Indigenous Australian art
Indigenous Australian art or Australian Aboriginal art is art made by the Indigenous peoples of Australia and in collaborations between Indigenous Australians and others. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpting, ceremonial clothing and sand painting. This article discusses works that pre-date European colonisation as well as contemporary Indigenous Australian art by Aboriginal Australians. These have been studied in recent years and have gained much international recognition.
There are several types of aboriginal art, and methods of making art, including rock painting, dot painting, rock engravings, bark painting, carvings, sculptures, and weaving and string art. A variety of colours are used, except for red, which symbolizes blood and is only used in other types of painting.
Australian Indigenous art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. The oldest firmly dated rock art painting in Australia is a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment found during the excavation of the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter in south-western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Dated at 28,000 years, it is one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date. Rock art, including painting and engraving or carving, can be found at sites throughout Australia. 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 or Giro Giro. Other painted rock art sites include Laura, Queensland, Ubirr, in the Kakadu National Park, Uluru, and Carnarvon Gorge.
Aboriginal rock art has been around for a long period of time, with the oldest examples, in Western Australia's Pilbara region and the Olary district of South Australia, estimated to be up to around 40,000 years old. Examples have been found that are believed to depict extinct megafauna such as Genyornis and Thylacoleo as well as more recent historical events such as the arrival of European ships.
Rock engraving depends on the type of rock being used. Many different methods are used to create rock engravings. 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 Toowoomba engravings, depicting carved animals and humans, have their own peculiar style not found elsewhere in 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 the thylacine. Activity prior to the last ice age until colonisation is recorded.
Papunya art consists of various paint colours like yellow (representing the sun), brown (the soil), red (desert sand) and white (the clouds and the sky). These are traditional Aboriginal colours. Papunya paintings can be painted on anything though traditionally they were painted on rocks, in caves, etc. The paintings were mostly images of animals or lakes, and the Dreamtime. Stories and legends were depicted on caves and rocks to represent the artists' religion and beliefs.
On modern artwork, dots are generally applied with bamboo satay sticks. The larger flat end of bamboo satay sticks are more commonly used for single application of dots to paintings, but the sharp pointier end is used to create fine dots. To create superimposed dotting, artists may take a bunch of satay sticks, dip the pointy ends into the paint and then transfer them onto the canvas in quick successions of dotting.
Aboriginal stone arrangements are a form of rock art constructed by Indigenous Australians. 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. Each stone is well-embedded into the soil, and many have "trigger-stones" to support them. Particularly fine examples are in Victoria, where some examples have very large stones. For example, the stone arrangement at Wurdi Youang consists of about 100 stones arranged in an egg-shaped oval about 50m across. The appearance of the site is similar to that of the megalithic stone circles found throughout Britain (although the function and culture are presumably completely different). Although its association with Indignious Australians 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. Smaller stone arrangements are found throughout Australia, such as those near Yirrkala which depict accurate images of the praus used by Macassan Trepang fishermen and spear throwers.
Wood carving has always been an essential part of aboriginal culture, requiring wood, sharp stone to carve, wire and fire. The wire and fire were used to create patterns on the object by heating the wire with the fire and placing it on the wood carving.
Often, these wood carvings, shaped like animals, were traded to Europeans for goods. The reason aboriginal people made wood carvings was to represent the stories they tell to help tell the stories. They were also used in ceremonies where they joined together, sung, laughed and enjoyed themselves.
In most Pacific areas the men oversee the art and architecture; the women oversee the art in felted cloth they would make from tree bark and plants. The art in clothing is supervised by the head woman in charge of the production. These detailed cloths were worn for rituals; each represented wealth and rank in the group. The scared clothing is also used in trade goods and social and political relationships. Wearing the textile then removing it and given to another person meant to bond or reinforce friendship or alliances. Kampen-ORiley, M. (2006).
Baskets: Baskets or coiled baskets were created by twisted bark, palm-leaf, and feathers; some of the baskets were plain and some were created with feather pendants or feathers woven in the frame of the basket. The people of aboriginal art used mineral and plant dyes to color the palm-leaves and bark of the hibiscus. These string bags/baskets were used in ceremonies for religious and ritual needs; the baskets might have been also used for carry things back to the village. Thomas, M., & Neale, M. (2011).
Jewelry: Aboriginal people beautified their bodies; they created the shell pendants which were considered high value and often used for trading goods. These shells were attached to string, which was handmade from human hair and sometimes covered with a type of grease and red ochre. This jewelry would be hung around a man’s neck or waist; using during ceremonies and on dancing men. Morphy, H., Rosenfeld, A., Sutton, P., Keen, I., Berndt, C. H., Berndt, R. M., . . . Cavazzini, F. (2003). Aboriginal Australia.
Certain symbols within the Aboriginal modern art movement retain the same meaning across regions although the meaning of the symbols may change within the context of a 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. Depending upon the tribe of which the artist is a member, symbols such as campfire, tree, hill, digging hole, waterhole, or spring can vary in meaning. 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 symbols should be made in context of the entire painting, the region from which the artist originates, the story behind the painting, and 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.
