Indigenous Australian art is the world’s longest unbroken art tradition. It is used to record events, teach, communicate, and to express culture and identity. It also provides us with a record of the long and rich history of our nation, as well as the many interactions and experiences of Indigenous Australians over the years. By protecting and investing in Indigenous art we protect our cultural heritage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists continue to use a range of materials. These include traditional media such as rock art, rock carving, bark painting, wood carving, sculpting, ceremonial clothing, weaving, body art and storytelling. Modern mediums are also frequently used today, such as painting on paper or canvas, digital media and performance.
Symbols and styles vary greatly across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and are sometimes highly personal. For instance, body art often indicates facts about the wearer, including their age, social status, role and totemic responsibilities. As an important aspect of traditional ceremonies and dance, body art also has significant spiritual meaning. It can represent a person’s relationship with Country, ancestors, animals and nature more broadly.
The history of Indigenous Australian art
Indigenous Australian art is thousands of years old, the oldest of which have not yet been dated. One of the oldest examples of art in the world is a rock art fragment found in the Nawarla Gabarnmang shelter in the Northern Territory. It had fallen from the ceiling of the shelter and become buried in the cave, where hundreds of paintings overlap across the ceiling and walls. Charcoal on the back of the painted rock was identified as coming from later nearby campfires. Scientists were able to accurately date the charcoal as 28,000 years old using radiocarbon dating, indicating that the fragment and its painting must be at least that old - if not older!
By studying Indigenous art we can find out about the many encounters Indigenous nations had throughout history, both before and after the Endeavour voyage.
For instance, we now know that some of the earliest visitors to Australia were the Makassar, from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Analysis of Indigenous art in Arnhem Land suggests that the Makassar were trading with Indigenous Australians from as early as the mid-1600s, and their visits were well established by the early 1700s.
- Want to know more? Read ‘On the Rocks: ships at Aboriginal rock sites’ published by the Australian National Maritime Museum
Indigenous art today
In the 1930s, Albert Namatjira, a Western Aranda (Arrernte) man, became the first artistic Aboriginal household name. He changed the face of Australia’s landscape art through his watercolour paintings of Central Australia from the late 1930s to the 1950s.
Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is generally considered to have begun in 1971, with the emergence of the Papunya Tula painting movement that started at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs. The movement helped spur new interest in art across rural and remote Aboriginal Australia. It also led to the development of new artistic styles in regional and urban centres, including the style popularly known as ‘dot painting’.
Today, Indigenous art is held in gallery collections both in Australia and overseas, and represents a large part of Australia’s international art trade. In 2007, Emily Kngwarreye’s painting Earth’s Creation became the first piece of Indigenous art to sell for over $1 million.
Looking to the future, it is anticipated that works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists will continue to be among Australia’s most prized cultural heritage, informing the contemporary art world both in Australia and abroad.
Reflecting on the 250th anniversary
For the 250th anniversary of the HMB Endeavour’s voyage, the National Museum of Australia, the National Library of Australia, and the Australian National Maritime Museum were each funded for exhibitions that included Indigenous art and perspectives on Captain Cook and the impact of the voyage.
Explore the exhibitions and collections online: