At Large  August 30, 2022  Megan D Robinson

A Brief Introduction to Aboriginal Art & Artists

Photo by Graeme Churchard from Bristol. Wikimedia COmmons.

Aboriginal rock art on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station.

Though Aboriginal art is only one of many Indigenous Australian art traditions, it has remained one of the most recognizable art forms across the globe ever since it first burst onto the world stage in the 1970s. This tradition, which includes art by Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples, encompasses a wide range of media, including leaf and bark painting, wood carving, rock carving, rock painting (or pictographs), watercolors, sculpting, textiles, string figures, and sand art. Known for its bold patterns, vibrant colors, distinctive dot patterning, and strong symbolism, many experts believe it to be the oldest continuous art tradition in the world.

More recently, Aboriginal art traditions and their popularity among spectators has given rise to internationally renowned twentieth and twenty-first-century artists who have pioneered new artistic techniques and visual languages that combine Western and Aboriginal symbolism and sensibility. 

Aboriginal art pre-dates European colonization of Australia by thousands of years. Today, contemporary Aboriginal artists sell and exhibit wildly popular work all over the world and there are museums in Europe and the United States dedicated entirely to Aboriginal art.

Photo by Sailko. Wikimedia Commons.

John Mawurndjul, detail of Rainbow Serpent, 1991.

Tied to important oral traditions, Aboriginal art is deeply intertwined with spirituality and culture. Most contemporary Aboriginal art is informed by ancient stories and symbols of Jukurrpa (translated as Dreaming or Dreamtime). The foundation of many Aboriginal beliefs and culture, Dreamtime refers to the creation period, a time when ancestral beings traveled the desert, leaving behind landforms, people, and culture. Dreamtime is additionally often thought of as a continuum of the past, present, and future, existing outside of temporal reality, that can be accessed through personal experiences which are then recorded through art.  

Widely considered the most influential Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) was the first to receive widespread recognition. Integral in developing the Hermannsburg School watercolor technique, Namatjira’s vibrant and otherworldly Australian landscapes were criticized by some as assimilationists, but are now recognized as skillful synergies of Western painting techniques and coded Aboriginal observations of spiritual connection with the land.

© Tourism NT.

Albert Namatjira's photograph hanging at the Albert Namatjira Gallery, Alice Springs Cultural Precinct, in 2007.

The iconic dot painting style was popularized by the Papunya Tula Art Movement in the 1970s. Long used in ritual body art and sand painting, the dot style entered the wider painting world in 1971, when Aboriginal sand artists began mural painting. In response to avid interest, the painters diversified to canvases and boards. Frequently depicting abstract aerial landscapes, these paintings use dots and cross-hatching to create eye-catching patterns that additionally camouflage sacred symbols and stories. The movement is still active today and represents approximately 120 artists. 

Two more of the many important twentieth-century Aboriginal artists were Rover Thomas Joolama, known as Rover Thomas, and Emily Kngwarreye. Thomas pioneered painting with local ochres and was one of the first Aboriginal artists to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, in 1990. 

Initially a craftwork artist, Kngwarreye began painting in her eighties. A prolific painter with a constantly evolving style, she produced 8,000 paintings over eight years. The popularity of her work paved the way for a younger generation of Aboriginal artists.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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