Aboriginal Art "Dreaming"

'Our connection to all things natural is spiritual. By dreaming, we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society; they made all natural things and put them down in special places. These dreaming creatures were connected to special places and special roads or tracks or paths. In many cases, the great creatures changed themselves into sites where their spirits stay.' (Silas Roberts)

The ‘Dreaming’ is an integral part of Aboriginal culture. As Silas Roberts explains, the ‘Dreaming’ recalls when the ancestors walked the earth giving form to the land, nature and culture. Like the spirit of the ancestors, the ‘dreaming’ is continuous, it does not reside in a distant time or place, It is like, as Ian McLean suggests, “DNA:the language of all life, the power in all things, animate and inanimate." It is from this perspective that one begins to appreciate the importance of the land to Aboriginal people, with every animal, plant and detail of the landscape having its own history and significance. These ‘dreaming’ stories set down laws for social and moral order while retaining knowledge for survival. This information has been retained and passed on primarily through art.

Introduction to Aboriginal Art

Today, Aboriginal Contemporary Art is Australia’s most widely recognized and internationally acclaimed art form. Indigenous art’s growth in popularity in local and global markets has seen Australian Aboriginal culture reach out and touch people around the world. As the world’s longest continuing culture, spanning over 40,000 years, these works have offered audiences a unique opportunity to understand the beliefs, customs and rich heritage of indigenous Australians, while sharing in their present. Whereas 30 years ago these viewers sought out Aboriginal cultural objects in museums, today the savvy art enthusiast will find these works in the world’s most prestigious galleries. The question that needs a reply is: Where and when did this shift occur?

Private stories for public consumption

While Aboriginal men and women have been engaged for millennia in artistic practices, such as sand drawings, cave painting, ceremonial dance and body art, these practices were not open to the public. It was not until the early 1970s that indigenous Australians began producing artworks for public consumption. There was considerable controversy surrounding the display of ceremonial and sacred symbols to the uninitiated. To this day, there is still some symbolism that is disguised in some works.


Papunya, the acrylic movement begins

It was in Papunya, a settlement located 250 kilometers outside Alice Springs, that the Aboriginal acrylic movement originated. Established in 1959, Papunya was the last of the Aboriginal reserves set up by the Australian Federal government. Desert groups including the Pintupi, Anmatyerre and Warlpiri were taken from their traditional lands and forced to live in close proximity. In 1971, at the suggestion of Geoffrey Bardon, these tribes started a collaborative art practice, painting five murals on the schoolhouse walls, including the now famous Honey Ant mural. It is this initial collaboration that sparked an unprecedented outpouring of artworks, with men painting on every available piece of paper, board and scrap of tin, covering every conceivable surface.

Traditional stories, modern materials

It was through the introduction of modern materials, that works by the Papunya men became a viable commercial art form. Beginning with traditional ochres on board, experimentation led these men to more contemporary materials including poster colors, oils and finally acrylics on canvas. These new materials gave traditional designs portability and permanency and broadened the previously restricted palette of red, yellow, black and white, making these works more accessible to the general public.

'Dot painting’

In addition to the change of materials used, a new style emerged in these early days at Papunya. It was here that the now famous 'dot paintings' first appeared. While these works were at first graphically iconic, dotting was introduced as a means of enabling the artists to veil sacred knowledge, while also giving their ‘dreaming’ stories a depth that was lacking when transferred to a two dimensional surface. Through experimentation these works became increasingly complex and expressive, gaining the attention of commercial and national institutions. Today this style is seen as an integral part of the movement, which also introduces a level of camouflage and secrecy to the surface of the canvas.

Traditional Symbols

While modern materials were introduced and a new style developed at Papunya, the symbols remain traditional. These symbols include- roundels (signifying a waterhole or campsite), concentric circles (symbolizing a ceremonial site or meeting place), a U shape (representing a person) and animal tracks. There are many variations of these designs, providing Indigenous artists with an inexhaustible language to represent the land and their complex 'dreaming' stories. However the meaning of these symbols is not universal but regional with every community having their own interpretation of these designs. Surviving thousands of years these symbols have been used to retain and pass on creation stories, law, custom and knowledge for survival. Now these designs not only retain knowledge, but also allow the general public entrance into this vibrant, thriving culture.

