Aboriginal art is both timeless and contemporary since it reveals the rich heritage dating back 40,000 years as well as contemporary and innovative approaches. The birth of the contemporary movement, that have emerged back in 1971 when a group of elderly desert men started using paper and canvas in their practice, has empowered Aboriginal communities all over Australia and has contributed greatly to the contemporary Australian art. A long tradition of passing on songs, rituals, dances, symbols and meaningful patterns has translated into the contemporary practice. Rich with visual symbols and steeped in the long history of storytelling, Aboriginal contemporary paintings reflect spiritual and cultural practices, the stories of their creation embodied in the ‘Dreamtime’ that shape their identity and a strong connection to the Australian landscape. Certain traditional stories are a part of different Aboriginal communities, and artists usually need permission to paint them.
The landscape of contemporary Aboriginal painting is so diverse, due to the variety of Aboriginal communities and their stories as well as the influences from abroad. Produced in various mediums including paper, canvas, fiber, glass or printmaking, the works are rooted in the traditional iconography, and yet amazingly modern in design and color. Whether they are following traditional guidelines or developing a unique contemporary style influenced by Western practices, the work of these ten artists made a great contribution to their communities and an impact on the Australian contemporary art in general.
Editors’ Tip: Aboriginal Art (World of Art) by Wally Caruana
This book is an important introduction to the diversity of Aboriginal art and a comprehensive study that of the work of Australia’s indigenous artists from all parts of the continent. A culture so rich and 50,000 old, Aboriginals have created works steeped in the tradition and produced in a variety of contexts, from the sacred and secret realm of ceremony to more public spheres, and in media that include painting, sculpture, engraving, constructions, weaving, photography, printmaking, and textile design. Mapping the latest developments across each of Australia’s geographical regions, this updated version of the book brings some twenty new illustrations highlight the impact of urban living, the growth of local art centers, and the rise of women artists―all testifying to Aboriginal art’s continued dynamism and vitality.
An Aboriginal artist from East Kimberly, Marcia Purdie creates paintings that are much inspired by the land her family originates from and its stories. Creating fine art ochre paintings in minimal colours, she draws on the traditional knowledge of elders and paints in the individual painting style and technique. A recurring story in her work is the infamous massacre at Mistake Creek, where several Aboriginals were killed under the wrong accusations of stealing a cow from a local station.
Featured images: Marcia Purdie - The Monsoon, via japingka.com.au
A younger brother of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kudditji Kngwarreye is one of Australia’s foremost indigenous artists. As a traditional custodian of many important Dreamings, he first started painting around 1986 creating works with detailed infill. After several years, he started experimenting in the field of abstraction, with bold colors and an intuitive interplay with space and form. Creating paintings with juxtaposed color fields, varying in composition and hue, he depicts the creation, his country and Dreamings. Being a unique voice in the landscape of Aboriginal art, the work he creates is considered groundbreaking.
Featured images: Kudditji Kngwarreye, via silverplumegallery.com.au
First started painting in the 1990s, Jorna Newberry is now considered a rising star of the Aboriginal art. Her main inspiration is the country Irrunytjy in the Western desert and the significant places with spiritual knowledge and the ancestral stories embedded in the land. Using ‘dotting’ style describing the movement, culture and history, her works come alive with the use of vibrant and dramatic colors. She favors abstraction as a stylistic means to ensure the most important indigenous cultural stories remain hidden.
Featured images: Jorna Newberry - Walpa Tjukurrpa, via japingka.com.au
Considered one of the greatest and best known Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira created stunning Western-style landscapes, much different to traditional Aboriginal art. Being the first Aboriginal to have been granted Australian citizenship in the era when Aboriginals had few rights, he significantly contributed to his culture and people. Despite the Western appearance of his paintings, he painted with ‘country in mind’, often returning to important ancestral sites. The repetition, detailed patterns and high horizons made his paintings a fusion of Aboriginal and European styles. Despite his significant body of work, Namjatira often encountered racial discrimination, accusations of acculturation, and ambiguous response from the art world.
