Home Magazine The Continued Legacy and Influence of Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art, or Indigenous Australian art, is among the oldest forms of art known to mankind, dating as far as 60,000 years when the Aborigines first settled in Australia, making it the oldest continuous living culture in world history.

It originally involved works on a wide range of media like painting on leaves, rock carving, sculpture, sand painting, wood carving, and more. It has been incredibly influential on human history as it is largely based on important ancient narratives. The field of contemporary Aboriginal art lives on until today with great international recognition and demand for works that follow their methods. 

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Without an official language, the Aboriginal culture relied on visual language to educate and pass on the knowledge of their people. Expressing the past and their close connection to their land was imperative for the survival of these cultures and painting was the most effective visual medium used by Aboriginal culture for a variety of purposes.


Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Tarkulnga , 1988. © Copyright Agency. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Courtesy of Gagosian.


Working on many different mediums, the first discovered paintings by Aboriginal artists were found on rocks. Such works are widely considered the earliest and oldest forms of art made by mankind. They often involve symbolism and carry a message around human's connection to the land. Contemporary aboriginal art and the interest in the field is largely credited to the work of one man: Geoffrey Bardon. In 1971, Bardon, a school teacher at the time, was working with Aboriginal children in Papunya and he noticed a few of them attempting to tell stories by drawing in the sand. He encouraged them to paint on canvas and boards and the famous Aboriginal art movement was revived and brought to everyone's attention around the world. It was a major breakthrough connecting indigenous people with the west as painting their stories onto western facades was unknown to them. Since then, Australian Aboriginal Art has been an incredibly exciting field of study and a source of great interest from institutions, galleries and collectors worldwide. 


Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari (Aboriginal Australian, 1932-2002), ‘Leura Leura Dreaming,’ 1996


The originality of the art was quickly seen in the use of colour, as well as the stylization of the paintings. Most works were aerial looks of the lands with reduced or simplified human figures, animals and plants. The surfaces are often flat and filled with dots, which led to a new form of painting better known as Dot Painting. Works often carried abstract forms like circles and spirals that represented major events. The paintings need to be interpreted as emotional and spiritual road maps

Australia’s Aboriginal culture represents the oldest surviving culture in the world. Yet contemporary aboriginal art still retains its original rigid methods. Artists can only inherit the rights to the stories they paint. These rights can only be passed down through generations within certain skin groups. An Aboriginal artist cannot paint a story that does not belong to them through familyThe Aboriginal art movement ultimately went on to influence how Australians relate to the land and what is unique about the Australian landscape. It helped lead Australians away from the European colonialist filter and return to their roots. 

Interest in collecting Aboriginal art continues to see new highs with this year being a record year for it, at least in New York City. Salon 94 organized the first solo show of work by Yukultji Napangati earlier this year. Also this year, Olsen Gruin put together a group show featuring indigenous women artists from the southern Australian collective, Tjala Arts. Even Gagosian Gallery launched a major, non-selling exhibition titled, “Desert Painters of Australia,” which included lush canvases by artists like Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Makinti Napanangka and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Canvases filled with dots, labyrinthine lines, and masterful use of colour, they evoke topographic maps and the night sky in brilliant palettes. 


Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Emu Dreaming, 1996 - Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery


Sotheby’s has also announced that two Kngwarreye works will be auctioned in December: Summer Celebration (1991, estimated to sell for $300,000 - $500,000) and Untitled (1990, estimated to sell for $250,000 - $350,000), both from Thomas Vroom, a leading European collector. Other highlights from their auction include a self-portrait by Gordon Bennett, one of the most widely exhibited Aboriginal artworks carrying an estimate of $350,000 and $450,000, and Dorothy Napangarti’s Kartakuurmangu Jukurrpa (2001, estimate to sell for $30,000 - $50,000). 

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Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Rockholes and Country Near the Olgas, 2008. © Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. Courtesy of Gagosian


Overall, Australian Aboriginal paintings have everything that you want in great contemporary art. It certainly has the aesthetics, the meaning, historical context, and a great relationship to people, places and land. This is why major institutions around the world, including the Tate Modern, are increasingly organizing resources toward their Aboriginal art collections, moves that spur and support global interest in sales and production of such work. 

Cover image: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Summer Celebration (1991), Courtesy of Sotheby's

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.


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