Aboriginal arts

Explore traditional and contemporary Aboriginal art, facts & art history. Read Aboriginal poems & learn about the origin of dot paintings and rock art sites.

Selected statistics

Percentage of Australians who think that Indigenous arts are "important to Australian culture".
Percentage of Australians who attended arts created or performed by Aboriginal artists in 2009.
Percentage of Australians who did not attend but have a "growing interest" to do so in 2009.
Percentage of Australians who profess to have a strong or growing interest in Indigenous arts in 2009.
Minimum percentage of the total art works sold in Australia that was created by Aboriginal artists.
Volume of Western Australia's annual Aboriginal art exports in 2008.
Box office sales of Crocodile Dundee, the best-selling Australian film.
Box office sales of Rabbit-Proof Fence, at number 28 the highest-ranked Australian film about Indigenous issues.
Percentage of surveyed Australians who did not support a separate public gallery of Aboriginal art in Sydney. Only 33.7% said 'Yes'.

List of articles

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What is the best way to learn about Aboriginal art?

Curator and consultant Wally Caruana, who for 20 years worked at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, says the only way to start learning about Aboriginal art is to look at as many works as possible in museums and good galleries.

The last words are most important because so much of what we see is bad. Aboriginal art is everywhere: at airports, in kitsch shops, on the walls of your doctor's waiting room. You are forgiven to believe that that is "Aboriginal art".

Art dealer Michael Reid says even many of the pieces in commercial art galleries are poor because time has not yet filtered out the bad ones.

There is, in fact, great diversity in Aboriginal art. The three main traditions are watercolours from Hermannsburg, acrylic paintings from the Western Desert and Arnhem Land barks. But there's so much more: works on racism by Gordon Bennett, tutini from the Tiwi Islands, the created worlds of Tracey Moffatt's photographs.


StartLocal lists hundreds of Aboriginal arts and crafts shops all over Australia. You can search by postcode or suburb.


While Aboriginal art is one of the key tourist attractions for Australia there is not a single museum in Australia solely dedicated to showcase Aboriginal art.

There is no one word in any Aboriginal language for the term 'art'. Art forms are viewed as an integral part of life and the celebration of life.

— Penny Tripcony, Manager, Oodgeroo Unit, Queensland University of Technology

What is 'rarrk'?

Rarrk is a form of cross-hatching where artists overlay lines of different colours. It was originally done on the bodies of initiates, and when people died.

Different types of rarrk were specific to certain clans. "You can actually identify an artist to a particular clan just by looking at the cross-hatching," says senior curator of Aboriginal art, Franchesca Cubillo.

Ancestors are usually hidden beneath the layers of rarrk, revealed fully only to certain initiated people.

So you think Aboriginal art is old?

Many people believe Aboriginal art has to be old because Aboriginal culture is old.

Rarrk, or the cross-hatch style, only emerged on bark paintings from western Arnhem Land in the 20th century after artists Peter Marralwanga and Yirawala started using them in their paintings. "Before Yirawala and Marralwanga there was no rarrk," says John Mawurndjul, who learned from Marralwanga. "It was just rock art. They took the rarrk from the Mardayin ceremony [for which it was painted on dancers' bodies] and they put it on bark. They started it."

Aboriginal art, as a movement, is usually dated to 1971, when a white teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged the men at Papunya, a settlement 240 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, to paint a mural on a school wall.

The Aboriginal art market was born of the souvenir trade of the 1960s. Aboriginal art wasn't widely sought after until the late 1980s. It post-dates postmodernism.


Aboriginal art was only discovered by outsiders as "unique and distinctive" about 1988, the bicentennial year, according to Aboriginal curator Hetti Perkins.

Artists from 'remote' areas are more likely to be institutionally collected if they were not art-school trained. The opposite is true anywhere away from those remote locations.

Aboriginal art is art made by Aboriginal people and as much as art can be a physical object; an Aboriginal mind and an Aboriginal person are works of art and a 'dreaming'.

— Djon Mundine, Bundjalung man and Aboriginal Curator, Campbelltown Arts Centre

Aboriginal art has always provided such a groundbreaking edge, has always been on the cutting edge, making statements and challenging, educating and promoting.

— Franchesca Cubillo, Senior Curator, National Gallery of Australia

Aboriginal art is not "Aboriginal art"

Sounds wrong? It becomes clear what the headline means when you consider that there is no uniform "Aboriginal people" across Australia.

