Aboriginal Art – The art of protesting!

In 1988 white Australians celebrated 200 years of colonization. They marked the event with a work of Aboriginal art designed by Aboriginal artist Michael Jagamara Nelson . The art work, a large mosaic was embedded in the pavement in front of the Houses of Parliament in Canberra. Like much of Nelson’s Aboriginal art it was based on a very traditional design from the Walpiri, a Central desert people, its shapes depicting a meeting place for ceremonies.  The mosaic was essentially a work of public art following a familiar cultural path whereby important works of Aboriginal art have been the forerunner to the Aboriginal people furthering their political course.

Since 1988, Australia has seen a lot of change in race relations and public art, especially Aboriginal art has played an important role. Five years after the unveiling of Nelson’s Canberra art work he returned to the site and in the full glare of the world’s media he symbolically altered his bicentennial Aboriginal artwork by removing it’s central image, a set of concentric circles that depicted the meeting place. He said:

“White people. You don’t seem to understand. They look at my work, all they see is a pretty painting. You, the white people, took this country from us … White people must understand. This country is Aboriginal peoples’ homeland … We want to keep our culture strong for our children’s children. We cannot do this without our land be-cause it is our land, our dreamings, stories, paintings-all tied to our land. This has all been changed … The Government of Australia has not recognized our people and our culture, it is abusing my painting and insulting my people. I want to take my painting back to my people.”

A few months after Nelson’s protest the Australian parliament passed the Native Titles Act which granted land rights to Aboriginal families who could prove they had   occupied their land through the generations. These rights were similar to those enjoyed by Native Americans and Canadians since colonization. Aboriginal art had played its part in these developments. In 1996 the Australian Governor General spoke of this in his Australia Day speech. He praised the redemptive powers of Aboriginal art and its ability to instruct other ethnic groups about the Aboriginal people and their homelands. Aboriginal art continues to play a significant part in the international art market.

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Aboriginal Art and Bark Painting

Australian Aboriginals have been expressing their artistic talent and creativity through the medium of bark painting for centuries. This ancient art form is closely linked with the ceremonial and religios aspects of Aboriginal life, and the pieces are often highly sort after by art collectors and museums the World over. As with any art work, the design and idea behind it are unique and belong to the creator, however with Aboriginal Bark art this is taken further; each artist has a design or ‘skin’ which is unique to his or her clan and are these are not allowed to be recreated by other artists. Given that these designs are often used in burial ceremonies and rituals, they are often very personal to the artist that created them. Whilst the idea of bark painting had existed for some time, the modern aboriginal art form was first bought to public attention during the 1930’s when the work of the Yolngu people begun producing commercial bark paintings that could be sold as pieces of Aboriginal Art in the cities of New South Wales and Victoria. As word of these fantastic artefacts spread, the popularity of bark painting and Aboriginal Art in general increased to unprecedented levels and soon entire exhibitions were being devoted to the genre, featuring artists such as Naritjin Maymuru. However, during the early and middle twentieth century, despite being popular bark painting was often considered an artisan product or a demonstration of local skill. By 1980’s this perception of Aboriginal art and bark painting in particular was beginning to change. Soon the medium came to be considered as a type of fine art, this not only resulted in an increase in the prices that could be charged but also the levels of supervision and analysis undertaken by art critics. Not only was the skill of the artist to be assessed, but also the quality of the wood and degree to which the piece captures the stories of ancient Aboriginal culture. This truly amazing type of artistic expression has a symbiotic relationship with the indigenous peoples as the bark painting not only records the stories and legends of old but allows for the expression of new stories and chapters in the progression of the Aboriginal artists.

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Aboriginal Rock Art: Part 1

Australian Aboriginal’s have always been linked with rock art and rock paintings, in time, popular culture and fine art.  The Aboriginal Rock Art engraved carefully into the sandstone around Syndey, New South Wales epitomises this phenomena.   Whilst even a few examples may often be considered of historical significance, there are in fact many thousands of beautiful rock engravings and carvings to be found in the region; however their location is often not publicised to prevent vandalism to these ancient art works and also preserve their status as sacred sites in the minds of Indigenous Australians.

Aboriginal Rock Art shares many parallels with other examples from around the World, however the style of these petro-glyphs is completely unique even within mainland Australia.  The engravings themselves were the work of Aboriginal Artists whom have occupied the region for over twenty-five thousand years, however the age of these art works does vary from one region to another.  For example, the Bidjigal Reserve in North-West Sydney has examples of rock carvings from roughly ten thousand BC.  However, some works have been found in the Blue Mountains region of Sydney which are thought to be much older, possibly dating from up to twenty-thousand BC.  The dates assumed for the production of the work are also based on the content of the art.  The Aboriginal art of ancient Australia is known as ‘simple figurative’ , featuring simplistic representations of ceremonies and events, more often focused on telling a story rather than focusing on detail and form.  However, it is reported that some engravings have been found which feature European sailing ships and vessels, meaning that they can’t be more than a couple of hundred years old.  The problem of dating the Aboriginal Rock Art is further complicated due to the re-grooving which can happen over the centuries.  The rock will often be re-worked as the sandstone is eroded in order to preserve the work, however this can often result in modifications or suggest that the origin of the engraving is more recent than it actually is.  Another method to identify the age of rock art is through the depiction of ancient and extinct animals, such as Thylacines, with examples in the Kakadu National Park supporting this hypothesis and its use in establishing the age of Aboriginal Rock Art.

This series of articles on the history and production of Aboriginal Rock Art is continued in the following posts:

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