Indigenous Women in Art

Indigenous women have a huge impact on Australian contemporary art. Their intuitive use of colour, shape and incredible storytelling abilities have awed art lovers nationally and internationally. The modern Indigenous art movement has empowered these women by providing a way for them to share stories and once again connect with country and culture. Art serves a form of self expression, healing and cultural continuation. Through art women are able to pass on knowledge and wisdom to future generations. For many Indigenous women art gives them economic freedom as well as freedom within society.

Artwork by Therese Ryder (Ltyentye Apurte, Central Australia). Image sourced from Aboriginal Art Store.

Within traditional Indigenous society every member of a tribe has responsibilities and roles, communication and social activity are established through an intricate set of laws based on gender, age and family connections. Female and Male ancestral figures play a key role in Dreamtime stories and are used as guides for roles and relationships. Traditionally women are carers of children and the food gatherers, collecting vegetables, fruit, seeds, small insects and larvae. Gathering food is based on the women's intimate knowledge of their country, learnt through Dreamtime stories. As such many women artists paint stories associated with foraging for food (Central Art, 2020). Traditionally this is done through the use of iconography and some modern paintings feature more literal interpretations. Traditionally art reflects daily life and important Dreamtime stories that are passed from one generation to the next. Many artists like to focus on a particular Dreamtime story and depict the many different parts of it set in different significant locations.

Currently Indigenous women are one of the most marginalised groups in Australia. Poverty, domestic violence, poor access to healthcare, education, employment , opportunities and other necessary resources are serious issues for many Indigenous women and their communities. It began with colonial governance which ripped Indigenous people from their country and traditional way of life through rigid systems of segregation. The laws controlled their lives: who they associated with, where they could live, where they could work, earnings, property and family life. There were many specific gendered sanctions placed upon women, they controlled Indigenous women’s choice of marriage and sexual partner and forcibly removed their children. The brutal treatment had a terrible impact on women and continues through intergenerational trauma, where the experiences are passed through the generations (Phillips, 2019). Without the opportunity to heal from trauma Indigenous women will continue to live in a state of ongoing distress. Through art women are able to express this trauma, share cultural knowledge and gain the recognition they deserve. Art Centres have helped tackle some of the many issues Indigenous women in remote communities face by providing support, economic opportunities and the chance to share their stories with the world.

Martha MacDonald Napaltjarri painting in Papunya. Image sourced from ABC News.

The modern Indigenous art movement began in the 1970’s in Papunya where desert artists began to paint with acrylic paints and new colours. These new artistic styles spread and remote art centres began to emerge. Indigenous women were a key part of this movement and were instrumental in the development of new art centres. It was during the 1950s that nuns in Northern Australia began to allow Indigenous women to create their own textiles. With the opening of art centres new textile techniques were introduced and the vibrant designs of the Indigenous artists captured attention nationally and internationally. One of the key textile techniques adopted by Indigenous communities is Batik. The technique was first introduced to the Ernabella Indigenous arts community in the 1970s. Soon this special technique spread to many neighbouring communities. Textiles have allowed women through their unique skills to gain influence within their communities and also capture the attention of the wider Australian population (Owen, 2020).

Printing, Babbarra Designs. Image sourced from Babbarra Women’s Centre.

Art Centres have been the driving force behind the modern art movement and many focus on supporting Indigenous women. One such centre is Babbarra Women's Centre, they support the lives of women in the community of Maningrida and surrounding homelands. The centre enables Indigenous women to develop enterprises that support sustainable livelihoods. Babbarra Designs is their key enterprise through which they create incredible textiles and garments. They have a textile workshop where the women specialise in hand-painted fabric designs and sewing. Babbarra is a centre led by women for women, a place where Indigenous women can feel strong and empowered.

To conclude this article we leave you with some homework a list of some of the most remarkable modern Indigenous women artists. Take a look at some of their beautiful artworks and stories.

Emily Kame Kngwarrye 
Dorothy Robinson Napangardi 
Eubena Yupinya Nampitjin  
Sally Gabori 
Gulumbu Yunupingu 
Minnie Pwerle 
Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi