In the north of Australia, Arnhem Land stretches from the Gulf of Carpentrie (in the east) to the Alligator River (in the west) on a 150,000 square-kilometer area. Its landscapes are very varied, from the limestone plateaus of the west, and their many rock paintings, to the lagoons of fresh water on the north coast, and from stone deserts to tropical forests. In this territory of rich diversity, seven great artistic communities have established themselves, very often among former missions that became urban and administrative centers. 3,000 artists work in these communities: painters but also sculptors and all sorts of craftsmen and women (weaving natural fiber for example). These communities are, in the east of Arnhem Land: Yirrkala, Elcho Island and Ngukurr (near the Roper River); in the center: Ramingining, Milingimbi and Maningrida and in the west, Gunbalanya, near the National Park of Kakadu.
It is in Arnhem Land that the oldest traces of artistic activity related to religious worship can be found. The rock paintings (representing hands, plants, animals and gods) which are so frequent in the caves and rock faces of the western limestone plateaus date back to 20,000 years whereas archaeological investigations tend to show that the first evidence of any human occupation date back to 50,000 years. Therefore, the art of Arnhem Land, very much inspired by these rock paintings, can be said to be as old as the Dreamtime itself, when Great Ancestors (the Python-Snake, the Wagilag and the Djang'kawu Sisters, the Mimi spirits, i.e. air spirits) emerged from the primeval chaos to shape the Australian land in their image and found the sacred sites and the human communities to who they passed down laws, customs and instructions as how to worship them. In disappearing, these Great Ancestors left the Aboriginals with the memory of their feats in the form of dreams, of which each tribe, each clan and each initiated member became the guardian. In their religious ceremonies, the Aboriginals used to represent the fundamental episodes of the dreams they had inherited through dances, songs but also paintings (essentially rock paintings in Arnhem Land). This tradition was carried on until the 20th century in the Kakadu region and is the reason why the art of Arnhem Land (especially in central Arnhem Land) is figurative.
At an unknown date, wall art generated paintings produced on eucalyptus bark that was flattened, pumiced, covered with coating made with orchids or tortoise eggs, and decorated with kaolin, charcoal and natural ochres. These bark paintings (the oldest ever found date back to the 1830s) have made the art of Arnhem Land famous. Besides, beyond the originality of the support, the styles are different too. These bark paintings, which are held flat on the painters' knees while they are painting them and turning their elements according to the cardinal points, combine, to different extents, figurative elements (spirits, totemic animals, flora) with geometric drawings having ritual and clan values – these streaks are called rarrk in western Arnhem Land and miny'tji or dhulang in eastern Arnhem Land. In western Arnhem Land, the figurative images are generally set against a monochrome background and the streaks are used only for the represented bodies or objects. In eastern Arnhem Land, the streaks usually cover the entire bark, so much so that all figurative elements disappear. Moreover, the painters of all the region have popularized this surprising style, called the "X-ray" style because they show the inner parts of the bodies represented (bones, intestines, eaten food), as if to reveal the innermost secrets of the mysteries painted on the bark.
Finally, it should be noted that this very original form of art has also produced, for a few years, canvas paintings, especially in Ngukurr, where the traditional motifs and techniques are combined with a palette of acrylic colors richer than that of the traditional pigments used on bark.