Aboriginal people believed in natural sites. These sites were sacred to them, and it is also the location where seasonal rituals were performed. During these rituals the aboriginals created indigenous art such as; feather and fiber objects, they painted and created rock engravings, and also painted on bark of the Eucalyptus tetrodonta trees. The belief is during ancient times mythic Aboriginal Ancestor Spirits were the creators of the land, and eventually became apart of it. Aboriginals refer to the spiritual world as “Jukurrpa.” This is later translated to “Dreamtime” (Kampen-O'Riley, 2006). These ancestral beings inhabit the earth that emerged from underneath or voyaging from far off places. The aboriginals associate this within their laws, art forms, and even religious ceremonies. This mythological belief allowed the aboriginals to believe they could move to a greater spiritual level, and become more genuinely who they are meant to be. This is referred to as jimeran, or “making oneself”, by the aboriginals (Den Boer, 2012). Traditional Indigenous Australian art almost always has a mythological undertone relating to the Dreamtime of Indigenous Australian artists.
Wenten Rubuntja, an Indigenous landscape artist, says it is 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. X-ray styles date back all the way to 2000–1000 BCE. It is an indigenous technique were the artist creates conceptualized x-ray, see-through, images. The mimi, spirits who taught the art of painting to the aboriginals, and ancestors are “released” through these types of artwork.
Many culturally significant sites of Aboriginal rock paintings have been gradually desecrated and destroyed by encroachment of early settlers and modern-day visitors. This includes the destruction of art by clearing and construction work, erosion caused by excessive touching of sites, and graffiti. Many sites now belonging to National Parks have to be strictly monitored by rangers, or closed off to the public permanently.
In 1934 Australian painter Rex Batterbee taught Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira western style watercolour landscape painting, along with other Aboriginal artists at the Hermannsburg mission in the Northern Territory. It became a popular style, known as the Hermannsburg School, and sold out when the paintings were exhibited in Melbourne, Adelaide and other Australian cities. Namatjira became the first Aboriginal Australian citizen, as a result of his fame and popularity with these watercolour paintings.
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 the Aboriginal 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.
The late Rover Thomas is another well known modern Australian Aboriginal artist. Born in Western Australia, he represented Australia in the Venice Biennale of 1990. 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, from the Utopia community north east of Alice Springs, 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. Her works include Earth's Creation. 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, Lena Pwerle, Angelina Ngale (Pwerle) 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 centres have stopped selling these artists' paintings online, instead placing prospective clients on a waiting list for work.
Current artists in vogue include Jacinta Hayes, popular for her iconic representation of "Bush Medicine Leaves" and "Honey Ants", Rex Sultan (who studied with Albert Namatjira), Trephina Sultan and Reggie Sultan, Bessie Pitjara and Joyce Nakamara, amongst others.
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 Australian dollars each year, and growing rapidly.
In 1971–1972, art teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged Aboriginal people in Papunya, north west of Alice Springs to put their Dreamings onto canvas. These stories had previously been drawn on the desert sand, and were now given a more permanent form.
The dots were used to cover secret-sacred ceremonies. Originally, the 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 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.
There have been cases of some exploitative dealers (known as carpetbaggers) that have sought to profit from the success of the Aboriginal art movements. Since Geoffrey Bardon's time and in the early years of the Papunya movement, there has been concerns about the exploitation of the largely illiterate and non-English speaking artists.
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."
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 was not 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."
In August 2006, following concerns raised about unethical practices in the Indigenous art sector, the Australian Senate initiated an inquiry into issues in the sector. It 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:
"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 Darling, 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."
The inquiry's final report made recommendations for changed funding and governance of the sector, including a code of practice.
Australian Indigenous art movements and cooperatives have been central to the emergence of Indigenous Australian art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres.
Many of the centres operate online art galleries where local and international visitors can purchase works directly from the communities without the need of going through an intermediary. The cooperatives reflect the diversity of art across Indigenous Australia from the north west region where ochre is significantly used; to the tropical north where the use of cross-hatching prevails; to the Papunya style of art from the central desert cooperatives. Art is increasingly becoming a significant source of income and livelihood for some of these communities.
The winners of the West Australian Indigenous Arts Awards were announced on 22 August 2013. From over 137 nominations from throughout Australia, Churchill Cann won the Best West Australian Piece (A$10,000) and North Queensland artist Brian Robinson won the Best Overall prize (A$50,000).
The phrase "traditional cultural expressions" is used by the World Intellectual Property Organization to refer to "any form of artistic and literary expression in which traditional culture and knowledge are embodied. They are transmitted from one generation to the next, and include handmade textiles, paintings, stories, legends, ceremonies, music, songs, rhythms and dance."
The Museum for Australian Aboriginal art "La grange" (at Neuchâtel, Switzerland) is one of the few museums in Europe that dedicates itself entirely to this kind of art. During seasonal exhibitions, works of art by internationally renowned artists are being shown. Also, the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, has an "Oceania" collection, which includes works by Australian Aboriginal artists Lena Nyadbi, Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, Judy Watson, Gulumbu Yunupingu, John Mawurndjul, Tommy Watson, Ningura Napurrula and Michael Riley.
Two museums that solely exhibit Australian Aboriginal art are the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art (AMU), in Utrecht, The Netherlands and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.