Types of Aboriginal Art

Body Paint and ceremonial artifacts

Many women's contemporary paintings feature Awelye, Body Paint, made famous by the 'striped breasts' compositions of the famed and now deceased Minnie Pwerle. Minnie's daughter and grand daughter Betty Mbitjana and Charmaine Pwerle respectively, have taken up the story and now paint their own versions of it, adding their own artistic take to the mix. Many Indigenous artworks reflect body paint designs, whether ceremonial and private or merely decorative. Usually the work is a combination of the two.

In the same way as indigenous people painted their bodies, they painted objects that were used for ceremonial purposes or just for day to day living. This can't be ignored as an art form and indeed it is common to many peoples worldwide. What is fascinating is the transcription of artwork that was once relegated only to objects and bodies to the rectangular form of the canvas. All at once we have a different kind of art; a record of something that was well before our time and a contextual link to an ancient purpose – even if we don't know the meaning exactly, we can gain a feel for something that existed and was important thousands of years ago in our still living Indigenous culture.

Bark paintings

Aboriginal Bark Paintings are thought to be the oldest form of indigenous art but this is hampered by the lack of longevity of the works unless scrupulously protected and cared for. The majority of bark paintings come from Northern Australia, where a more semi realistic or stylised cross hatching or 'Xray' style of painting prevails. It was not intended by the original painters of these works that they would be kept and displayed in perpetuity – their purpose and use was more immediate, and hence how long the works would exist for was not in the equation.

Times have changed, and now Indigenous Artists understand the western peoples' interest in the art, they have been assisted to make the works more robust. Still, wood and ochre are not the most durable of materials in the long term. Having said that, bark paintings are extraordinary, have a quality and palpable sense of history that is all their own. They can hang easily in both museums and art galleries, and the current economic downturn serves only to obscure their value as anthropological and artistic items. While now, action is need to keep the market for bark paintings alive, this will not always be the case, and an astute investor would do well to secure a good bark painting and protect it well.

Bark is not a short term investment, but one in Aboriginal Australia's art history – art that can only grow and become more rare and special as time goes by.

Ochre paintings

Ochres used in Aboriginal paintings were traditionally mined or dug from areas with a type of colourful soft stone. There are many such sites across much of Australia but some of the most impressive are the Ochre Pits in northern South Australia, and in the Breakaway Mountains not far from there.

The colours are a range of browns, reds, sandy yellows, whites, greys, moody purples, and even greens. Because these were used in most early artworks, they are regarded by some as traditional Aboriginal art colours. In fact, the People did not have anything else to use apart from black charcoal and ash.

Aboriginal people would sometimes travel quite a distance to get the best ochres for ceremonial uses. Indeed western cultures too grind down these same ochre pigments to manufacture the quality earth colours in oil and acrylic paints. Where Aboriginals mixed ochres with various natural gum resins or with animal derived oils/fats (from creatures such as emus and kangaroos) to bind, retain the colour and preserve their ochre paints, contemporary western manufacturers use acrylic compounds, vegetable oils (such as linseed), and gum based water solutions to do exactly the same. Apart from a little more precision in the mix and the processing method, it is not so very different.

The one major issue with the Indigenous Ochre paintings is their durability. Plant gum and animal fats are not a very robust medium for artwork and are prone to damage from water and poor handling. A traditional ochre painting needs to be extremely carefully stored and handled. These days, many Indigenous artworks which use traditional ochre pigments, are mixed with a synthetic polymer emulsion, or acrylic compound, to give more durability and strength. They are still far less durable than acrylic paint because they are not as finely ground and therefore at a micro level, they are more crumbly and less 'contained' by the acrylic, but if handled properly, they can last a very long time, especially since the ochre colours have high colourfastness properties.

Despite the difficulty in handling and transporting ochre paintings, and the limited palette they provide, they possess a soft, earthy quality which is unique and very attractive, and so they are still the preferred medium of many Indigenous artists.

Fibre Art

As most non-industrial peoples do, the Australian Aboriginal people made their own utensils, clothing, shelter, homewares, ceremonial artifacts, hunting materials, and decorative items to assist in and enhance their day to day lives. Fibre art was and is a big part of this, and many of the articles made deserve the term 'artwork' for their beauty, design, and originality.

The important fish traps of the northern peoples are a good example of how practical objects can be artworks of beauty and importance. Of course, that was not originally the intention, as apart from their functional application, the traps were fashioned from fibres to be lightweight and transportable for their partially nomadic lifestyle. The same goes for other functional and decorative items.

Fibre art is now another arena where time honoured skills can be used to fund modern life, and where artistic recognition and a degree of prosperity can be derived.

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a fascinating group, operating out of Alice Springs. The organisation collects sculptures and artifacts from all around the mainly Central and Western Desert areas and sells them through a cooperative arrangement. Generally made from desert grasses, and frequently in the subject matter of surprised bush animals, the Tjanpi works reign supreme as quirky and original sculptures with a real feel of the Australian Bush. Many of the Tjanpi artists are well known painters in their communities as well – the sculptures being a different way in which they express their stories.

Other important fibre art comes from Communities such as Maningrida and Bula Bula, where a wide range of mats, fish nets and other three dimensional forms are produced.

Wood carvings and sculpture.

Not a hugely acclaimed form of Indigenous Art compared with the run away popularity of painting, sculpture and carvings offer some superb examples of Aboriginal culture, and are growing in popularity and place in the scheme of things.

If you have ever gazed upon Lin Onus' 'Fruit Bats' sculpture, featuring that great Australian icon, the Hills Hoist clothes line, you will have marvelled at the eerie and penetrating energy emanating from the hundred or more life sized, fruit bats suspended from the wires. Decorated with traditional cross hatching design they are clustered together en masse, hanging upside down and clinging by their feet where normally clothes would be.

Perhaps you have walked in awe amongst the mass of hollow log coffins originating from the Ramingining and surrounding areas in central Arnhem land and now housed in the National Gallery.

Camp dog sculptures sourced from communities in the far north are in many ways, humble and plainly fashioned works, but they have the presence (or perhaps more) than the real camp dogs that populate any Indigenous community. Bush Critter sculptures, carved from wood, look askance at passers by with the exact same, eccentrically wild expression they have when surprised in the bush.

Pukamani funeral poles from the Tiwi people of Melville Island, often fashioned from extremely heavy and durable ironwood, have a spiritual and aesthetic presence that dominates any space or situation. Apart from shedding the occasional family of wood eating insects, Bill Harney's Lightning Spirits (a form of Mimi Spirit), carved very simply from tree branches and trunks, have such lively individual character and presence that they endear themselves to anyone who sees them.

Dennis Nona fashions impeccably fine and exotic stingray and other sculptures from bronze and aluminium.

There is such a variety of sculpture and carving, much stemming from basic everyday needs such as weaponry, canoes and an array of containers. Still more have a ceremonial purpose and a role in passing on the spiritual and other important knowledge of the Aboriginal culture.

Paintings on canvas, linen or board

These artworks began to appear in the early 1970's due to Geoffrey Bardon's involvement at Papunya in encouraging Aboriginal people to put their stories on a more permanent substrade so they could be kept for posterity. After a few issues such as protecting sacred information (somewhat resolved by the process of 'overdotting', but more conclusively resolved by the fact that most westerners didn't have a clue about or a serious interest in the more esoteric aspects of the information thus displayed) the group of artists grew and grew, until it is now a major industry and an extremely important source of income for Australia's Aboriginal people.

Artist groups sprang up in communities all over the country and perhaps the most exciting art movement of the 20th century was born. Certainly many people share that opinion. Today, contemporary Aboriginal art is still based to a large extent on ancient stories, but modern materials have made it possible for Aboriginal Artists to paint with a wide range of colours and in the relatively easy medium of fast drying acrylic paint.

Many Artists paint outside on the ground, or on verandahs or the floors of open doored studios: dogs, birds, children and family in general mill around, dogs occasionally fight across a painting, and children, dogs (and the artists themselves) may frequently be found sitting on the artworks while they are in the process of being painted. This all makes it virtually impossible for an artwork to be painted in slow drying oils or fragile watercolour – it is definitely not the relatively controlled environment of an western artist. Acrylic paint is up to the test however, and it is a perfect medium for Aboriginal art – it is quick drying, durable, can be wiped clean, rolled, transported, endure harsh temperatures, and all without so much as a blemish or crack appearing in the work.

Earlier in the piece however, the use of acrylic paints was questioned. Many queried the fact that Indigenous Acrylic artworks are frequently in such bright and lively colour palettes, asking why they are not in the more 'traditiona'l Aboriginal colours such as brown, red ochres, yellow ochres and the like. If you have ever been to the outback, especially in springtime after rain, you will see a world of unsurpassed colour. Broad blue skies, red deserts dotted with an incredible variety of greens, coloured rocks and wildflowers of all descriptions, blue, violet, green and orange waters, all make this one of the most colourful places on earth. Even in the harshest of dry summers, the colours of the outback are extraordinary.

Up until recently, the indigenous artist had only the earth colours with which to represent their world. Now they have access to the entire palette used by western artists – and after initial forays with their elders, they now have both the authority and the desire to use them to represent their stories.

Watercolours after the European style

The main proponent of this style, and the one to receive most acclaim was Albert Namatjira, who painted at the Hermannsburg mission back in the 1930's. Initially he was taught to paint landscapes in this European style by artist Rex Battarbee, but he developed his own unique style and as a result of his technical and artistic ability with the medium, he gained great respect and admiration in his time, despite him being an Indigenous artist.

In fact it led the government of the day to give Namatjira full citizen's rights, something that was denied Aboriginal people at the time. It opened some people of the day's eyes to the potential ability of Aboriginal people and began to break down barriers.

To this day, there are a number of artists who follow in Namatjira's footsteps, largely painting the McDonnell Ranges and other Central Australian landscapes. The works are charming, finely worked, and good examples are quite collectible in their own right.

Naïve Aboriginal Art

There are many Indigenous artists who would be classified as Naïve artists in an international context. However there are some white administrators who who resist such a classification, feeling it should be seen solely as Aborigianal art rather than tied in with an international genre.

Nonetheless, the works of this style qualify on the world stage as Naïve works as they represent the day to day life of Australian Indigenous peoples and are executed in an innocent and untrained style.

Naïve Indigenous art is a fascinating study: the changes in Aboriginal life, their interface with the 'whitefeller' ways, and their experience through this period of change in particular are highlighted by some of these delightful works. Because they express what is happening now, and Aboriginal life as a part of what is happening, they will be collectors' items of the future, cataloguing as they do, the political social arena in which we now live. Subjects such as 'meeting with the land council', illustrate and in fact record the processes of integration in a marvellously telling fashion.

Other Naïve Aboriginal art, and works of great charm and presence, are produced by a group of artists whose mobility is limited by disability, and who have been cut off from the homelands that mean so much to them as Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are as one with their land – it is a part of them in ways that few westerners can comprehend, and to be separated from one's homeland is a dire situation. These works are multi-dimensional, being innocent, colourful and somewhat childlike images, but simultaneously expressing such a longing and palpable sadness that they are quite extraordinary.

Urban Art

Urban Aboriginal Art is by and large, political, emotional and provocative: it frequently addresses the ills, both past and present of Indigenous people in Australia. More information about this important subject will be coming soon.