The Art of Aboriginal Australians

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.

aboriginal-flagIn 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.

man playing didgeridoo in the streetJohnny 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.

Introduction to the Different Ngaanyatjarra Communities

This is an introduction to the Ngaanyatjarra lands and the different  communities that form the people of Ngaanyatjarra

Warburton Community

uluru-ayers rockWarburton or Mirlirrtjarra was the first Community to be established on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands as a result of the activities of the United Aboriginal Missionaries (UAM) Will and Iris Wade, who established a base at Warburton in the 1930’s. The “Old Well” near the Warburton roadhouse was in fact the first chosen site for the mission.

The community is named after the range of hills (Warburton Ranges) to the north of the community which in turn was named after one of the early European explorers who travelled this region in search of good pastoral land. The community is colloquially referred to as Ranges. The other name for the community is Mirlirrtjarra which is the name of a site nearby. Warburton is the largest of the Ngaanyatjarra Communities and is considered the metropolis of the Lands.

Warakurna Community

Warakurna is located at the western end of the majestic Rawlinson Ranges. The residents are mostly  Ngaatjatjarra speakers.   Many of them experienced their first contact with non-Aboriginals in the late 1930’s with the establishment of the Warburton Mission while for other residents their first contact was in the late 1950’s with the Native Patrol Officers working for the Weapons Research Establishment in Woomera, South Australia.

Cosmo Newberry Community

Cosmo Newberry is located on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert within the Shire of Laverton. The community, like Warburton and Jameson, takes its name from one of the early European explorers who travelled through the area.

Tjukurla Community

didgeridoo-made-by-one-of-the-communityTjukurla is located in the “tali” (sandhill) country on the edge of Lake Hopkins, halfway between Warakurna Community in WA and Kintore (Walungurru) Community in the NT. The residents are mostly Ngaanyatjarra speaking people.

Tjuntjuntjara Community

Tjuntjuntjara community is situated 700km east of Kalgoorlie, approximately 12 hours’ drive, in the Spinifex region of south-east WA.  It is within the local government Shire of Menzies.

The Tjuntjuntjara community falls within the boundaries of the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve.  It is connected to Irrunytju (Wingellina) in the north by a rough track. The community was established in 1988 after a water bore was drilled at the location. Tjuntjunjara acts as a service centre for a number of outstations including Iltun, Pirapi, Ilkulka, Wyarra, Tuwan, and Yakudunya. These outstations are occupied a certain times of the year for cultural and hunting and gathering purposes.  A roadhouse was established at Ilkurlka on the Spinifex Highway (Anne Beadell Highway) in 2004.

Kiwirrkurra Community

Kiwirrkurra is located in the “tali” (sandhill) country of the Gibson Desert, to the south west of Lake McKay.  It is in the East Pilbara Shire and within the service area of the Ngaanyatjarra lands of Western Australia.

The Community is approximately 700 km west of Alice Springs (being the nearest centre) and about 200km west of Walungurru (Kintore) Aboriginal Community.

Karilywara Community

Patjarr or Karilywara is located in the Clutterbuck Hills between Lake Cobb and Lake Newell, 240km north west of Warburton. The residents are Pintupi speaking people.

Coonana Community

Coonana is located in the Goldfields region approximately 180 km east of Kalgoorlie and 4 km south of the Trans-Australia railway line. Coonana is situated on a 250,000 acre pastoral lease.Upurl Upurlila Ngurratja is the incorporated body of the Coonana Indigenous Community.

Irrunytju Community

west-australia-lizard-desertIrrunytju, or Wingellina, community is located 10kms from the tri-state border of WA, NT and SA.  Named after the nearby Irrunytju rockhole, this was a popular area for Anangu (people) because of the permanent water in the foothills of the Tomkinson Range which is immediately south of the community.  There are several nearby homelands including Kunmanara Bore and Ngurra Pila but none of these are now permanently occupied.

Mantamaru Community

Mantamaru (Jameson) is located at the base of the Jameson Range in the Central Ranges region. It was established as an outstation of Warburton 1973 and has a population of 130.

The community takes its English name from these ranges, which in turn took their name from an early European explorer. Mantamaru and Parnamaru (the original name of the community when it first became incorporated) both translate in Ngaanyatjarra and Pitjantjatjara respectively as black (maru) ground (manta or parna) which describes the ground cover of small black stones found around the Jameson Range. The other name which is sometimes used by yarnangu is Wirrlkuralnya, which is the name of a spring in the Jameson Range. The residents are all Ngaanyatjarra speakers.