Featured images: Albert Namatjira Untitled landscapes, via artrecord.com
With an artistic career of 38 years, Gloria Petyarre is arguably the most famous and significant living female Aboriginal Artist. She is internationally acclaimed for her Bush Medicine Leaf paintings, a recurring motif in her work. Her Bush Medicine series depicts the rushing movement of leaves with rhythmic brushstrokes, combining colors of close tonal values on the solid background. As many generations of Aboriginal artists have started utilizing this motif and style, it is regarded as one of the most significant stylistic developments in Aboriginal art. These leaves are an important bush medicine and are deeply rooted in the Aboriginal culture. Her vibrant, abstract images range in their complexity and color.
Featured images: Gloria Petyarre - Bush Medicine Leaves, via japingka.com
Growing up in the remote Aboriginal community, Christine Napanangka Michaels was surrounded by many Aboriginal artists that have inspired her enthusiasm for visual arts. She belongs to the artists Aboriginal circle exploring the concept of Lappi Lappi Dreaming. As this particular Jukurrpa dreaming is colorful and joyful, she uses bright and striking naturally extracted ochre, red violet and coral hues. The term Lappi Lappi refers to the rock hole and permanent source of fresh water in Western Australia that it considered a valuable natural resource.
Featured images: Christine Napanangka Michaels - Lappi Lappi Jukurrpa, via japingka.com.au
Rover Thomas is one of the central figures of East Kimberley painting and a major force in the development of Australian Aboriginal art. He was Australia’s representative in the Venice Biennale in 1990. Using locally mined ochres as other contemporary Gija painters, Thomas has produced ‘visionary’ paintings with corporal landscapes, vacillating between figuration and abstraction. Merging past and present, his works transcended indigenous cultural borders and resonated with the much wider international audience. When introduced to painting of Mark Rothko, he famously remarked, ‘That bugger paints like me!’
Featured images: Rover Thomas - Rock Country On Texas Down, 1988, via alchetron.com
Growing up in a remote desert area in Australia known as Utopia, Emily Kame Kngwarreye began to paint late in her life and ended up being Australia’s most significant contemporary artist. It is believed she has produced more than 3000 works during her eight-year painting career. She came in the spotlight at the age of 80, overnight becoming a painter of national and international importance. With an experience as an Anmatyerre elder and the custodian of the women's Dreaming sites in her clan, her paintings are inspired by the land, landscapes, cycles of season, flooding waters and rains, seeds, plants and spiritual forces. Highly expressive and abstract, her works are very unique in the landscape of Aboriginal art.
Featured images: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, via japingka.com
A daughter of the highly regarded painter William King Jungala, Sarrita King has inherited a strong connection to her Aboriginal heritage from her father and her childhood spent in the Northern Territory. Utilizing traditional Aboriginal techniques such as ‘dotting’, Sarrita also incorporates some unorthodox and more contemporary techniques. As a leading painter of the next generation who has been inspired by both their strong Aboriginal heritage and Western practices, her art is a combination of the past, present and the future. Subjects that she often interprets in her art are extreme landscapes of Australia, rolling sand hills, lightning and thunderstorms, torrential rain, fire, desert, and tangled bush.
Featured images: Sarrita King - Water, via japingka.com.au
Born around 1920 in Yumurrpa country in Australia, Lorna Napurrla Fencer has been painting her entire life, but her artworks on canvas date from 1986. Penetrating the contemporary art world from the Warnayaka Art Centre in Northern Territory, her artworks soon became extravagant, abstract and sensual catching the attention of art collectors from around the globe. As a senior custodian of several Dreaming stories, she was entitled to paint subjects such as bush yam, 'ngalatji' flower, bush tomato, caterpillar, wallaby and certain male stories. With bold, free and abstract painting style and palette of vibrant colours, her expressive works with layered paint concealed the intimate details about the dreaming stories creating a certain mystery around them.