20  Facts about Aboriginal Art


1. The heritage of today’s Australian Aboriginal people is recognised as being the longest living continuous culture in the world. Australian Aboriginal art often presents anthropological practices and Dreamtime stories that date back tens of thousands of years. Appreciating the artwork can provide an insightful understanding into this highly structured and spiritual civilisation and its astute knowledge of a harsh and difficult environment.



2.  Aboriginal people, located across the Australian continent and its islands, are not a homogenous group but rather a diverse group of hundreds of nations and clans within.  There is thought to have been around 250 languages and 600 dialects spoken at the time of white settlement. Given this diversity in ‘sub cultures’, Australian Aboriginal art is subsequently diverse in terms of materials and media as well as subject matter and cultural practices.  Colours and styles and also stories are regional – there is not just one type of traditional Australian Aboriginal art.   Each region has different stories, each has different styles of executions and colour palettes with some being more familiar than others.   New techniques and materials are constantly evolving to tell traditional stories and express culture by Aboriginal artists, including photography, metal sculptures and other contemporary media.



3. Techniques and materials can identify where an artwork comes from – dot painting is typically from the western or central desert regions of Australia while ochres are used in the Kimberley and in Arnhem Land in the top end.   Cross hatching, rarrk and x-ray artwork is created in Arnhem Land. Combed ochre designs are created in the Tiwi Islands.   Similarly subject matter can identify where Aboriginal art comes from according the stories and subject matter portrayed.  The Wandjina is the creation ancestor from the Kimberley for instance.



4.  Aboriginal people living near the coast were traditionally less likely to be extensively nomadic as they had plentiful resources of water, food and medicinal plants. Some lived in houses and it is now known that there is evidence of growing and harvesting crops and farming of kangaroos and eels.  Coastal and island artwork tends to depict what the eye typically sees, i.e.   a 2D emu or a person’s form.  There are many very old rock carvings still in existence around the Sydney area depicting 2D forms such as whales, sharks and emu’s.



5. People living traditionally in the difficult, harsh desert regions of Australia were necessarily reasonably nomadic due to the limited resources available to them. These hunters and gathers moved within their own territory from one water and food source to another, always conscious of living sustainably and caring for the land.  However, they were not simply hunters and gatherers but also ‘farmed’ the land in a special way of regenerating regrowth through the use of fire in patterns of rotation.   The heat and their mobility meant they carried few possessions, mostly the essentials for survival including spears and woomera’s by men, or digging sticks and coolamons by women.  Much of the art from remote central regions maps the artists’ country from an aerial perspective and is a guide on where to find the necessities of daily life.  It tends to derive from pared down symbols and iconography which were easy to draw in the sand as a form of communication and teaching survival skills and which have been used over countless generations.



6. The Dreamtime is an ever occurring phenomenon that encompasses yesterday, today and tomorrow. These Dreamings teach people how to survive and give Aboriginal people beliefs, customs, relationships and laws to live by.  With an oral tradition, Australian Aboriginal people educated the next generation on their history, geography, customs, law, spirituality, healing and resources (water, food, medicine, glue, string and rope making, etc.) aided by drawing in the sand, sand paintings, stories, ceremonies, song and dance.  There are paintings such as the Seven Sisters Dreaming which not only tell the Dreamtime story and navigational skills relating to both the land and the sky, but also provide moral guidelines for men and women to adhere to tribal law.

7. The Dreamtime is related to creation when ancestor beings rose out of the land or came from the sky and created the landforms and features we see today. The ancestors returned to the land as rocks or trees, or to the sky as stars – and these are sacred.  These ancestral travels are part of the content of song lines and these are often depicted in paintings.

8.  The spirits of the ancestors are passed on to clans and individuals as a totem which binds them. Seniority can be indicated by the number of totems or dreamings identifying an individual.  The totemic symbol, whether it is a caterpillar or an emu or another type of creature, can be depicted in an artwork as part of the Dreaming for that Ancestor.

9.  Where Aboriginal Artists are depicting inherited stories from the Dreaming, they generally need to be initiated and have permission to paint them. Once ‘ownership’ of a story is given, there is a custodial obligation to continue to tell the story, with repetition intended to keep the story alive.   This is traditionally done through storytelling, ceremony, song and dance, but artists can also do this by painting their story on canvas or board.



10.  The Contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement commenced in Papunya in Central Australia in 1971 when school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, provided painting materials for children and then some elder males to record their stories on boards.   The practice of recounting stories on canvases soon followed and spread across desert communities and then further afield as the world took an interest.

11.  Colours were traditionally sourced from natural earth ochres or clay in red, white and yellow with charcoal being used as black paint.    Artists in the desert areas used these colours at first and in the 1980s when more women started painting, brighter colours were adopted reflecting the colours around them in the desert sunrises and sunsets, wildflowers, green landscapes after rain and bright blue skies.

