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.
Traditional Indigenous art
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.
Bark paintings are regarded as fine art, and today the finest art commands high prices on the international art markets. The best artists are recognized annually in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
Aerial desert “country” landscapes
From ancient times, Australian aboriginal culture also produced a genre of aerial landscape art, often titled simply “country”. It is a kind of maplike, bird’s-eye view of the desert landscape, and it is often meant to tell a traditional Dreaming story. In the distant past, the common media for such artwork were rock, sand or body painting, but the tradition continues today in the form of coloured drawings with liquid based colour on canvas. (See Papunya Tula and “dot painting” below.)
Stone arrangements in Australia range from the 50m-diameter circles of Victoria, with 1m-high stones firmly embedded in the ground, to the smaller stone arrangements found throughout Australia, such as those near Yirrkala which depict accurate images of the praus used by Macassan Trepang fishermen and spear throwers.