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Australia’s Aboriginal Art 101

The modern day Aboriginal Australian people are the descendants of the first native Australians from as far back as 50,000 years ago. These indigenous people have lived in harmony with the land for thousands of years, understanding and revering how it functions and passing down important cultural knowledge from generation to generation.

From dot paintings and ancient rock art to watercolours, sculptures and new media, Australia’s Aboriginal art is rich with culture, tradition and style. Aboriginal art is the oldest ongoing art tradition on the planet. Some of the original forms of Aboriginal art date back more than 30,000 years. These early art forms include ground designs, rock carving and even body painting. Whether you’re up for a day out to explore Aussie culture, or you’re planning a stay in a holiday accommodation, it’s worth your while to take in some of our native art.

The Aboriginals used the available materials to create wood carvings, rock carvings, sand painting and paintings on leaves. These works not only depicted surroundings, but also showed scenes from the dream world and native mythology.

Modern Aboriginal artwork reflects the diversity and richness of the indigenous cultures. As well as the traditional media of rocks, sand and leaves, Aboriginals have begun to incorporate glassware, ceramics, printmaking and canvas. Their artwork is generally abstract, colorful and rich with symbols and meaning.

How Do You Say “Art?”

It is interesting to note that there is no word for “art” in the Aboriginal languages. To many archeologists, this fact implies that art was so central to daily life that it didn’t have the distinction that our modern cultures give it. Visual images were a way of transferring knowledge to others and between generations.

Every young person within the community would learn to draw, paint and weave from an early age and they would be able to interpret the symbols and signs within any piece of artwork created by another in the community.

Unfortunately, when the British began to settle Australia over 230 years ago, they made the false assumption that Aboriginal communities had nothing in the way of culture or artistry. Of course, these British settlers were looking for a framed painting or a sculpture on a pedestal as they were used to back home and didn’t recognize the different types of art that the Aboriginal people were creating. Also, many of the artworks were created for sacred Aboriginal religious ceremonies that were not open to the public.

Dot Paintings: An Ancient Tradition Made New Again

Throughout history, Aboriginal people drew depictions of dreams and visions into the desert sand. These works of art were impermanent as they were always, sooner or later, blown away by the wind. During the early 1970s, an art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon encouraged the Aboriginal people who lived northwest of Alice Springs to put their dreams onto canvas.

This is where the art of dot painting originated. These stunning dot paintings consist of various natural colors including brown for the soil, yellow for the sun, red for the desert sand and white for the clouds. They depict nature and animals as well as the “dream time.”

Learn More About Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery

One of the best places to see these colorful and evocative works of art is at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which contains more than 7,500 examples of paintings and artifacts from Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, including many examples of 1970s dot paintings. The museum is organized by geographic regions as well as by different forms and aspects of indigenous art. One of the advantages to viewing artwork at the National Gallery of Australia is that many of the works are lit from above by natural daylight. This makes the viewing experience more accurate as this would have been the light that the original works were created in.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about our country’s cultural and artistic history through Aboriginal artwork.

Rock Painting Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons by Paul Mannix

Dot Painting Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons by pikous

About the Author: Marissa Langley is a professional art historian and freelance writer based in Canberra.

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