All across Australia there are tribes with their own customs, ceremonies and art styles. To speak of "Aboriginal art" would be too generic in most cases.

Instead, and to be more precise and respectful, you should start thinking about Pitjantjatjarra art and Mowanjum art, Nauo weapons and Walpuri music, Jaralde clothing and Wambaria string bags.

You wouldn't want to be labelled as an "earthling" or "south hemispherian"—you want to be called an "Australian", or even a "Sydneysider" or "Perthite", right?

Aboriginal art is not Aboriginal art—it's white art

Here is another challenge for you: "Aboriginal art – it’s a white thing".

Aboriginal artist Richard Bell proclaimed this in an award-winning painting of the same name. Known as Bell’s Theorem, he said about Aboriginal art that "White people say what's good. White people say what's bad. White people buy it. White people sell it."

Homework: Bell’s Theorem

Have a look at Bell's painting and interpret it. Notice how it blends white and black. Research the meaning of the red triangle.

Why communities need art fairs

If you love Aboriginal art the best thing you can do is buy directly from artists. One such opportunity is an art fair organised by an Aboriginal art centre.

Aboriginal-owned art fairs have several benefits:

  • Inspires youth. As young Aboriginal people watch artists paint and earn money from their products it can inspire them to do the same and break out of a cycle of addiction and abuse.
  • Finance communities. In many remote communities, trading from art production is the only source of commercial income available.
  • Support self-determination. Supported by Aboriginal art centres, art fairs help Aboriginal people take care of the business of promoting and selling art on their own.
  • Promote Aboriginal culture. Promoting Aboriginal art to the wider non-Aboriginal community (well beyond Australia) helps them understand the rich cultural heritage. Fairs are an important way for people to come together and to learn from each other and take home a greater understanding of Aboriginal people, their culture and the art.

Phases of Aboriginal art collecting

According to Djon Mundine, art curator, writer and artist, there are various phases of Aboriginal art collecting.

  • Early traditional art from the beginning of time;
  • the discovery of bark as a medium of art;
  • early European influences;
  • the beginnings of Western desert dot painting;
  • acknowledgement of art as a contemporary practice, and the re-emergence of south-east urban art;
  • the appointment of art curators; and
  • the de-politicisation of Aboriginal art.

For Aboriginal people, art is a cultural expression… a statement through a series of life experiences of self-definition, a recounting of an untold story and the bringing to life of a truth in history—a statement possibly unable to be made in any other way.

— Djon Mundine, Aboriginal artist

Ernabella Arts in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, is Australia's oldest Aboriginal arts centre. It started in 1948 and is renown for its batik, weaving and ceramics work.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in First Nations art

On 21 May 2021, Gamilaroi artist Travis De Vries claimed to have created the first First Nations non-fungible token with his artwork Tear it Down (Cook Falling). He offered it for 1770 Tezos (tez) coins, a digital currency.

Later that year, Harold Thomas, who designed the Aboriginal flag in 1971, minted an authentic digital representation of it as a non-fungible token on December 21, to commemorate the 50th year of the flag. He said he would hold the NFT on an ongoing basis, on behalf of First Nations communities.

Aboriginal artists win Blake Prize

Detail showing stations of Jesus life.
Stations to the Cross (detail): An image which blends Aboriginal art styles with stories of Christian belief.

Frances Belle Parker, a Yaegl woman, painter and installation artist from Maclean, NSW, became the first Aboriginal recipient and the youngest ever winner of the Blake Prize in 2000.

In August 2007 Shirley Purdie became the first Aboriginal artist to win the Blake Prize for Religious Art with her painting Stations to the Cross.

Shirley's painting is a good example of how Aboriginal artists blend their art styles with religious beliefs they were taught during mission days or adopted later in life.

In 2008 Shirley also won the Needham Religious Art Prize for her painting Ngabuny Ngarrangkarni (Jesus Dreaming). She collects the ochres used for her paintings from her own country.

For many Aboriginal artists Christian beliefs can coexist with their traditional belief system.

Learn more about Aboriginal spirituality.

National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Association (NAISDA)

Performance poster of NAISDA - National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Association
Beneath The Ancestors was a NAISDA performance that performed to music of, among others, Beethoven.

