instagram pinterest youtube facebook twitter


A short history of Aboriginal Art
Australian Aboriginal Art
It is only relatively recently that Australian Aboriginal visual expression has actually been recognized as 'art'. Indeed, in some parts of the world and of Europe there is still some resistance to the notion that Aboriginal artistic expression is in fact 'art', rather than something of merely ethnographic importance.
When the British colonists arrived in Australia, they believed the Aboriginal people to be on the lowest rung of the evolutionary ladder, and they held equally demeaning views about Indigenous Australian art work and languages. But today, Indigenous Australian art has become widely recognised as the oldest continuing artistic tradition in the world.
While in fact there are many different Aboriginal languages and artistic traditions, there is a central core concept that to some extent binds all of these cultural and artistic traditions. This has been translated into English as "The Dreaming" or "The Dreamtime". 'The Dreaming' is in fact an inadequate English translation. It refers to the time of the Ancestral Heroes, and the institution of the Law, and is the central core of Indigenous religious belief. People 'own' or 'manage' Dreamings, either as an inheritance from their fathers and grandfathers, or from their mothers' side. Dreaming narratives operate at many levels. At one level they are Creation stories, the significance of which is on a par with that of Genesis in the Christian Bible. 'Dreaming' also dictates what subject matter that Aboriginal artists are permitted to paint under their Law, as well as what subject matter is prohibited to them.
Aboriginal sculpture
"Poteau Pukumani"

'Dreamings' often recount, either in visual form through the art, or through song, dance or narrative means, the heroic journeying or exploits of Dreaming Ancestors, who created all natural phenomena. Because associated Dreaming narratives have been literally planted in the ground, and relate to specific geographical areas, there is a great deal to be learned about the local Australian environments, including the local flora and fauna, natural landmarks, and the vitally important matter of the availability of permanent water, from Dreaming narratives and from the art work that accompanies these narratives.
In precontact times singing, dancing, painting, were not separate or discrete activities, but enacted as part of the total ceremonial context. Dreamings may therefore be sung, told as lengthy oral narratives, danced or painted, and the 'dot and circle' paintings from Central Australia, The Kimberley region and the Western Desert and 'rarrk' paintings from Arnhem Land are all based on Dreaming narratives that relate to highly specific physical and cultural landscapes.

It is also important to remember that there are 250 separate Aboriginal languages and cultural groups in Australia, nearly all of which have different or in some cases, slightly different words for the concept of 'The Dreaming'. Examples of these include Jukurrpa (Warlpiri), Altyerr (Eastern Anmatyerr); Ngarankarni (Ngarinyin) all of which have been translated homogenously into English as either the 'Dreaming' or 'The Dreamtime'. In fact the word 'Dreaming' is a very poor, simplistic and rough English translation of this holistic and complex concept, in spite of its being the preferred and most widely used term to describe Indigenous religion at present. The way that such English 'translations' are frequently bandied around tends to erase the complexities of the concept of the 'Dreaming', by emphasizing its putatively magical, fantastic and illusory attributes or properties, despite the fact that Dreaming is understood to be reality by Aboriginal adherents and is grounded in the earth itself.

Dreaming is considered to be ever present, evident on and in people's bodies, in their ceremonies, on and in the land, and in landforms, and in the markings used in the creation of art. All of these aspects of existence are infused and marked with Dreaming. All people, animals, life forms, landforms and other natural phenomena are manifestations of Dreaming activity, and they can move from one state to another - for example, person to animal ancestor and back to person. 'Dreaming' is not conceived as being located in an historical past (as is, say the case of the Biblical Genesis) but as an eternal process that involves the maintenance of these life-forces, symbolized as people, spirits, and as other natural species. A 'Dreaming' may be an animal, a human Ancestor, a type of flora (e.g. bush medicine vine, or bush bean tree) or a kind of 'Bush Tucker' (eg. yam, bush berries, bush tomato, bush onion) or any other part of the natural world or environment - water, or specific waterholes, stars or constellations (eg Seven Sisters, Milky Way). People paint their own Dreamings – under Indigenous Law, they may not paint that of another person or group with the rights to that Dreaming. This is in part a matter of inheritance through the kinship system but it is an extremely complex matter.

So what exactly are the origins of contemporary Indigenous Australian art? For literally thousands of years prior to colonization, the human body was used as a 'canvas' for Indigenous art. Sacred designs were painted onto the human body, or assembled on the ground to create what may be described as huge ground murals or paintings. Alternatively art would be created on cave walls, rocky outcrops or painted onto other natural "galleries" such as rocks, trees, or on other surfaces, or onto sacred objects that people would use in ceremonial contexts, including art, song and dance. Often designs were (and still are in some cases) not only sacred but secret, able to be shared or even glimpsed solely by the initiated or only by specific people of a certain gender or age or located in a particular moiety or subsection of the kinship system.

Prior to contact, fingers, twigs or small sticks were used to apply paints whether to the human body, to the ground, or to rocks, cave walls or other surfaces. The colours used in Indigenous artwork before the Anglo-European newcomers arrived in Australia were ground from natural ochres or from other natural pigments. Coloured ochres comprise fine earths and iron oxides and range in colour from very pale yellow to darker yellow and orange, through to various shades of red. In precontact times ochres were an extremely valuable item used in Indigenous trade, a practice that continues in parts of Australia to this day.
Over the years, various attempts were made by non-Indigenous people working alongside Aboriginal people to harness the creative energy that underlies Indigenous art work. For example, in the 1930s an American missionary called Wilbur Chaseling, who was based in Arnhem Land, worked with people on mazrketing their bark paintings, only with limited success. In the early 1970s the schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon was much more successful in working alongside the predominantly Pintupi-Luritja people of Papunya in the Northern Territory. This brought Indigenous Australian art to Australia's - and eventually the world's - attention, and eventually resulted in the high profile of Aboriginal art today, on a global scale.

The colonists themselves began painting almost as soon as they arrived, and brought with them their own ways of seeing the country. Artists like Von Guerard, John Glover and many others brought with them thier own landscape traditions. Equally, the British brought with them their own religion, Christianity, and in some areas Indigenous people were subject to a great deal of missionary activity and assimilatory pressure. This has resulted in certain cases in Aboriginal people borrowing from the religious and artistic traditions of the white interlopers. An excellent case in point is that of the prominent Pintupi-Pitjantjatjara artist Linda Syddick Napaljarri, who combines Dreaming imagery with Christian imagery, and even reference to contemporary movies such as the very popular E.T. As Napaljarri herself says, …I'm painting Christian way manu Jukurrpa [Dreaming] way –both together, that's how I'm painting – Jukurrpa and Wapirra-jarra.

[English translation, Christine Nicholls: "I'm painting Christian way and Jukurrpa [Dreaming] way –both together, that's how I'm painting – Dreaming and the Christian God, both together."]

  Some references:
Musée du Quai Branly, Musée des Confluences à Lyon, Musée d'Art Contemporain les Abattoirs à Toulouse, Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie de Vichy, Musée de la Musique, Museum d'histoire naturelle de Lille, Musée de Rochefort, Fondation Electricité de France, Fondation Colas, Banque Dexia ...

We are members of the Chambre Nationale des Experts Spécialisés en Objets d'Art et de Collection (C.N.E.S.)*
We are members of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d'Art
*National French Chamber of experts specialized in artworks
Comité des Galeries d'Art