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Australian Aboriginal Art, Facts, History & Information

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 in Articles, Info & Education by Posted by

Australian Aboriginal Art PaintingsIndigenous Australian art today is recognized throughout Australia and the world for its strength and vitality. Australian Aboriginal Art has come from traditions that emphasizes the continuous links between Indigenous art, place and “The Dreaming” – the central core of Indigenous Law and religion.


Acrylic paintings are a relatively new form incorporating the classic elements of Aboriginal Life. They represent a person’s relationship to those around them, to the land and to the Dreaming. They also represent a new context of interaction between indigenous and western societies. Through modern art the Aboriginal people introduce and express their culture to the world.


Acrylic paintings by Central Australian Aboriginal people is one of the most exciting developments in modern Australian Art. The paintings are mythical representations of landscapes or conceptual maps of designs wrought by ancestors. In this tradition, paintings, dances and songs relating to the Dreamtime are repeating the work of Ancestors, thus keeping the Dreaming alive.


It was the arrival at Papunya in 1971 of a young school teacher, Geoff Bardon, that provided the catalyst for an explosion of the modern form of artistic expression. Acrylic on canvas.. Bardon started a school project to paint a mural. The painting was taken over by elders who used traditional art to create “Honey Ant Dreaming”, the Dreaming for Papunya 300 km west of Alice Springs.


In Aboriginal society men and women have their own parallel expressive arts. The painted or decorated body becomes a living sculpture in dance. The same designs may be transferred to many different surfaces, for different purposes – to fibre, sand, wood, bark and stone. The separation of art and craft, traditional in the Western world, does not exist in Aboriginal art. The intricacies of spinning, weaving and knotting are integrated with shells, fibre and paint, while feathers and fibre can form part of sculpture.
In the Northern Territory of Australia, there is a former cattle station called Utopia, also known as Urapuntja, which lies 300 km northeast of Alice Springs.

Sections on body painting, art from the Central and Western deserts and rarrk painting from Arnhem Land, highlight the extraordinary diversity that is, and always has been, a hallmark of Indigenous Australian art.



The use of a fixed set of symbols would seem to make interpretation easy, but only those directly involved in creating a ground painting can give its meaning with absolute authority. Related mythological sites, on the traveling route of some Dreamtime creative animal, might well have very fine shades of variation. Again, bird tracks are very similar, as are several other animal tracks. Further, some symbols have a multiplicity of meanings; a series of concentric circles can mean a camp-fire, home, cave, rock-hole, clay-pan, spring, tree or mountain – the list is not exhaustive; a sinuous line can mean a snake, running water, lightning, a hair-string girdle, native bee honey storage, or a bark rope.


A single design element can in itself have several interpretation levels. Thus-to take a hypothetical example-a circle might be described, in the secular context, as a particular geographical region; become a specific water-hole to a first-stage initiate; be a bundle of hair-string carried by a mythological hunter who visited the water-hole to a second stage ritual man; be extended to mean an object made from the hair-string to a still more knowledgeable man; and have its meaning extended even further to the complete ritual man. Each revelation is made only after the older custodians are certain that the previous step, with its associated songs and ceremonial detail, is fully comprehended by the younger men.


Even if an outsider may be privilege enough to be shown a ground painting, it is highly doubtful that any person other than a man of central Australian Aboriginal origin will ever be permitted to understand its ultimate meaning. This, however does not detract from the beauty of the ground mosaics and the artistic merit of the adapted paintings. Nor does it make secular interpretations any less interesting.
To see the geographical locations of mythological events is to gain an important aid to understanding of ground painting and associated ceremonies. It may well be use to see them in different weather conditions, fully appreciate the mythological associations. Thus, Watulpunyu, a Walpiri Water Dreaming site in the depiction of which there are several circle (representing rock holes) and sinuous lines (representing both mythological lighting and running water), leaps into life when you visit it.
Including Extracts from “The Aboriginal Arts and Culture Centre, Alice Springs “


In the mid 70s when Utopia became an Aboriginal freehold property the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr people moved from the surrounding pastoral stations to settle in camps on the north western part of Utopia.
The Aboriginal art movement began on Utopia around this time with the introduction of the Utopia Women’s Batik activities. The women were initially taught tie-dying and batiking T-shirts before venturing into the silk medium. The most senior woman – Emily Kame Kngwarreye – was a founding member of this group. She has since been acclaimed as the most important central Australian artist of her generation.

