The Contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement

Aboriginal Art is inspired by a cultural tradition that goes back at least 40,000 years.  Australian Aboriginal people have always painted designs, sometimes on rocks or bark, but mostly on their bodies or in the sand for ceremonial purposes. There was no written language so to pass on their cultural traditions and Dreamtime stories they depended upon a rich oral tradition of songs, stories and paintings. Many paintings tell (and sing) the artist’s Dreamtime stories.

The word ‘art or artist’ does not exist in any of the many Aboriginal languages. The western concept of “art” was unknown to the Aboriginal people until they came into contact with white settlers.  The contemporary Aboriginal art movement as we know it today has a history of around 40 years.

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a young schoolteacher, arrived in Papunya, a remote settlement in the desert west of Alice Springs. This community and others like it were established by the Australian Government as part of its misguided assimilation policy. Bardon watched the men making symbols in the sand. After The men started to trust him, he gave them boards and paint to put their images onto.  Bardon began selling these early art works in Alice Springs and shortly after helped to establish the first Aboriginal owned art cooperative – Papunya Tula Artists. 

When the first paintings were completed the permanency of the works became apparent to the artists. Many of the images and symbols in these paintings were sacred and not for public viewing. To address this problem the men agreed on images and symbols that could be seen by any one and fine dotting was used to cover and hide the images that could not be seen. Some argue that this is how the ‘dotting’ in contemporary Aboriginal art began.

Today there are several thousand practicing Aboriginal artists in Australia and more than 50 art cooperatives have been established. Some are urban, but many of the artists live in incredibly remote communities in the Central and Western Desert and in the far north and west of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.

To read more about Aboriginal Art and its development the following are excellent resources:

Bardon, Geoffrey and Bardon James (2004) A Place Made After the Story – The Beginnings of theWestern Desert Painting Movement.  Miegunyah Press.

McCulloch, Susan and Emily (1999), Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the Complete Guide, McCulloch Childs, McCulloch and McCulloch Australian Art Books,

Johnson, Vivien (2010), Once Upon a Time in Papunya, A New South Book,