The History of Australian Aboriginal Art

Evidence of Aboriginal culture existing in Australia dates as far back as 80,000 years ago, a time when it is thought that Aboriginal people first settled in their new homeland. The first examples of Aboriginal ideology were found more than 20,000 years ago, evidence that their way of life is one of the oldest to exist on the planet. With no written language, Aboriginal culture relied on the use of specific symbols and icons in their artwork to demonstrate culturally-important stories throughout the generations. In this article, we take a look at the history of Indigenous art in its many forms and the way in which it was successfully used by Aboriginal culture for thousands of years.

Australian Aboriginal Art

The origins of Aboriginal art

While many are familiar with Indigenous dot art, there are many more facets to Aboriginal art. With a need to pass on information important to the survival of the people – such as survival tips, knowledge related to the land they lived on and important events – art became the most effective way to ensure this. Art was also intrinsically linked with story-telling, and this remained a simple method to allow teachings to be passed down through the generations. Interestingly, the way the stories were told depended entirely on the audience. For children, these stories became simple and approachable to ensure a more educational approach. With this approach, information and morality can be combined to form digestible and memorable lessons that the children can take with them throughout their entire lives. When taught to initiated elders who were well aware of the related morality, stories took a much more complex form designed for a higher-level interpretation. The surfaces that these traditional paintings on were painted on could also vary – rock walls, ceremonial articles, such as body paint, and, perhaps most significantly for Aboriginal culture, drawn in dirt or sand to accompany songs or stories.

Modern Aboriginal art

As Aboriginal art traditionally adorned rock faces and the bodies of Aboriginal people, there are no examples of Aboriginal art in the style we’re familiar with, such as on canvases, with when it comes to art. In fact, the artwork we see today on canvas and board was only created around 50 years ago. The first Aboriginal paintings created in this way were made during the 1930s in water colour at the Hermannsburg Mission near Alice Springs. The paintings were of desert landscapes, with the most famous of these Aboriginal painters – Albert Namatjira – holding the first exhibition in Adelaide in 1937. This trend of watercolors continued up until the early 1970s artists mainly used watercolours. It was also during the 1970s that the Aboriginal art movement experienced significant momentum – when school teacher Geoffrey Bardon noticed Aboriginal men draw symbols in the sand while telling stories in Papunya, near Alice Springs, he encouraged them to start painting on canvas, and so the Aboriginal art movement was born. The rest is history!

The value of Aboriginal art

Aboriginal art has a long and interesting history, with much of it still practiced today in a traditional sense. The move to create this art on Western-style surfaces, such as canvas, has allowed a whole new audience to appreciate the beauty and cultural significance of Aboriginal art. Next time you’re at an art gallery, make sure to pay attention to some of these beautiful art paintings so you can

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