‘Painting Men’

The founding members of this style and the Papunya movement are known collectively today as the forty ‘original painting’ men, including-

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarda Tjungurrayi, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa.

These men put Aboriginal art on the map, with their skill, the complexity of their works and the vivid beauty of their designs, transforming the world’s conceptions of art. Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and his brother Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s painting, “Warlugulong”, exemplify the brilliance of these painters. Warlugulong is a site where, according to the ‘Dreaming,’ the first bush fire began. This story relays how, in ancestral times, Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard man started an enormous fire at this site to punish his two sons for not sharing their catch of Kangaroo, which was customary. His sons could not stop the fire and perished. The boys’ skeletons are represented in the atmospheric effect of charred earth and ash on the right side of the canvas. While Lungkata is the central motif of this work, eight other dreaming stories are represented along with this collaborative work exceeding in size and narrative complexity anything that had hitherto been produced. This encyclopedic ‘map’ of country and ‘dreaming’ sold in 2007 for 2.4 million, breaking the world record for Aboriginal art.

Female Painters emerge

By the mid 1980's the painting movement had spread throughout the Eastern, Western and Central desert communities of Australia with Community Art centers being established at Yuendumu, Haasts Bluff, Balgo Hills and Lajamanu. The style and content of these works varied dramatically between regions, with every community influenced by their own landscape and unique dreaming stories. These works were predominately executed by men with women often assisting their husbands or relatives. However, in the Utopia region in the Northern Territory, unlike Papunya and the other developing artistic communities, women were the main proponents of the painting movement. The artistic careers of many of these Utopia women starting in the Women's Batik Group, founded in 1971. The women’s batiks developed from clothing fabrics, to designs on silk, until eventually being presented on canvas. One the founding members of this group is the now internationally renowned artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. It was through Emily's adventurous, free flowing style that these women first gained recognition and became respected artists in their own right.

Modern Aboriginal Art

The style has changed dramatically since the early days at Papunya. Moving away from traditional iconography, these works have progressively become more abstract. Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye were the key proponents of this stylistic shift. It is in Rover Thomas's bold minimalistic works that many historians and critics have seen Mark Rothko. Emily Kame's gestural works have been compared to Jackson Pollock, her sensitivity to color equivalent to Monet. Both of these artists have not only inspired an entire generation of young practitioners but have also challenged what constituted Aboriginal imagery. It is through the continuing and breathtaking work being produced by Australian indigenous artists that many critics, including Robert Hughes have declared it “the last great art movement of the 20th century”1

Just the beginning

The last great art movement is also the longest running art movement in the world, with acrylics on canvas being the latest adaption. Always evolving, this movement has brought Indigenous art to the public; a shift that has generated unprecedented enthusiasm and acclaim from audiences around the world. From remote corners of the globe to the world's largest capital cities, Indigenous art has travelled and transformed peoples conceptions of art. Previously audiences were denied access to Aboriginal 'dreaming' stories, customs and values, whereas today the viewer is able to share in indigenous culture through art.

Art has provided a vehicle for the exchange of culture. It has formed relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous communities and facilitated appreciation and understanding of Australia's first people. There's plenty of work to do but Art has certainly opened the door.




• Bardon, Geoff, Bardon, James, Papunya : a place made after the story : the beginnings of the Western Desert painting movement, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Vic., 2004 
• McCulloch, Susan, Contemporary Aboriginal Art, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, 2001
• National Gallery of Australia, Culture Warriors: Australia Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes, A.C.T, 2009
• National Museum of Australia, Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, ed. Margo Neale, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2008, p. 10
• 'Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius', exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, cited at, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/321.1981/
• Roberts, Silas,  'Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry: Transcript of Proceedings,' Commonwealth of Australia, cited at http://www.mabonativetitle.com/info/dreamingCreatures.htm