreaming,
Papunya and origin of dot paintings:
Bardon helped the Aboriginal artists transfer depictions of
their stories from desert sand to paint on canvas. They soon
realised that the sacred-secret objects they painted were being
seen not only by European, but also related Aboriginal people
which could be offended by them . The artists decided to
eliminate the sacred elements and abstracted the designs into
dots [4,5] to conceal their sacred designs which they used in
During ceremonies Aboriginal people would clear and smooth over
the soil to then apply sacred designs which belonged to that
particular ceremony. These designs were outlined with dancing
circles and often surrounded with dots .
In the early years of Papunya paintings still showed clear
depictions of artefacts, sand paintings and decorated ritual
objects. But this style disappeared within a few years.
Uninitiated people never got to see these sacred designs since
the soil would be smoothed over again and painted bodies would
be washed. This was not possible with paintings. Consequently
Aboriginal artists abstracted the sacred designs to disguise the
meanings associated with them.
Some paintings are layered, and while they probably appear
meaningless to non-Aborigines, the dot paintings might reveal
much more to an Aboriginal person depending on their level of
The first paintings to come from the Papunya Tula School of
Painters weren’t made to be sold. Papunya Tula Artists manager,
Paul Sweeney, explains that they “were produced by people who
were displaced, and living a long way from their country. The
works were visual representations of their own being. They
painted sites that they belonged to and the stories that are
associated with those sites. Essentially they were painting
their identity onto their boards, as a visual assertion of who
they were and where they were from.” 
A similar series of events, but with a little more awareness of
the idea of selling art to the white community, brought the art
of the Warlpiri artists of the Northern Territory to the public
arena. In this instance, Terry Davis, principal of the Yuendumu
school asked senior men to paint the doors of the community’s
school in 1983.
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Water
Warangkula's Water Dreaming, 1972.
The Warlpiri were quite aware of the issues at hand. In fact, the
women of the area had been producing decorated implements for a
couple of decades for anthropologists.
Men’s Room, Papunya (EX: Warlpiri men @ Yuendumu, 1983)
The work would be public, and would be the basis for subsequent, saleable art which would not be ephemeral but would be purchased and would permanently leave the community. That it could subsequently be sold beyond benefit to the community or the artist was not an understanding at this point. In 1985, arrangements for the secularisation of the art were made in Yuendumu through the Warlukurlangu Artists Association, one of the first Aboriginal-run organisations to benefit from commercial sales of traditional artworks.
Front entrance to the Warlukurlangu Artists
Aboriginal Association at the Yuendumu Art Centre, 2003.
Paddy Japanangka Lewis at Warlukurlangu Artists in Yuendumu, Northern Territory.
Sims, Yuendumu, 1980s.
door, Yuendumu, NT, 1983.
Paintings by first Yuendumu artists, Nine of the 30 Yuendumu doors, now in South Australian Museum.)
Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming) 1985
Yuendumu artists have become some of the best known artists of the movement: e.g., Star Dreaming painting is on the cover of Wally Caruana’s book, Some of the Yuendumu artists: Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Warlpiri people Australia 1919 – 1999
Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Warlpiri people Australia 1917 – 2010,
Kwentwentjay Jungurrayi Spencer, Warlpiri people Australia 1919 – 1990
In 1989, six Yuendumu artists out of the Warlukurlangu Artists community installed a Yam Dreaming painting in the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. This exhibition marked a significant point in the recognition of Aboriginal art abroad, and in a ‘high art’ context rather than as ethnographic artifact. This exhibition was a huge turning point in the recognition of all indigenous art, from Africa and the Americas as well as Australia.
For Aboriginal art, the real beginnings of the ever-vexed interactions between ancestral imagery and the voracious Western art world.
Aboriginal art on display at Sydney gallery, Danks Street,
Waterloo, NSW, 2010.--in typical art gallery context:
white walls, framed, displayed as if Abstract Expressionism
This brings us to Emily Kngwarreye, the epitome of this
Born in 1910, Kngwarreye did not take up painting seriously
until she was nearly 80. She lived in the Anmatyerre language
group at Alhalkere in the Utopia community, about 250 km
north east of Alice Springs. Emily's initial artistic training
was as a traditional Indigenous woman, preparing and using
designs for women's ceremonies. Her training in western
techniques began, along with that of the rest of the Utopia
community, with batik. Her first batik cloth works were created
in 1980. Later she moved from batik to painting on canvas:
"I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learned more
and more and then I changed over to painting for good...Then it
was canvas. I gave up on...fabric to avoid all the boiling to
get the wax out. I got a bit lazy - I gave it up because it was
too much hard work. I finally got sick of it...I didn't want to
continue with the hard work batik required - boiling the fabric
over and over, lighting fires, and using up all the soap powder,
over and over. That's why I gave up batik and changed over to
canvas - it was easier. My eyesight deteriorated as I got older,
and because of that I gave up batik on silk - it was better for
me to just paint."
