Aboriginal Art and Its Beginnings

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A Short Summary of Australian Aboriginal Art and Its Beginnings

The art of the Indigenous peoples of Australia is one the othe oldest art forms in the world. Examples of rock art have been discoverred in northern Australian caves which are estimated to be around 50 000 years old. In many parts of the country, especially in the Kimberley region, in Arnhem Land and in the centre of Australia many sites and historical artworks have been found. A wide range of media including bark paitnings, wood and sculptures, sand drawings, paintings on leaves and ceremonial clothing are involved in the genre of Aboriginal art.

Art has always been an integral part of  teh various Indigenous societies in Australia and is closely linked to the Jukurrpa, i.e. the Dreamtime or Creation Time. The terms Jukurrpa or Tjukurrpa are only used in Central Australia - different terms are used in other area of the the country. They donate a complex living philosophy, the foundation of Aboriginal Law and culture, influencing and determining all aspects of traditional Aboriginal life. With no written language the Australian Indigenous poeples have held onto a complex culture through an extensive network of oral histories that hold encyclopaedic kowledge which is passed down through family networks and initiation ceremonies (going through the law). It is through the act of storytelling that the Dreaming or Jukurrpa is connected to the past, present and future.

Story-telling and Jukurrpa representations are included in almost all forms of original Aboriginal artworks. Dance, music and the spoken word are all vehicles to recreate the journeys of the ancestral beings ancestors that travelled across the featureless landscape during the Dreamtime. The adventures and travels of these ancestral beings as well as the beings themsleves singing the world and all its features (animals, plant life, physical features like mountains etc) into existence provides the spiritual achor point for most Indigneous Australians.

In traditional Aboriginal society each person has one ore more Dreamings with which come certain rights and obligations to their repsective country (including land, animals, plants etc). The mythological ancestral beings, to which all Aboriginal poeple are ancestrally related are not considered "dead" in a Western sense. Rather, these ancestral Dreamtime beings are generally considered being in a state of  watchful rest protecting the now living. For Indigenous people these Dreamtime spirits are still present in the now typically resting in caves, clay-pans, water-holes, rock holes and other natural features of the physical environment. Casual regard for acient law or custom, or sacrilegious behaviour may anger the spirit of the ancestral beings in such a way that death and destruction may follow. In order to placate the ancestors, sacrilege must be punished on the instant.

Apart from story-telling, Central Australian art was traditionally used in the context of ceremonies and initiation rites. Forms of this artisitc expression include body paintings, drawings in the sand, sand sculptures, engravings on bark, rock and other media.


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Contemporary Aboriginal Art

The Beginnings of Hermannsburg and Utopia

In the mid 1930's Australian painter Rex Batterbee introduced and later mentored the young Albert Namatjira in western-style water colour landscape painting at the Hermannsburg mission in the Northern Territory. It quickly became very popular, known as the Hermannsburg School. Exhibitions in Melbourne and Adelaide were highly successful with all paintings sold out. As a result of this fame and popularity with his paintings Albert Namatjira became the first Aboriginal Australian Citizen in 1967. His life/work and contribution to Australian society as a whole helped instigate a long overdue change in the recognition of Indigenous people in Australia. Albert Namatjira is widely regarded as a representative and a pioneer for Aboriginal rights.

Another well known, modern Australian Aboriginal artist is Rover Thomas. In 1991 he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. Other now well-known artists were encouranged to paint as a result of Rover's successful role as art ambassador and representative of Australia's Indigenous people. Some of the other artists that took up painting or intensified their efforts include Queenie KcKenzie from the East Kinberley region. Rover Thomas also influenced the works of Freddy Timms and Paddy Bedford.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the work of legendary Aboriginal Utopia artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye became known and quickly increasingly popular. Emily was the aunt of the famous Petyarre sisters Gloria, Kathleen, Myrtle and Violet and great autn to Gracie Morton Pwerle. Before Emily started to paint with acrylic paint on canvas/linen she had been involved in craftwork. Emily only started her painting career at a later stage in her life (when she was in her 80s). Consequently, she painted only for a number of years towards the end of her life. Emily's styles have been considered as a mixture of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary Australian Aboriginal ways of painting. In the short time Emily worked with acrylic paints, cotton canvas and Belgian linen she changed her styles regularly.

Today, Emily Kame Kngwarreye is regarded as one of the most influential and greatest Aboriginal artists of all time. A fine example of her work can be admired at Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs. Mbantua purchased this piece (titled "The Earths Creation") for just over AU$1,000.000.


The Papunya Art Movement / Papunya Tula

In the early part of the 1970s a young arts teacher named Geoffrey Bardon worked as a class art teacher at the Papunya school. He shared his interest in art and painting with the local Aboriginal men who worked at the Papunya Aboriginal Community at the time. At first these artists painted motifs like ants and birds in a realistic style similar to the European manner. It is said that they were not entirely satisfied with their artistic endeavours and went on to paint over the realistic motifs, gradually replacing those with bars or flashes and decorating them with black dotting. This sparked great interest not only in Geoffrey Bardon but in other Aboriginal men at Papunya. Gradually more and more locals became interested in taking to paint and brush resulting in numerous individual art projects. The scarcity of art materials at the time sparked the rejuvenation of old hardboards, cardboard and disgarded building materials which were used as surfaces to paint on.

It was in the context of painting the now famous Papunya School Mural when many of the male artists who where working on the mural became very personally involved with the project. This involvement lead to a whole process of rediscovery of their (artistic) heritage. The men's seriousness, enthusiasm and determination to depict their "Dreamings" or "Stories" lead Bardon to procure some art materials suited for painting. Slowly, stylized patterns and dot-work started to emerge marking the Beginning of the Aboriginal Art Movement as we know it.

Since the paintings depicted abstract signs and symbols to tell a story some form of interpretation of the artworks to potential buyers was needed. Geoffrey Bardon helped in this process as a cultural broker of sorts. Bardon explained the meanings (known to him) behind the paintings to the public and assisted the artists by communicating to them what was most appealing to prospective buyers. he also gave the artists advice and suggestions as to the styles and colours that were favourable but was always conscious not to intrude his own opinions.

Among the Papunya painters at the time during Bardon's stay at Papunya were Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Jonny Warangkula, Clifford Possum and Shorty Lungkata, to name but a few. Several groups of men from different homeland of the area around Papunya came together as one painting group. They formed their own company with the name Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Much of the Aboriginal art on display in galleries and tourist shops trace back to this style developed at Papunya.


The Yuendumu Aboriginal settlement is located some 300ks northwest of Alice Springs in teh Tanami Desert. The community is home to the Warlpiri people. Its remoteness helped the Warlpiri maintain their strong social and spiritual traditions, which are the inspiration for the artistic expression of the Yuendumu community.

In the early 1980s the presence of non indigenous settlers encouraged Indigenous self-determination through various initiativess. Well-meaning individuals living at Yuendumu helped the Warlpiri to pursue activities to mitigate decades of oppressive colonisation and governmental neglect. Many of the artists at Yuendumu became increasingly aware of the success of Papunya Tula and watched from the sidelines. Some time later the "Yunedumu equivalent" of Papunya Tula was established in the form of the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association. This organisation became increasingly important in facilitating museum-quality works and achieving optimum economic outcome for the artists.

There will be more information added at a later stage.





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