INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIAN ARTWORK
Art is part of the cultural makeup of every society and Australia is home to the vibrant and soulful Indigenous art of the Aboriginal people, the first inhabitants of the country. These 10 facts about Aboriginal Art will give you a little insight into one of the most dynamic contemporary art movements in the world. It has evolved into a much-valued part of Australia’s heritage and a thriving sector of society.
Over my many years of visiting Australian galleries I have developed quite a fascination and admiration for Aboriginal art. Its unique beauty and contemporary designs are quite captivating. There is something about it which jumps out and draws you in.
Indigenous art is synonymous with dramatic colours, bold patterns, and interesting symbols. All of these elements actually represent aspects of life on earth. You probably weren’t aware of this. I certainly wasn’t in the beginning.
Indigenous art has been growing in popularity in Australia, and abroad, for many years. It is now one of the most exciting contemporary art movements on the planet.
More and more people are purchasing Indigenous art these days. It may be for their own enjoyment or as an investment. Many also buy Aboriginal art on their travels to Australia, as it makes the perfect Australian souvenir to take home.
So, I want to share with you 10 facts about Aboriginal art. I hope to give you an overview of the genre and some appreciation for this traditional form of Australian Indigenous art.
Firstly, let me give you a bit of background. There is anthropological evidence that Aboriginal life was present in Australia some 50,000 years ago or more. This makes Indigenous Australians the longest continuously living culture in the world. That is pretty amazing!
Their special connection to the land was always very strong. That is why they managed to survive such harsh conditions for so long on their own. They had no contact with other humans until about 600 hundred years ago. It is believed that some form of trade began in the northern parts of Australia with people coming from what is now Indonesia, prior to Colonisation of Australia in 1788.
1. Aboriginal art is the oldest form of art in the world
Since Aboriginal people were acknowledged as the first inhabitants and the original land owners of Australia, their art has also been recognised as extremely important, because art is inseparable from their lives and the survival of their ancient traditions.
Aboriginal art is the oldest continuous form of art in the world, from the longest living culture still in existence in the world today.
There are literally hundreds of Aboriginal sub-cultures and tribal groups. Furthermore, each of these have their own language. Which means that hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken across Australia and the islands still today. Incredible!
No written language exists
No written form of Aboriginal language exists, which is quite remarkable, I think. But that explains why Aboriginal art was vital for the transfer of knowledge, values, historical events, and other important information which was shared amongst themselves for survival.
Each of the different Indigenous groups also have their own unique subject matter, which they portray in their art. They use their own distinct symbols, techniques and materials. In other words, each is like a different language.
2. Types of art
Aboriginal art first existed in the form of rock paintings, body paintings, dot paintings, rock engravings (petroglyphs), sand paintings, bark paintings, leaf paintings, carvings, sculptures and weaving using hair and grass.
Rock art, in the form of carvings, etchings and paintings, exists throughout Australia. Some portray skeletons of humans and animals, as well as hand prints, totems and spirits. Many are thought to date back more than 40,000 years, such as the ones found in Western Australia and South Australia, depicting extinct megafauna lifeforms.
These ancient art traditions have evolved into the spectacular contemporary medium of today.
3. Aboriginal art on canvas
Aboriginal art only began being painted on canvas about 50 years ago, in the 1970’s, in Papunya, Central Australia. It was quite a strange transition for the Indigenous people, as you can imagine. Painting on natural surfaces and painting on a canvas are quite different. But this proved to be a huge turning point in the evolution of Indigenous art. It formalised their artwork, drew attention to the genre and made it accessible to the wider population. Since then, their art has been featured in art galleries and museums all around the world.
4. Increased cultural awareness
The Indigenous art industry has contributed to increased awareness, appreciation and understanding of the Aboriginal culture. Also, it has helped form positive relationships between themselves and Western cultures.
Pride, achievement and social standing within the Aboriginal communities has also developed from the art. The artists are very well respected by their peers.
I have even heard that Aboriginal art is Australia’s greatest cultural export to the world. Not surprisingly it has become a large source of revenue for the Indigenous population, many of whom don’t have other career opportunities.
I find it quite remarkable that the income Aboriginal people earn from their art is distributed amongst their whole community.
All of their people benefit. This is in line with their values of sharing for survival. They are not greedy or selfish at all. It’s one of the lovely traits about their culture.
5. Dot painting
Dot painting is very popular and probably the most recognisable style of Aboriginal painting. It was first used to disguise sacred information by over-dotting. This was done so that non-Aboriginal people wouldn’t understand the secret stories. Or so is the theory.
The dotting technique is quite mesmerising. It creates a sort of moving affect and the art almost jumps off the canvas. Don’t you agree?
However, not all Indigenous paintings use dots. Many other different techniques and strokes are also used, such as the ‘x-ray’ technique, cross hatching, bush medicine style and colour fields technique. The styles continue to evolve and adapt today.
For many of us, Aboriginal art seems to be mostly abstract. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. You see, Aboriginal art is all about storytelling and conveying important information, using symbols and icons.
The stories are often about the Dreamtime, which is believed to be their interpretation of when the world and everything in it came into being. All aspects of life were thought to be created by the spirits. Their relation to the land, sea, sky, animals, and each other is guided by the Dreamtime, the foundation of their existence, which they live by.
The traditional stories from this period have been passed on by their ancestors through the generations, and date back thousands of years.
One of the rules of their art is that they are not allowed to paint stories from other family lineages, unless given permission by the elders.
So, you can see the Dreamtime is a rich and complex belief system, powerful and sacred to the Aboriginal people.
Originally, they only used earthy colours that came from natural sources such as clay, charcoal and soil. Nowadays, they also make use of colourful acrylic paints. This makes the art more vibrant and contemporary, and thus appeals to a much broader market.
You will notice the many different symbols that are used in the designs, which represent unique aspects of life, land and their culture. But they vary from artist to artist, and region to region. So, don’t assume there is a definitive code you can use to decipher the stories, because there isn’t.
9. Which way does it go?
Aboriginal paintings can be viewed any way, horizontal or vertical. So you can hang them to your liking. They often show an aerial perspective of the land, kind of like a map, which is typical of hunter/gatherer lifestyles, as a way of marking the landscape.
10. Buying Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal art varies a lot in price. Some pieces cost one or two hundred dollars. Other pieces can cost up to thousands of dollars, for the more renowned and respected artists. Certain paintings have even been sold for one or two million Australian dollars each.
When purchasing Aboriginal art, make sure you buy ethically. You should only buy from legitimate Aboriginal Community Art Centres or exhibitions. Here you can be sure you are purchasing authentic goods, not fakes.
Also, find out whether the artists have received fair payment and not been exploited. Make sure to ask these important questions.
Paintings will come with a certificate of authenticity, with details of the Artist.
Finally, if you are interested in finding out more, I recommend you check out the Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Australia which houses a huge collection of old and new Indigenous works across all mediums. The gallery is located at Parkes in Canberra, and entry is free.
Tours in Australia to consider
Have you enjoyed these 10 facts about Aboriginal Art? I hope you have learnt a little more about the wonderful art of the oldest living culture in the world.
I’d love to hear what you think. You may leave any comments below.