Koala Aboriginal art has been created for many tens of thousands of years. A rock engraving site north of Sydney depicts a koala and it is believed to have been made some 25,000 years ago. Aboriginal artists continue to depict this iconic Australian animal in their art in a variety of mediums and styles.
An Important Animal for Australia's First Peoples
Koalas are found in eastern Australia and live in the tall eucalypt forests and low eucalypt woodlands of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. They are most at home high in the tree canopy and only come down to the ground to move trees.
They get their name from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘no drink’ because they get all the liquid they need from gum leaves. They only need water in times of drought.
It took some time for European settlers to discover this unique marsupial, but today it is instantly recognizable worldwide as a symbol of Australia and found nowhere else.
Koalas have a totemic status within Aboriginal communities and are featured in many of the Dreamtime stories. Interestingly, many of the stories featuring the marsupial focus on its solitary nature. Many tell of an animal that once had a tail, which it lost as the result of some accident or wrongdoing.
Many of the Dreaming stories also stress the importance of paying respect to the animal. They outline important protocols such as not breaking any of the animal’s bones or removing its fur until after it is cooked. If these laws are not followed, it is believed that the ancestral Koala will cause a severe draught.
Koalas are easy to distinguish on rock art and engraving sites along the east coast. They are usually depicted from a side view, with their stocky tailless body, arms and legs creating a C shape as if grasping on to a tree. Its large head and round fluffy ears also set them apart.
Outline of Rock Engraving in Darkinjung Country, NSW
These sites were an important way to share the Dreaming stories and were used for many thousands of years. Painted rock art sites traditionally applied ochre to cave walls.
Contemporary Aboriginal art featuring this marsupial is as wonderfully diverse as the cultures, languages, kinship structures and ways of life among Aboriginal people across Australia today.
Artists such as Trevor Turbo Brown depict the animal in simplistic form using bright colours and bold outlines. There is something engaging about Trevor’s original painting style, and his works pulsate with an irresistible and syncopated beat.
Some artists choose to infill the animal shape with intricate patterning or in the iconic Aboriginal dot painting style. Other artists use media such as sculpture and pottery.
Desert artists from the Warlukurlangu art centre have also done a series of Christmas decorations in the shapes of iconic Australian animals from all over Australia.
Animals such as koalas, kangaroos, emus and wombats have been cut out of wood and painted on both sides by Aboriginal artists. It is a great community initiative by one of the many Aboriginal art centres we are proud to represent.