Within Australian First Nations culture, art and storytelling are very closely linked. Every piece of art tells a story, some are complex stories of the Dreaming and others are special representations of country. Traditional Indigenous culture had no written language as such, art was one the key ways in which knowledge and history would be passed onto future generations. Contemporary Indigenous art has embraced a whole range of new, vibrant colours that would never have been used in traditional artworks. Although many Indigenous artworks feature country, we may not view many of the intense colours used as being “realistic”. However, the diversity of colours found in nature is truly remarkable and Indigenous artists intuitively understand how to use these colours in their artworks. Australian Indigenous art is widely admired because it captures the essence and colours of country as well as thousands of years of knowledge, wisdom and stories (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2020).
Each Indigenous community uses a unique colour palette that is decided upon collectively. Painting styles are developed in a similar way through group decision making and innovation. The system is completely unlike western art which is almost entirely focussed upon the individual and their talents. Some communities will stick to traditional colour palettes which include the natural colours of ochres, while other groups will permit their members to work with a broader palette. It was in the 1970’s the contemporary Aboriginal art began to emerge. New colours were introduced and new painting styles created. The availability of colour charts has since given groups far more choice, even some senior artists have embraced these new colours (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2020).
Winpurpurla by Christine Yukenbarri. Image sourced from Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2020.
When looking at many individual art centres and communities you can see incredible change and innovation particularly within the last 10 years. One such community is Balgo located in Western Australia at the meeting of the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts. The early paintings from Balgo featured very simple colour palettes. They used a lot of black and brown with a little yellow and white for highlights. Slowly the community decided to embrace shades of red, purple and blue and within a 10 year period the community's artworks had transformed (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2020). You can check some incredible artworks from the Balgo region here.
“The Contemporary Aboriginal Art movement drew worldwide attention because many Indigenous people possessed an extraordinary talent for composition, colour and visual storytelling.” - Japingka Aboriginal Art
“After the rain” by Allery Sandy. Image sourced from Cossack Art Awards, 2020.
For Indigenous artists choosing colours requires the approval of their community as well as a depth of knowledge of country and its colours. Allery Sandy, a Yindjibarndi woman spent a year studying her country and the colours within it before she started painting (ABC News, 2020). Sandy says:
"It took me a year to mix my colours and to actually study the land and see the colours within the country itself." – Allery Sandy
It was in 1995 when she saw Ngarluma country from the air for the first time that she realised she wanted to paint country on canvas. Indigenous artists commonly paint country from an aerial perspective, often as a way of creating a map (ABC News, 2020).
Allery Sandy uses a unique mix of colours and texture to depict vast landscapes, rivers and distinctive changes in vegetation. Her use of colour captures the essence and patterns of her beautiful country (ABC News, 2020).
An aerial view of river systems near Karratha airport, Pilbara WA. Image sourced from ABC news, 2020.
Our vast Australian landscape is many things; it is expansive and full of many varied environments and inhabitants, all of which feature rich colours and patterns. Even Australia’s most harsh pieces of country are full of colour and life, such as the red dirt of Uluru and the lush oasis of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park Gorge (ABC News, 2020).
Australia’s red centre. Image sourced from Getty Images, 2020.
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. Image sourced from Outback Queensland, 2020.
Everywhere you look there are colours, colours unique to our country and oceans. This is what shines through in the colour palettes that they create. Some of the most incredible blues are seen in Australian reefs, specifically the Great Barrier Reef. The varying levels of water create a dazzling array of colour and patterns. Indigenous artists have incredibly strong connections to their country and these environments. Through colour palettes they draw on the richness of nature that surrounds them. First Nations artists recognise the changing of colours in our ever evolving environment and hold a deep understanding of light and changing seasons.
Great Barrier Reef. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons, 2020.
Through the evolution of Indigenous art we can see that the artist's works have always been strongly connected to country, its beautiful colours, patterns and formations. As we move through our day to day lives, it can be easy to forget about the depth of beauty and colour that can be found in nature.
Here at Yarn, many of our artists focus upon sharing the beauty and stories of nature through their artworks. One such artists is Holly Sanders a Bundjaung woman who focuses upon painting many of the plants and patterns of her saltwater country. You can view her artworks here.