The Aborigines’ Art

- history
- subjects of paintings
- traditional material
- The last 200 years - European influence
- the 1970s: back to tradition

(if you click on the links or pics, you see more pictures or a larger version)

The topic of our group is the dreamtime. One important part of the dreamtime has always been the art, joining the remote past with the present life and the future.

Today Aboriginal art presents something of a paradox: It is both, the last great art movement of the 20th century and the oldest continuous artistic tradition in the world with a history stretching back over 50.000 years. The oldest surviving certificates of any art are rock-paintings of Aborigines which were created about 50.000 years ago. The work of contemporary Aboriginal artists has gained an international reputation; many pictures have been sold for thousands of dollars in international auction houses.



Legends of the dreamtime are different from tribe to tribe. Some tribes believe even today that the mostly friendly and shy so-called „Mimi"-spirits taught their ancestors the right way of painting.

(=> Mimis are believed to be non-visible spirits, living in caves, having taught the ancestors many important things. They come out of the caves in the night, but noone has ever seen them. But they leave messages like leaves or paintings. Humans have to be careful. Sometimes the Mimis lure them into a cave and lock them up there!)

The art of the Aborigines has always been symbolic with the task to explain the relationship between the human beings and their environment. So it is quite natural that the subjects are mainly nature and the depiction of the dreamtime-myths with the aim to tell how the spirit ancestors created the land and laid down the law.

A lot of patterns and the style of painting have remained the same thousands of years. Animals have always been painted in a kind of X-ray-style, which shows the internal organs and the spinal column.

Certain patterns were owned by single tribes. They were strongly connected with the tribe’s secret myths and religious hymns. Only the initiated men were allowed to execute the special patterns and to pass on the sacred traditions. It was important to use the right patterns, to chant the right hymns or to recitate the right quotations while producing an object. That’s why the use of European material has never reduced the power of the cult-objects. The act of the painting itself had a spiritual meaning. It connected the artist with the dreamtime. It also does today.

The traditional Australian materials were the natural red or yellow ochre, charcoal and lime or other white stones. To a great extent feathers and down-feathers of young birds were used. The Aborigines had only four colours and some other materials - like feathers - but they had a vast variety of different patterns. According to Prof. Strehlow, who dealt with the Aborigines’ art, several thousands with a different meaning, which proves their abilities and their spiritual inspirations. One of the most important symbols is the circle or several circles which depicts a sacred place, often a waterhole. The Aborigines believe that some of their spirit ancestors transformed into a waterhole after they had created something. Some animals like the emu have a certain symbol, tracks which mark the way, the primeval spirit emu went.

Most objects were cult-objects. The following sacred objects were painted or carved: tjurungas, shields and totems. But also simple things like didgeridoos or boomerangs were decorated.

Besides that human bodies were partly nearly completely decorated in cerenomies with colours and feathers with the aim to cover the human identity and to imply, that for a short time a dreamtime-creature emerged.

Sand-pictures were always created for ritual cerenomies. All ritual events took place near these sand-pictures. At the end of a ceremony the sand-pictures were ritually destroyed.

I’ve already mentioned Prof. Strehlow. In 1950 he observed the creation of such a sand-picture. The artists started at 9 o’clock in the morning and finished their work at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They were only allowed to sing three stanzas of the long ljaba-song. These three stanzas were sung the hole time and repeated again and again. The three stanzas were about the nest of the primeval spirit honey-ants in Ljaba.

The cave-paintings and in other regions the tjurungas are believed to be signs of the spirit ancestors which they left as they left the earth.


Development of the Aborigines’ art during the last 200 years

With the arrival of the first white settlers in Australia 200 years ago, Aboriginal art entered a new phase.

The Aborigines started to paint on portable bark in the mid-19th century, because the European settlers wanted to buy Aboriginal handiwork. In the late 19th century the Aborigines used more and more European materials such as pens and paper. Besides that they changed their style, what means they adapted their pictures to an European audience. In the 1930s they were taught by non-Aboriginal artists to paint in the traditional European watercolour-style. Later they learned to paint with acrylics, to paint on canvas and to produce batiks.

In the 30s of our century mission stations and settlements for Aborigines were established. From the 1930s to the 1980s many of these settlements developed as artistic centres or painting-communities with the aim to back the artists and to sell their work. Today some of these artists’ cooperatives have opened galleries in Australia and deal with galleries around the world. They have organized exhibitions of their artists’ work in London, Paris, Frankfurt, USA and elsewhere.

In the 1970s the development of Aboriginal art reached a new step. The artists remembered their dreamings. They changed again their style of painting and used more traditional natural materials like ochre. Since the 70s especially the urban Aboriginal artists have chosen to discover their Aboriginal identity through art. The artists intend to keep the dreamings and to pass them on. Besides that the first women began to paint - encouraged by Europeans and anthropologists.

Recently more and more often the dreamings are to be seen e. g. on coke-cans, table-cloths or carpets. In 1966 the first copyright-lawsuit was won by the Aborigines what means a precedent was set.

Although many paintings are modern in terms of composition and colour, traditional stories and symbols still dominate and they are still sacred. Many contemporary artists depict only the stories of their parents’ tribe and they feel bound by law to do so. Even today the dreamings are entrusted to the care of respected 'guardians' in each generation. Only these men are allowed to pass the stories on to the next generation.
So it is important for the Aborigines to have a legal right to fight against the commercial exploitation of their subjects.

A long time Aboriginal art was regarded as a kind of 'Primitive art' of nameless tribesmen.

Today Aboriginal art is recognized as one of the most exciting and innovative artistic movements in the world. European artists have already been influenced by it.

Many famous Aboriginal artists represent their country - Australia - at exhibitions, e. g. at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 1997.


depection - Darstellung
to lure - locken
to execute - ausführen
charcoal - Holzkohle
lime - Kalk
primeval - urzeitlich
bark - Rinde

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