Aboriginal art is one of the oldest and richest traditions on Earth. Contemporary Indigenous art is innovative, sophisticated and diverse, often exploring the beauty and complexity of the artist’s culture and spiritual heritage. Learn more about Aboriginal art with these 10 facts.
1. Aboriginal art is the oldest art tradition in the world
Australian Aborignial art and culture is the oldest continuing tradition in the world. Parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory are home to Aborginal artworks dating back 30,000 to 60,000 years.
While much of Aboriginal art is connected to ancient traditions and belief systems, artworks that are produced today are contemporary works of art and an important contribution to the modern art world.
2. Tribes have distinct styles and techniques
There are currently around 120 distinct Indigenous language groups across Australia, although there used to be over 250 languages and 500 dialects. Each group has their own traditions, belief systems and artistic history.
Many websites about Aboriginal art provide information that oversimplifies the complexity and diversity of Australian Indigenous art. You will find a huge variety of artistic styles, techniques, colour palettes and mediums across different parts of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands.
3. Not all artists do dot paintings
For many people, when they think about Aboriginal art, they think of dot paintings. Dotting techniques have been used for hundreds of years in various parts of Australia, including the western and central desert regions.
In the 1970’s some artists used a dotting technique to disguise sacred or secret information in their artworks.
However, not all cultural groups use the dotting technique and not all Aboriginal art contains dots. You will find artworks of all different styles and mediums, many of which you would not be able to recognise that it was Indigenous art just by looking at it.
4. A lot of Aboriginal art is story-based
Having no written language, visual art – as well as music and dance – has been used to pass down stories and knowledge to the next generation.
The Dreaming is a concept that refers to the spiritual beliefs, moral codes, cultural knowledge and creation stories of Indigenous people. There is a huge diversity in stories and beliefs across the different cultural groups and often these are depicted in artworks.
5. Artists need permission to paint certain stories
Much of the information in Dreamtime stories is considered sacred and not all stories are allowed to be painted. Before an artist can paint particular stories, they need permission from their group. Artists can only paint stories that come from their particular group or family line.
Non-indigenous artists should not use Aboriginal symbols in their own artwork as it is considered cultural appropriation and disrespectful to the true meanings of the symbols.
6. Symbols are used to convey meaning
Many Aboriginal artworks contain symbols. For example, a symbol that is commonly taught to children in school is an upside-down U which represents a person.
However, it is important to remember that every artwork is unique and a definitive list of symbols is not an accurate representation of the complexity you will find in Aboriginal art.
Artists may use the same symbol to mean different things, or they may use one symbol with several layers of meaning. Sometimes artists will provide an interpretation of their artwork.
7. Different groups may use different colour palettes
Traditionally, artworks were created with natural pigments sourced from the local area such as ochres, clay and charcoal. In many desert communities, the colour palette used in artworks can help identify where a piece comes from. Contemporary artworks made today may use a huge variety of colours and mediums.
8. A lot of Aboriginal art explores “Country”
In Indigenous Australian culture, connection to Country – the land, sky, sea and everything contained within those spaces – is very important.
Many artists explore their relationship to Country through artworks, for example by representing features in the landscape or raising awareness about dispossession and traditional ownership. Some artists create aerial paintings or maps of their local area.
9. Aboriginal art is diverse
Just as there is a huge diversity of Aboriginal people and cultures within Australia, the artwork created by Aboriginal people is also very diverse.
Any artwork by an Indigenous person is considered Indigenous art. You will find dot paintings and depictions of landscapes as well as paintings on bark, photography, illustration, graphic art, textiles, sculptures and more.
Contemporary Aboriginal art is always evolving and new techniques and media are being used in innovative ways all the time.
10. Selling art is the main income for many communities
Creating and selling artworks has become an important source of income for many people, especially those living in remote areas.
Many remote artists sell their works through community-based organisations called Art Centres which help manage the marketing and sales of the art.
When purchasing Aboriginal art, it’s important to buy authentic artworks so that the profits go to the artist and their family. Doing so is not only respectful, but will help ensure artists can keep making works long into the future.
To protect an artwork that you have purchased, it is best to get it framed by professional photo framers who use art gallery grade techniques.