Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Paintings
Central Desert

Papunya, a dusty Aboriginal settlement in the Western Australian Desert, was the unlikely birthplace of the contemporary Aboriginal painting movement. In 1971, the young art teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged a group of elders to spruce up a blank 3 x 10 meter wall at the local school. The resulting mural Honey Ant Dreaming became a ground breaking public depiction of traditional ceremonial iconography.

By 1973 the mural had been painted over by the Education Department to keep the grounds “pristine”. However, the artwork had inspired other Aborigines who were to open one of the great art frontiers of our times. With the re-settlement of tribal lands in the 1980s and along kinship lines, the movement spread from Papunya west to Kintore, pushed north to Yuendumu and Wirrimanu (Balgo) and finally reached Utopia to the east.

Today’s undeniable success and global recognition of contemporary Aboriginal art have not come easy. Painters were criticized by their own people for revealing ancestral secrets to the uninitiated world. The Western art establishment initially labeled their work “folk art” and called it un-authentic.

“... whether this is modern art or primitive art is a peculiar problem of our own, Turkey Tolson and Michael Nelson couldn’t care less.”
Christopher Anderson, Head of Anthropology South Australian Museum, Adelaide

Over the past thirty years diverse artistic styles have evolved with one common denominator, the reference to tjukurrpa or - in its English translation - the Dreaming.

Tjukkurpa – The Dreaming

Aboriginal paintings recount events from tjukurrpa, the rich Aboriginal worldview and religion.

Tjukurrpa means the stories and songs of ancestors who molded the land and created man, animals and plants. It contains the knowledge about food, water sources, medicine and survival in the desert. It includes the laws of social and moral order. It encompasses aspects of the past, the present and the future.

Each Aborigine also possesses a personal tjukurrpa, a spiritual link to a specific totemic animal, plant or place. Nature is part of man and man is part of nature. Many paintings depict the story of a personal totem.

Coming from a background of tens of thousands of years of nomadic life, the bond between Aborigines and the land, their “country”, is particularly strong. Many Dreamings refer to important places in the desert, sacred ceremonial grounds, waterholes and soakage areas, food sources and walking paths.

Over the past forty-thousand years the art of the first Australians has taken many forms and used a variety of mediums, from petroglyphs to works on bark, from ephemeral drawings in sand or on the human body to woodcarvings and batik. Traditionally created exclusively for ceremonial use and only to be viewed by the initiated, it has made the transition to acrylic paint on canvas and linen, to public view and the international art market.

Throughout time, tjukurrpa has endured as the uniting theme in Aboriginal art. A painting may tell a seemingly obvious story in its visual language of lines, dots, colors, layers and symbols. But there is an unseen message visible only to the knowledgeable viewer. This is the fascination of tjukurrpa.

Artistic Styles

The movement at Papunya was started by a group of male artists. Today, female painters outnumber men.

In the 1970s and much of the 1980s Aboriginal artists produced a body of work that was distinguished by traditional iconography using symbols of dots, lines and circles.

This changed in 1989. A group of Utopia based women, who so far had worked in batik, switched to brushes, paint and canvas. Inspired by the legendary Emily Kame Kngwarreye they created a free-spirited style that distinguished them from other painting communities.

Today, artistic expression varies greatly between communities and painters. The initial detailed style has evolved into a more abstract way of painting. The Dreaming is less explicit, but becomes a condensed theme open to broader interpretation.

“... the knowledge of the culture is preserved, even if the practice is not as active.”
Richard Kelton, The Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica

We are observing a generational change in which both younger and more seasoned artists express their own personal touch without losing the integrity of tribal culture. As a result, Aboriginal paintings have connected with a broader international audience.

The Art Market

The demand for contemporary Aboriginal paintings has seen considerable growth over the past decade. Works of recognized painters have sold for several hundred thousand dollars at major auction houses. Yet many high quality works of established artists are still comparatively affordable and thus make for a great investment.

More and more international collectors are intrigued by the resonance of these abstract works of art and the deeper meaning of their iconography.

TRIBAL eARTh GALLERY is committed to advance the cause of contemporary Aboriginal art. At the same time, we are fascinated by the strong aesthetic and cultural connection between tribal art from Africa and Oceania and contemporary Aboriginal paintings. The former has strongly influenced modern art and the latter has transcended into an integral part of the modern art scene itself.

Both segments of the art world hold a tremendous crossover appeal as evidenced by their striking visual combination.