Aboriginal animal art has been produced for tens of thousands of years. From prehistoric rock art to the various creative expressions we see today. The variety of styles is truly mesmerising, from modern figurative to symbolic, and the iconic ‘x-ray’ style typically found on bark paintings.
For Indigenous Australians, animals are an important partner in life, deserving the utmost respect. They are vital to ensure survival, but they are also revered and feature predominantly in the ancient Dreamtime stories.
An important partner in life
Aboriginal people have co-existed with Australia’s unique flora and fauna for over 50,000 years. They are not only an important food source but can also be a signpost in order to survive Australia’s harsh climate. The sighting of a budgerigar in the central desert, for example, means you’re close to a source of water!
Animals can also provide essential cultural signposting for how to live life and conduct oneself. In many Aboriginal cultures, they are the creator spirits in their Dreamtime stories, and Indigenous people are the descendants of these creation spirits.
For example, the kangaroo is a creation spirit and Dreaming ancestor of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania. If your totem was the kangaroo, then you had clearly defined roles and responsibilities to ensure the conservation of this important animal. This includes maintaining the country, so it is favourable to the kangaroo, which provided meat and clothing, as well as ensuring the songs, dances and stories about the ancestral kangaroo were maintained.
Totems ensured everyone had a responsibility to conserve the environment, and each person was accountable for their totem. It is not that one person ‘owned’ an animal, but it was more about responsibility in your lifetime to make sure you do the right thing, and then pass that information on to the next generation.
With such respect for the natural world, is it any wonder that this is the oldest living culture in the world.
A recurring subject matter for Indigenous Australian artists
With animals holding such an important role in the lives of Indigenous Australians, it is not surprising that depictions of them have been a major source of inspiration for artists for many millennia. From ancient mediums such as rock art and body paintings through to modern mediums used today.
Aboriginal rock art is some of the oldest existing on earth. Arnhem Land and the far north are by far Australia’s most prolific rock art areas. In particular, Kakadu National Park is one of the richest and most extensive rock art areas of Australia. Impressive depictions of humans, mammals, reptiles and fish can be seen on cave walls and rocky overhangs throughout the park.
Bark painting techniques have also been practised for centuries in this area of Australia. Artists from this region share their deep knowledge and keen observations of animal anatomy and behaviour by using the X-ray style. This style is characterised by the creature shown in profile with internal organs visible. These paintings are usually based on a lifetime’s experience as a traditional hunter-gatherer, so they literally know their subjects inside out!
Images of kangaroos, wallaby, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, and emus portrayed for generations on cave walls and barks have been translated onto todays materials. Bark is still very predominant, but also paper, board, and new media.
If we move to the central and western desert regions of Australia – the main forms of traditional visual representation are sand and body painting as part of ceremony. The modern acrylic paintings of many artists from this region are based on these designs.
Interestingly, artists predominately use symbols to represent animals in their artworks, and a lot of these symbols are realistic animal tracks as they meander across the sand.
Alternatively, some artists chose to depict animals figuratively and do so in a couple of unique ways. Some artists will paint frogs, lizards, ants, birds, butterflies, and echidnas in intricate detail, while others prefer a more simplistic form, using composition, colour and line to create highly expressive and dynamic paintings.
Our aboriginal paintings collections above showcase a huge range of styles. We encourage you to browse through and enjoy the incredible diversity and artistic methods employed by the talented artists we represent.