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Art in Profile


Australian Indigenous art is the longest, continuous living art form in the world dating back around 50,000 years.

Indigenous art reflects the Aboriginal Dreamtime (or Creation stories), mythology, song and dance from a time when ancestral spirits created the land. As there was little need for material possessions, Indigenous Australians had a freedom to explore deeper dimensions of creativity. Aborigines are deeply spiritual and their land is of utmost significance to them. As custodians, they embrace an intimate interaction with their land which in turn promotes ecological harmony. The Dreamtime stories are perpetually handed down from one generation to another and vary from one clan to the next. As there was no written language, Aboriginal art has become a visual history. Even though their art was seldom kept, the cultural significance of this art was to pass on knowledge and traditions. Being originally drawn in the sand, painted on cave walls or rock surfaces or painted on their bodies for ceremonial purposes, this traditional art in more recent times has been transferred to new mediums such as paintings on canvas or linen, etchings, linocuts, screenprints, textiles, glass or wooden objects whilst still embodying the authentic iconography of their ancestors. These designs and styles are unique to different regions of Australia and cannot be sold, transferred, or given away to any other clan (a form of copyright).

The contemporary Australian Indigenous art movement has a profound impact on the identity of Australian art. Even though Indigenous artists have incorporated their own individual styles of self-expression, traditional art never forsakes its spiritual essence and it is always based on traditional elements. These unique statements are dynamic and bold in nature with ever-evolving tone and colour techniques. Even though each piece of art will embody the artist's deep knowledge of his/her country and history, the effect is a vibrant visual contemporary feast.

Women in Aboriginal Art
Women in particular play important roles in Indigenous society and intuitively understand the laws of nature. As well as caring for others in their communities, they are responsible for passing on knowledge and wisdom to the children and grandchildren of their communities to ensure the continuity of their culture. This is achieved through ceremonies, song, dance and significantly through their art. The senior women conduct the awelye or women’s ceremonies to ensure the well-being of their society, maintain social harmony and to ensure the survival of their people’s traditions. Many ceremonial designs (originally painted in the sand or used as body paint painted directly onto the women’s chests, shoulders and arms) have been transformed onto modern, portable mediums like canvas. Unlike the men’s designs which are usually more sacred in nature and of ritual spiritual significance, the women’s designs include not only the ceremonial body paint designs, but also details of everyday life and food collecting ('bush tucker'). Even though these simple and elegant designs can symbolise leaves, food, medicinal plants they can also contain deeper more sacred meaning that is not meant to be shared.

Plants and bush medicine are artistically depicted by variations of their leaf shapes, root systems or colour variations. In daily life these medicinal plants are used for cuts, wounds, bites, rashes, skin ailments and insect repellents. The leaves are often boiled to extract their essence which is then mixed to a paste often using animal fat. There are many foods found naturally in their environment and include wild plums, bush tomatoes, bush bananas, yams, desert raisins, wild oranges, native pears, wild onions, wild tobacco and bush plums. The bush potato for example is often depicted in their art as a web of elongated lines which symbolise the root systems the women must dig along to obtain the food. Other items depicted in their art are small reptiles such as sand goannas and bush turkeys which are also valuable food sources. The sugarbag or wild honey is found in old hollow tree trunks and is often used in many designs. The coolamons or wooden carved dishes used for carrying gathered foods are also often painted in the “bush tucker” paintings along with their digging sticks. These “bush tucker” designs are rich and unique.

Last Updated - Jun 9, 2017