Artist Sandy Pitjara HunterThe first major community project initiated by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and Rodney Gooch resulted in an exhibition of 88 batiks, up to three metres in length which was acquired by the Robert Holmes a Court Collection in 1988.

This collection of batiks entitled Utopia – A Picture Story was shown in Adelaide, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and travelled to Ireland, Germany, Paris and Bangkok.

The second project initiated by CAAMA in 1988-9 was the women’s first experience in painting on canvas. One hundred uniformly sized canvases were stretched, primed and distributed to the artists. Of the eighty artists who were involved in this project, the majority worked in the traditional colours of black, white, ochre and red. They produced an extraordinary body of work entitled – Utopia Women’s Paintings – the First Works on Canvas – A Summer Project 1988-9 which was exhibited at the S.H. Erwin Gallery in Sydney and Orange Grove Regional Gallery, NSW, Australia. Further projects initiated by Rodney Gooch and CAAMA included The Body Paint – Awelye – collection, The Watercolour Collection, 1989, the CAAMA/Utopia Artists-in-Residence Project Louie Pwerle and Emily Kame Kngwarreye 1989-90 and One Dreaming (Yam Story) in 1992.

Thus the artists had made the transition from batik to acrylic on canvas and linen and Utopian art was launched onto the international stage.

The demand for paintings from the artists of Utopia continues and artists have exhibited throughout Europe including France, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan and U.S.A. Utopia artists are represented in many public collections in state and regional galleries all over Australia.


A Dreaming name denotes a Dreamtime being, a site associated with that Dreaming and the country surrounding that site. Woodrow W. Denham, Alyawarre Ethnographic Archive

Central desert Aboriginal art depicts the Dreaming of their Ancestors. The artist paints the journeys, actions, sacred objects, designs and sites associated with their Ancestors.

The artists use iconography and abstract imagery to depict the sacred ceremony or the site pertaining to that dreaming.

The paintings refer to the sacred sites where the Dreaming occurs and where the power is still all pervasive. The symbols or signs denote places and sites or the tracks and pathways of the Ancestor. The Dreamings, often painted from an aerial perspective are abstract in form and lend themselves to various interpretations – the sacred and the public.

Widely used imagery includes for example, concentric circles usually represent a group of people or site or place, a campsite or a water/rock hole. These are places of great significance. The u-shapes can represent the sitting figure and the indentation they leave with their haunches. Tracks of the Ancestral beings and animals are represented by meandering or straight lines. Arcs can represent boomerangs. Short straight lines represent digging sticks or clapping sticks and spears. A morass of dots can represent the topography of the artist’s country or homeland.


There are several theories on the origination of the dot-style of painting. One theory is that they imitate the markings for the ground ceremonial paintings. These ephemeral works are fashioned out of daubed dots of ochres and bird down and other materials. Spinifex, bushes, shrubs and other clumped grasses form a dot-like pattern across the desert landscape resulting in a dotted landscape when viewed from above. The Aboriginal views his country – his ancestral sites – from this aerial perspective.

From “Eastern Desert Art” 2009

  • Ken D’Aran

    What are the earliest representation of ‘dot paintings ? Are they prior to the 1970’s?

  • I think so Ken, ‘dot paintings’ on canvas were started then.

    but original design were from… who knows! 1000’s of years ago?

  • Jjsnacks

    was aboriginal art before the european settlement and what is it’s significnace to aboriginal communities?

  • I heard that it was used to drawn on the sand or rocks etc. could be for education, history, religeous or fun? unknown… is anyone can answer this?

  • SmackADog

    I have an assignment due on Tuesday Have any good information about art

  • sorry mate. best to do that study yourself!
    hope it went alright bro

  • JJ

    Great little run down on Aboriginal Art and it’s history and culture. Thanks for the post.

  • that one guy

    do you know where I can get more on Aboriginal Art???

  • that one guy

    what is the dreamtime?

  • Dreamtime is the creation time and story of the old ancestors for the native Australian people

  • There are Aboriginal galleries all around the country, also worth check out the aboriginal community art galleries.