NAISDA Dance College performs contemporary Aboriginal dance. Instead of professionals as with the Bangarra Dance Theatre you'll experience students, instead of the Opera House you'll be seated in smaller venues. But the experience can fill your soul no less.

NAISDA was established in 1976, addressing a demand for contemporary Australian Indigenous dance in the early 1970s. It combines ideas of Aboriginal dance creators with western-trained choreographers and traditional cultural owners.

Many NAISDA graduates continue on with Bangarra where they play key roles both onstage and off, provide role models for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and inspire their communities.

Return of Aboriginal artefacts

Number of artefacts collected by missionaries for an exhibition commissioned by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and still stored in the Vatican.
Percentage of surveyed readers who think Aboriginal artefacts should be sent home.

Thousands of aboriginal artefacts are in the hands of private collectors, museums and institutions. They were legally purchased, given as a gift, or brazenly stolen from camps or after fights. Many Aboriginal people want to have them returned.

Sacred or secret Aboriginal artefacts include paintings, stone tjuringas, wooden artefacts such as men's dance boards, bullroarers, shields, paddles, pubic covers, funeral poles and boomerangs. Aboriginal people often embedded cultural knowledge in their designs. Some artefacts have been used ritually as recently as the 1970s. Ceremonial trees are the largest sacred objects.

Australian law states that Aboriginal artefacts do not have to be handed back if they were stolen or given before 1969. This suits collectors who are fascinated by items that were made for an original purpose other than sale. For them, sacred objects used for rituals have always been the most desirable.

Museums argue that they are preserving objects that would otherwise have been destroyed, and that it is their role to bring together objects from all places and all times for everyone to admire.

Aboriginal opinion is divided. Some recognise that most of these artefacts still exist only because they have been so well looked after, or that it is a vital way to learn about Aboriginal culture.

But Aboriginal people and organisations are increasingly challenging the right to hold their artefacts. Their argument is that the original owners were effectively tricked into surrendering items of value in exchange for beads and trinkets.

In the mid-2000s the Australian government lobbied the UK to change laws that prevented the repatriation of human remains. No equivalent move has been made for cultural items. In Australia, NSW is the only state without proper Aboriginal cultural heritage laws.

Returning Aboriginal artefacts needs a lot of consultation so the proper custodians can be found. But Aboriginal people are keen to control their own culture. They want to take charge of finding solutions for appropriate returns.

Complicating a possible return is the sloppiness of some ethnographers who collected many items without recording "a single name".

Think? What do I feel? I feel they want to go home.

— Answer of an Aboriginal friend of mine to the question "What do you think of these Aboriginal paintings?"


View article sources (19)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] 'Indigenous arts - a growing enterprise', Koori Mail 472 p.18
[2] 'World's first chemically protected Indigenous artwork', www.news.uwa.edu.au, 25/9/2008
[3] [3a] [3b] 'Interview with Adam Hill', Indigenous Law Bulletin 40, 2009
[4] SMH poll, 25/2/2012
[5] [5a] [5b] 'An outsider joins the dots', SMH Spectrum 28/08/2010
[6] www.oodgeroo.qut.edu.au/academic_resources/academicpape/tooobviousto.jsp
[7] 'The hand of a master: John Mawurndjul', SMH 21/6/2018
[8] 'The art of living', Sun Herald 5/9/2010
[9] 'Storylines', survey of 'non-remote' Indigenous artists, 12/2009, www.storylines.org.au
[10] 'Indigenous arts get a boost', Koori Mail 486 p.12
[11] 'Whitefella dreaming', SMH 15/11/2003
[12] [12a] 'Mundine set to tell stories in sandstone', Koori Mail 484 p.51
[13] 'I created the Aboriginal flag as a symbol of unity and pride', SMH 24/1/2022
[14] 'About Frances', francesbelleparker.wordpress.com/about-frances/, retrieved 22/10/2014
[15] 'Warmun artist a winner', Koori Mail 422, p.38
[16] 'Ancient treasures emerge from Vatican vault', Sun Herald 17/10/2010
[17] [17a] [17b] [17c] 'Should indigenous artefacts be sent home?', SMH 10/9/2011
[18] [18a] 'Aboriginal artefacts in Sotheby's auction prompt questions over provenance', SMH 11/9/2016
[19] [19a] 'Review: Aboriginal artefacts make a surprising return to Australia', SMH 10/2/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal arts, <https://stage.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/arts>, retrieved 17 June 2024

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