Acrylic paintings were introduced to Utopia in 1988-89 by Rodney
Gooch and others of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media
Whereas the predominant Aboriginal style was based on the one
developed at the Papunya community in 1971 of many similarly
sized dots carefully lying next to each other in distinct
patterns, Kngwarreye created her own original artistic style.
This first style, in her paintings between 1989 and 1991, had
many dots, sometimes lying on top of each other, of varying
sizes and colours, as seen in Wild Potato Dreaming (1996).
Emily Kngwarreye, Earth’s Creation, 1994,
Collection of Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs, NT.
On 23 May 2007, her 1994 painting Earth's Creation was purchased by Tim Jennings of Mbantua Gallery & Cultural Museum for A$1,056,000 at a Deutscher-Menzies' Sydney auction, setting a new record an Aboriginal artwork. So the frenzy of dealers and get-rich-quick exploiters began.
With success came unwanted attention. Many other inexperienced
art dealers would go to her community to try to get a piece of
the action, Kngwarreye once describing to a friend how she had
"escaped from five or six carloads of 'wannabe' art dealers at
According to Sotheby's Tim Klingender, Emily was "an example of
an Aboriginal artist who was relentlessly pursued by
carpetbaggers towards the end of her career and produced a large
but inconsistent body of work."
Emily Kngwarreye , Emu Woman 1988–89
The Holmes à Court Collection, Heytesbury.
Emily Kngwarreye, Emu Tracks, 1991.
Emily Kngwarreye, Arlatyite Dreaming (Pencil Yam),
Emily Kngwarreye, Yam Dreaming, 1995.
In 2008, a major exhibition of Emily’s work in Japan extremely
exhibition, Japan, 2008.
About the exhibition, patron Mrs. Holms a Court's statements were described thus: “Speaking at the blockbuster opening of the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition in Tokyo last night, the patron of indigenous art declared that the debate about its value was also over. 'This exhibition takes the life out of the debate about indigenous arts versus non-indigenous art,' she said. 'Kngwarreye has been anointed as not just a great indigenous artist, which she is, but a great artist full stop.' Kngwarreye was 'up there with Monet, Modigliani and all the rest', Mrs Holmes a Court added. 'Raises enormous questions of artistic appreciation: critics scorning those who apply Western aesthetic standards to her work, insulting to take works out of ethnographic context, etc.'
What do we do with the fact that we as Westerners respond to
these works aesthetically? This question still rages, as
some still reject the idea that Westerners should be allowed to
treat these images as commodified art objects, rather than as
aspects of Aboriginal communities' religious practices.
Finally, one look at one Aboriginal artist who has been trained in Western art, of which there are now many: Lin Onus, some of the most iconic Australian pieces today.
Lin Onus, Fruit Bats, 1991, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Lin Onus, detail of Fruit Bats, 1991, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Onus, Dingoes, 1989, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
His themes are Aboriginal and political, but forms are Western--is this Aboriginal art?
Finally, another conundrum: Ginger Riley, a tribal artist but his style is frankly folk art--is this a further development of Aboriginal style?
Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, This is my country – This is my story, 1992.
Ginger Riley Munduwalawala
Ngak Ngak in Limmen Bight Country, 1994.
Finally, I will end with Harold Thomas, designer of the Aboriginal flag, which now flies everywhere in Australia.
Harold Thomas, creator of the Aboriginal flag.
Harold Joseph Thomas (born c 1947) is an Indigenous Australian descended from the Luritja people of Central Australia. An artist and land rights activist, he is best know for designing and copyrighting the Australian Aboriginal Flag.
Thomas designed the flag in 1971 as a symbol of the Indigenous land rights movement. In 1995 the flag was made an official "Flag of Australia". He was later involved in a high-profile case in the Federal Court and the High Court to assert copyright over his design.