Nearly 3 percent of the Australian population belong to the Aboriginal communities. Although colonization and other external forces have reduced their numbers, the Aboriginals in Australia have managed to preserve their traditional arts longer than any other culture in the world. Art is a vital component of Australian Aboriginal history, as the people do not have a written language though together they possess more than a dozen spoken languages. The culture has been passed down from generation to generation through visual art, music, and dance.
In Australia, numerous national parks, and UNESCO-protected sites are home to millions of ochre rock paintings up to 30,000 or 40,000 years old, including the oldest rock painting is known to and dated by experts. The rock paintings and engravings (petroglyphs) are heavy in symbolism and sacred to the Aboriginal people’s beliefs in the Dreaming or Dreamtime mythology. In Dreaming, the ancient spirits live in the caves, rocks, and other features of the natural landscape. Bark paintings, ground paintings, and body paintings have always been important in helping pass down stories and history as well. Contemporary Aboriginal artists continue to paint. Even as they use modern materials or introduce elements from other cultures, they continue to tell the stories of their ancestors and ancestral land.
The rock paintings can be divided into three main types, found in separate regions in Australia: geometric shapes (including circles and dots), simple animal and human shapes, and complex figures such as the “X-ray” organ illustrations. The painters used white and earth tones and depicted stories of their land and ancestors. In the 1970s, Aboriginal art entered the Western consciousness with a newer form of Papunya dot-style painting emerging from the Western Desert of Australia. Foreign influences prompted the painters to move beyond bark and bodies to experiment with canvases, fabric, and glass. Albert Namatjira is one Aboriginal artist who garnered international attention for his paintings. He was known for using foreign materials — specifically watercolors on paper — to depict the native landscape of Central Australia.
Johnny Warangkula, another Aboriginal artist, was known for painting secret messages with complex, layered dots, hoping to prevent outsiders from accessing the stories. This follows the tradition that required all Aboriginal artists to seek permission to depict ancient stories sacred to their people.
Besides rock painting, both of the indigenous groups in Australia, i.e. the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders, have traditionally engaged in weaving. The technique is used to create headdresses, necklaces, and other ceremonial objects. Surpassing weaving and sculpture in popularity are bark paintings, which are highly sought after on the international art market. While contemporary paintings and ancient cave paintings alike aim to tell the stories of Dreamtime, the bark paintings are a far more portable and collectible, if fragile, form of Aboriginal art.
In 2007, two Aboriginal paintings were sold for over $1-million and $2.4-million each, respectively. According to the Government of Australia, the Aboriginal art industry now generates $200-million in revenue per year. This reflects not only the strength and vitality of the various Aboriginal cultures in Australia but also the enduring and increasingly recognized value of art throughout the ages.