The Aboriginal people are thought to have been the first
humans to arrive in the continent of Australia more than 45,000
years ago. They were hunter-gatherers, and their survival
was intrinsically linked to the land they lived. Because their
society and culture developed in isolation until the catastrophic
landing of the convict ships in 1788, they interpreted the
world around them through a system of oral traditions, which
incorporated music, dance and graphic representation.
The Aboriginal term Dreaming is central
to understanding native Australian culture. It has nothing
to do with Western associations with sleep & the unconscious
mind, but is used to explain mans relationship with
the world: its origins and the ancestors, heroes and spirits
that created the order of nature. Dreamtime is not an event
perceived to have occurred in the distant past, but an ongoing
concept outside the boundaries of time.
Art in the Western sense didnt used to be
an independent entity in Aboriginal culture. Graphic representation
is an element of traditional ceremonies. The images are not
abstract, as they would initially appear to the casual viewer,
but are patterned, symmetrical depictions of stories from
the Dreaming. Their creation is intrinsically linked with
everyday life, and until recently there were no artists
dedicated solely to creating decorative works.
It was thanks to a school teacher called Geoffrey Barden
from Papunya that in the 1970s Aboriginal art came to be recognised
and revered as an art form in its own right. Barden enjoyed
a privileged relationship with the local Aborigine community
and was invited to ritual events usually prohibited to non-Aborigines.
In an effort to foster feelings of cultural identity in his
Aboriginal students he assigned them a project: to design
and paint a mural about the honey-ant, a creature with strong
links to the region. Local Aboriginal leaders became involved
in the project, and together they discovered a way to convey
their culture and traditions to the world.
The newly discovered creative form spread rapidly throughout
Australia, and groups of Aboriginal artists began to produce
a whole range of works of art, including ground mosaics, rock
art, body paintings, dot paintings, didgeridoos, boomerangs
and sculptures to express themselves outside the context of
formal ceremonies. The Australian government came to realise
that this outpouring of expression was a valuable national
resource, and contributed funds and materials to its development.
Two distinct types of Aboriginal art emerged: 'traditional
and urban. Whilst the former continues to reflect
motifs associated with the Dreaming, the latter is a new departure
which draws upon themes from 20th century life.
How to spot a good buy
Aboriginal works of art and artifacts are evocative souvenirs
of any trip to Australia. If you buy items directly from the
communities which have shops or galleries attached to them,
you can be assured that not only will you be getting authentic
merchandise but also that you are supporting the preservation
of Aboriginal culture. Sometimes the artists receive pitiful
amounts for their works from art dealers, only for them to
be resold to collectors or galleries at a significant mark-up.
See Useful Links and Contacts for respectable outlets.
The popularity of Aboriginal art amongst the international
art community means that prices are high, and tourists can
often afford only small pieces or reproductions. Be aware
that forgery is rife: you should receive a certificate of
authenticity, even if the work of art is purported to be by
a renowned artist.