A Guide to Aboriginal Art

‘Fishtraps’ by Dorothy Gabori Mornington Island Arts

‘Fishtraps’ by Dorothy Gabori for Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide, 2020. Courtesy of Mornington Island Arts, 2020.

1.  Aboriginal people are diverse and so is their art

Australia is home to a diverse range of First Nations languages. Before colonisation, over 250 Aboriginal languages and 800 dialects were spoken in Australia. Unfortunately, a large number of them have been lost, and many are endangered due to speakers being forbidden to use their native tongue during the Stolen Generation period and some passing away before language can even be taught to the next generation. Language plays a significant part within Indigenous communities; and it is how they have kept knowledge of culture and country alive for millennia without a formal written language (NAA, 2021).

As we can see, Indigenous Australian people are diverse, and so are their artistic styles and practices. Often, the first thing that comes to mind about Aboriginal art are dot paintings, yet this is not the only artistic style. Across the nation, there is an incredible diversity of artistic styles, unique to certain tribes and regions, each with their own special stories to tell. For example, the Indigenous peoples of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory don’t use the dotting technique, they use the rarrk (cross-hatching) technique as it has been part of their culture and communities for millennia. This art style, also known as ‘x-ray’ art originated as rock art and bark paintings and depicts humans and animals in an anatomical way (Invaluable. 2020).


Edward Blitner’s acrylic on canvas ‘Yingana and Ngalyod, Rainbow Serpents.’ Courtesy of Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2022.

2. Symbolism and iconography are an integral part of Aboriginal art

Without a written language, Aboriginal people have passed on the stories and knowledge from their ancestors for thousands of years to the younger generations through symbolism and iconography. The exact meaning and significance of particular Aboriginal symbols and icons varies from region to region, depending on language groups and family clans. For example, throughout Arnhem Land and in the far northern NT, many clans have their own ceremonial patterns, which are made up of fine lines drawn in specific ochre colours to represent elements such as fire and water. Aboriginal artists also use different combinations of symbols in their works to tell a particular story, often about the Dreaming or their ancestral lands (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021).

Aboriginal artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painting with acrylic

Aboriginal artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painting with acrylic. Courtesy of Invaluable, 2018.

3. Indigenous Australian artists use a range of artistic mediums

The earliest known permanent form of Aboriginal art is in the form of rock paintings and carving, often depicting animal totems, significant ceremonies or creation stories. Bark painting is another popular art form, originally intended as temporary pieces for instructional and ceremonial purposes. In the 1980s, the Western world declared bark painting as ‘fine art’ and the surviving pieces were heavily sought after and preserved (Kate Owen Gallery, 2022).

Painting with natural pigments such as charcoal and ochre, has a history as long as Aboriginal rock art, which has been around for thousands of years. However, Aboriginal people have only been introduced to Western painting mediums since the 1930s by missionaries and non Indigenous Australians that visited remote Indigenous communities. These mediums of watercolour and acrylic paints provided Aboriginal artists with a more permanent method of expressing their connection to Country, ancestry and Dreaming stories (Rebecca Hossack, 2020).  

Traditional ochre paint makingTraditional ochre paint making. Courtesy of Travel Northern Territory, 2022.

Aboriginal people also have an incredibly rich history of fibre crafts. Considered as ‘women’s business,’ fibre crafts are traditionally made from different grasses or animal hair spun into long threads of yarn. Indigenous women would weave dilly bags, baskets, floor mats, fishnets and wall hangings out of the naturally dyed fibres for both ceremonial rituals and daily life. In remote Indigenous communities, women still produce these artefacts for everyday use, whereas in urban communities, traditional fibre crafts are considered more of an aesthetic practice and form of visual storytelling (ADC, 2019).

4. Storytelling through art is central to Aboriginal culture

Storytelling is the beating heart of Aboriginal culture, as it is the primary way in which their history has been recorded. For millennia, First Nations’ history, educational stories, and the stories of country, creation and tradition have been passed down through generations (QCAA, 2018). It is the role of traditional owners within communities to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generations through storytelling and sharing traditional knowledge.

Some stories are mythical or sacred, some are pedagogical tools used to teach stories about life, and some serve as sources of strength and spirituality. The life lessons taught through these stories provide an essential way of young people being able to make sense of the world and establish personal values, relationships and cultural beliefs. Today, the practice of storytelling sustains communities, validates experiences, nurtures relationships and serves as a form of important cultural continuation for Australian Aboriginal people (Iseke, 2013).

5. Dreamtime stories are a common theme in Aboriginal artwork

The Dreaming is First Nations peoples' understanding of the world around them and its creation. Dreamtime stories are closely connected to a specific country and nation, and often teach rules for living such as social regulations, ethics and morality as well as ceremonial and environmental practices.

Dreamtime stories depicted in Aboriginal art revolve around the ancestral beings who took on many forms, including animals, plants, people and landscape features. Not all paintings of Dreamtime stories are appropriate for the public to see as some are considered sacred as they are reserved for initiated members of a community (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021). 

6. Aboriginal art is shown in both museums and art galleries

“Marking the Infinite” exhibition at Newcom Art Museum, Louisiana, USA

“Marking the Infinite” exhibition at Newcom Art Museum, Louisiana, USA. Courtesy Newcomb Art Museum, 2019.

Indigenous Australian culture is the longest surviving culture known to humanity, with paintings rich in thousands of years of cultural, spiritual and moral teachings, as well as practical skills for survival. Thus, Australian Aboriginal art has both anthropological and artistic merit, deeming it worthy of belonging to both art galleries and museums around the world.

It is important to note that Indigenous artists have only allowed the world to view their sacred art in permanent form on canvas since the 1930s, so First Nations art is also considered one of the newest art movements in the world of contemporary art. This means that even works painted in recent times can equally qualify for places in a modern art gallery or museum.

The contemporary Aboriginal Art movement has become admired both nationally and internationally over the past few decades due to the artists' extraordinary talent for composition, visual storytelling and ability to capture the essence of the colours and shapes of country. In saying that, the highest priced Aboriginal artworks purchased so far were painted by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri for his work 'Warlugulong,' which sold in 2007 to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) for a whopping sum of $2.4 million dollars! Emily Kame Kngwarreye also succeeded the record for an artwork painted by an Australian female artist with her work 'Earth's Creation' selling for $2.1 million in 2017 (Kate Owen Gallery, 2021).

7. The oldest Indigenous artwork to date is a rock painting of a kangaroo, dating 17,3000 years old


17,300-year-old kangaroo rock painting

A montage of photographs of the 17,300-year-old kangaroo rock painting (left) and an illustration of the artwork (right) by geochronologist Damien Finch. Courtesy of BBC, 2021.

Last February, the BBC announced that Australian scientists have discovered Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal rock art, which is a painting of a kangaroo, dated at 17,300 years old! The incredible rock painting of the kangaroo measures an incredible 2m and was painted in red ochre on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.  Dr Damien Finch, a geochronologist from the University of Melbourne, told the BBC that the researchers radiocarbon-dated three wasp nests underneath the painting and three nests above it to determine the date of the painting (BBC, 2021).

8. Indigenous Art Centres are the lifeblood of remote communities

Remote Indigenous Art Centres form a crucial part of many Indigenous communities. They provide remote communities with viable economic prospects and opportunities to showcase their unique artistic talents. There are over 90 Art Centres spread all across Australia, which act as social hubs, art schools, cultural strongholds, and as a central place for people to gather and create. They connect aboriginal artists with galleries, dealers and potential buyers nationally and internationally. They are the lifeblood of these remote communities  (Owen, 2020).