12.  The colours used in dot painting can be arbitrary as the artists are not necessarily trying to show you what things look like but are rather recounting a ‘story’.   Consequently, a bush fire painting can be depicted in orange and yellow, or in blue or in white;  a Bush Orange painting could be painted in blue.

13.  The colours used in desert communities can be significant markers of that region’s artwork and make a painting recognisable as coming from a particular area – for instance, Papunya Tula artworks are typically orange, white, yellow and black;  Yuendumu artworks are typically a riot of bright colour.

14. Several artists may tell the same Dreamtime story but will have a different artistic expression or execution. Sometimes artists tell only part of the story when they are painting and sometimes they tell the complete story.   Where an artist has permission and depicts a bush medicine plant or a bush food, they may decide to focus on the seeds, the flowers, the leaves or the fruit or vegetable from that plant.  They may also depict the body paint related to the ceremony for that plant and its importance to their survival.



15.  Aboriginal artists will not reveal secret and private parts of their stories to the uninitiated or those who are not entitled to know them. Subsequently, some paintings have both an outside story for public viewing as well as a secret, inside story, or even multiple layers of meaning.  In some cases, the inside or secret elements of the painting story may be obscured by over lining or dotting.

16. Aboriginal people thrive on their homelands where they are connected to their Dreamtime stories and the Songlines associated with their country. Knowledge of the land is so intimate that it would be akin to you or I knowing every crack in the pavement from one end of the Sydney Metropolitan Area to the other. An Aboriginal painting has been used in a court of law to prove Native Title and was upheld as proof due to the unquestionable knowledge of the artists about the terrain and layout of their country and their deep connection to their lands.  Furthermore, elements of natural diets and traditional living generally prove far better for good health than fringe dwelling in towns on white man’s processed foods.

17. Aboriginal Artists may be singing their songlines as they paint, or actually mark making to the rhythm of a dance.  Keeping up with this rhythm may mean they may need to paint quite quickly so a special cultural work may not be neat and nor does it need to be.  It may also not have taken very long to paint.  While there is a propensity to value an item or seek to justify a price by  ‘there’s a lot of work in that’ or ‘that must have taken a long time’ in Western terms, different criteria are used to ‘value’ Aboriginal art.   The value is in the painting story and the artists’ very special depiction  of ancient cultural practices.  As survival was achieved through passing on stories through generations, it is a special painting which has been created through this process – and an enhancement if it is intergenerational and family members have contributed.  However, it is important that this is documented within the provenance of this painting and all contributors are named.   Aboriginal art by elders, the traditional knowledge holders, aged in the 60s to 80s, who lived the first part of their lives as traditional nomads in very remote regions (noting that some did not see a white person until they were aged in their teens or 20s) have been the most lauded, as while they are untrained artists, they have been the first to record this remarkable ancient culture onto canvas.  An example is Minnie Pwerle who transferred her traditional role of painting women up for ceremony using acrylics on canvas painting for the first time at the age of 79.  Her work is rough and raw but it captures ancient practices and is ethnographically rich, with an exciting sense of movement in a highly contemporary  aesthetic.



18. There are over a hundred Aboriginal Owned and Governed Community Art Centres spread throughout Australia. Such community art centres provide a painting venue, materials and career support for the Indigenous artists who live in their area as well as visiting artists from other regions.   The management team organises exhibitions both in Australia and overseas and distributes the best work from the community to galleries to represent and promote their artists.   These centres consign work to representative galleries and set the pricing that the work is to be sold for.   When the work is sold, the money is returned to the management team at the art centre, the artist is paid and the art centre retains a portion to cover their operating expenses and to provide materials and support for the artist community as a whole.   This model of procurement of Aboriginal Art – either from the community or a representative gallery, is a consumer’ guarantee of ethics and the catalogue number issued by an Aboriginal Owned and Governed Art Centre is a guarantee of authenticity and provenance.  Collectors and Public Galleries and Museums confidently purchase through this model.



19.  Aboriginal society is a culture that has always demanded that individuals share to enable survival, and subsequently, art proceeds are also shared today. This is an inherited tradition which is not surprising given the harsh conditions of the remote regions of Australia where working together is critical, and where greed and selfishness are traditionally punished.  Aboriginal Art is the mainstay of income and economic survival for some remote communities and a way in which we can support the passing down of knowledge and culture and the up-skilling of the people living in the community who are involved as art workers as a means of employment.

20.  Certification of Aboriginal paintings from remote communities attributes a catalogue number from the art centre which is marked on the side of the canvas (or the back of a stretched painting), together with the written name of the artist.  Artists in remote communities do not traditionally sign their names on the front of the canvas, some may mark a painting or fine art print with their first name,or a cross, and many do not sign in any way – while many speak multiple Indigenous languages they may not have been schooled in English.  The Art Centre Certificate accompanying the painting shows a photograph of the painting, sometimes of the artist, and it will name the artist’s skin group, and place of birth (and date if known) together with the painting title, catalogue number, the year the artwork was created and the painting story.