Aboriginal Art PDF Print E-mail

Australian Aboriginal Art

It is generally thought the Aborigines have been living on the Australian continent for the last 30,000 to 50,000 years. They were taught from an early age that they belonged to the land and must respect tribal boundaries.

Sacred sites were declared as they were associated with the Dreamtime, the time of creation; which was represented in their rock and bark paintings dating back 4,000 years depicting spiritual, animal, plant and human forms. Powerful spirits, Ancestral Beings, that formed the land, life and nature.

Even though there were approximately 600 tribes who rarely met, other than special religious ceremonies and spoke different languages and dialects their depiction of the Dreamtime throughout Australia showed their unification. It has been claimed that Australian Aboriginal art is the oldest living art tradition in the world.

Northern Australian style is predominantly painted in an “X-ray” style art, where the internal organs of animals are depicted. This has been categorised as a naturalistic style. Central Australian paintings take on a more abstract style, originating from sacred designs used in ceremonies. Such as body painting in dance ceremonies (dots), ground paintings, carved sacred stones, which were then transferred to canvas with the arrival of white people.

The Dreamtime is the main inspiration for much of the Aboriginal art. The Dreamtime taught the people their moral laws, beliefs, ceremonies through legends, myths, magic, dance, painting and song. This was passed on from generation to generation through story telling.


Contemporary Aboriginal art is a vital part of the world’s oldest continuous cultural tradition. It is also one of the most brilliant and exciting areas of modern art. It has received world recognition for its importance and individuality. Today Aboriginal artworks are valued exhibits in the largest art galleries of the world.

Contemporary Aboriginal artists have adapted from using earth ochres to modern media and work with acrylic paints on canvas, paper and other surfaces, however the subject used of the Aboriginal Dreamtime and techniques still remains very much similar. Today’s artists have there own personal style and self expression, more than mere traditional retelling of the story.

The contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement began in the early 1970s and since then all large art museums and galleries within Australia have built up their collection and display works within the permanent collection.


The style of individual contemporary artists is difficult to classify into one category.
Two main directions have emerged:
Desert Art – dots, lines, monochrome areas, or multi-layering/cross hatching
Urban Art – they do not reflect past traditions, but rather present culture and ideas,
they are not sacred/religious objects.

The essential character of the art is Spiritual and Symbolic, maps of mythical relationships between different features of the landscape inspired by the symbols of the Dreaming. The work can be very formal, highly stylised detailed compositions of dotted structure or lines.

X-Ray style- images of fresh water fauna, showing internal anatomy appeared in the
last 3,000 years

Cross Hatching or ‘rarrk’ - elaborate cross-hatched designs are inspired from the body painting designs used ceremonies such as initiations of young boys, funerals and at other more ‘secret' occasions. The artists use long, human hair brushes consisting of only a few strands. These loaded with ochre or acrylic paint, are laid on the canvas or paper and drawn away from the body to make the long fine lines of the cross-hatched clan patterns. These can be overlayed in different colours or shades and create a shimmering effect. “The colours hold the power of the land. The stripes the power.” The Aborigines in the top end of the North Territory, Arnhem Land use this style.

Dots –traditionally used in ceremonial sand and body decoration were transferred to canvas in 1970 in a settlement within Central Australia at Papunya west of Alice Springs with the encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon. It created a new Aboriginal art movement.



Rainbow Serpent - a large snake-like creature whose Dreaming track is always associated with watercourses, such as billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons. It is the protector of the land, its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow Serpent can also be a destructive force if it is not properly respected. It is a constant theme in Aboriginal painting and has been found in rock art up to 6,000 years old. It is a powerful symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature. Most paintings of Rainbow Serpents tell the story of the creation of the landscape particular to an artist’s birthplace. It is widely represented spirit of aboriginal mythology. It is know
as Ngalyod.

Goannas – good bush tucker, plentiful food supply.

Dolphins – in aboriginal culture they are often associated with the human spirit.

Turtles – like the journey, the nesting turtle makes to lay its eggs in the sand, the road of mother/parenthood is not always easy.

Kangaroos – are often seen as symbols for warriors. This represents strength of the male, the hunter, protector and provider.

Echidnas – they lay eggs and suckle their young. This represents the feminine aspect of the family. The female is the life giver, represented by the eggs inside the Echidna and the nurturer. The round shape of the echidna symbolises fertility. Two echidnas in the design represent unity and togetherness.

Crocodiles – Baru the Crocodile who is associated with fire. Yirritja fire designs are compositions of diamonds – symbolic of the cracked pattern burned into crocodile skin in the creation era. The interaction of dangerous creatures like crocodiles and stingrays, each of which can inflict pain, is also a metaphor for the pain involved in initiation and ‘men’s business’ or ‘payback’


Mimi Spirits – In western Arnhem Land, Aborigines claim that their Mimi Art as the oldest rock art. Aborigines maintain that the Mimi people (the Dreaming Ancestors) inhabited the land before the Rainbow Serpent. After they taught the Aborigines how to paint, hunt, sing dance and talk they then became a spirit being. The spirit depicted is believed to be a mischievous spirit, they disappear into the rocky escarpments and sometimes leave their shadows behind, which appear as paintings. Some say they are so thin and frail they only come out at night and only when there is no wind as they may be blown away. They are characterised as graceful, elegant, elongated figures in action – fighting, running, dancing, leaping or hunting.

Mermaid Spirits – an ancient water spirit that looks like a young woman with a fish’s tail and long hair resembling seaweed. Some say they grow legs at night to walk on land, or even take the form of a dragonfly. They are called Yawkyawk mermaids. They are associated with the Rainbow Serpent as they share the same sacred waterholes. There is a belief that the Rainbow Serpent protects these mermaids, who helped create the waters and brings rain. Yawkyawks have the power to give life, it is said being near one of their water holes can make a woman pregnant. Yawkyawk is the name given to in Northern Australia, other regions use different names.


The expression ‘Dreamtime’ is most often used to refer to the ‘time before time’ or ‘the time of the creation of all things’ while ‘Dreaming’ is often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. However many indigenous Australians also refer to the creation time as ‘The Dreaming’.

The Dreamtime goes on as the ‘Dreaming’ in the spiritual lives of the Australian Aboriginal people today. Their spirituality mainly derives from the stories of the Dreaming. The aborigines were very spiritual people before the arrival white man.

“The Dreaming means our identity as people. The cultural teaching and everything, that’s part of our lives here, you know?…..it’s the understanding of what we have around us.” (Merv Penrith, Elder, Wallaga Lake 1996.)

Each tribe has it’s individual Dreamtime although some of the legends overlap. Most ‘Dreamtime’ originates with the Giant Dog or the Giant Snake and each is unique and colourful in its explanation.

The Dreaming sets out the structures of society, the rules for social behavior and the ceremonies performed in order to maintain the life of the land. In essence, the Dreaming comes from the land. In aboriginal society people did not own the land it was part of them and it was their duty to respect and look after mother earth.

The Dreaming did not end with the arrival of the Europeans but simply entered a new phase. It is a powerful force that must be maintained and cared for.