SCollecting Australian Aboriginal Art — Introduction

  • Author: Adrian Newstead
  • Issue: 2

Australian Aboriginal art encompasses ethnographic objects and contemporary painting, sculpture and prints. The imagery and designs are based on mythological stories and a spiritual connection to land that has been passed down through a 40-thousand year history through the use of ancient iconography. It evokes the beauty, and spiritual significance of the artist’s homelands in the far-flung and remote regions of Australia.

As Aboriginal people now live a sedentary life the creation of these artworks has become a new form of ritual. Aboriginal artists paint for far more than pleasure or money. Their primary motivation is the meaning, knowledge and power inherent in their special connection to the land. They paint to pass on knowledge and ancient stories to the next generation. Each clan group has its own clan patterns and recognisable style. These constitute regional styles. Yet each artist’s work is individually identifiable within these conventions.

Aboriginal paintings falls generally into three major categories: images executed in natural earth pigment from the remote communities of Australia’s far north; paintings on canvas created with acrylic polymer paint from desert dwellers; and art created by Aboriginal people living within the contemporary urban mainstream.

Throughout Arnhem Land in the Top End of Australia, artists paint on bark or handmade paper with earth pigments. Their imagery includes the classic X-ray art of the Stone Country in the west, to other distinct regional styles derived from cave and ceremonial body painting across the east. In the Kimberley region of north-west Australia, ochre painted canvasses and boards, originally carried in ceremonies, have been adapted into a contemporary painting style. Throughout the Central, Eastern and Western deserts, acrylic sand paintings are derived from body painting, and ceremonial low-relief ground constructions made in the desert sand. Like Arnhem Land works, they are referred to as ‘traditional’ because they come from communities where Aboriginal people continue to practice their ancient ceremonies to this day. Aboriginal people living in the cities create art that is strongly identity based and references traditional themes, politics, or contemporary situations and issues.

In each of these regions artists also carve wooden sculpture based on these ancient stories and imagery. And, since the early 1980s, artists from all of these areas and backgrounds have been able to embrace the mediums of lithography, etching, linocut and screen-print with assistance from fine art print studios. As a result, all of these artistic styles are now represented in limited edition fine art prints.

Throughout Australia the major state art galleries and museums have developed fine collections of Aboriginal art, and these are great places to become acquainted with the many regional styles and the work of particular Aboriginal artists. There are now dozens of books on the subject covering the individual careers of ‘star’ artists, regional styles, famous collections, and landmark exhibitions staged in Australia and overseas.