About Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal art offers a unique insight into the oldest surviving culture on the planet. Before Europeans arrived in Australia there were over three hundred different language groups throughout Australia. You can explore these here. Currently there are only 120 languages recorded and used today.
Aboriginal art tells stories and records events in a way previously used only in ceremonies. Individually, the paintings are books that use iconography, colours and patterns to portray the landscape of the desert. To recognize most elements in central Australian painting the viewer must know the sight and the Dreaming depicted in the painting. They refer to sites where mystical activity is believed to have occurred and where the ancestral power still remains. Artists employ a basic set of symbols such as dots, concentric circles and curved or straight lines. All have multiple meanings depending on their context. Meanings are not always explained in great detail so as to protect the stories from those not allowed to access them. When purchasing aboriginal art you may be given the title and a basic description of the area a painting is from or parts of the story, but not the whole story or meaning.
Apart from the importance of retelling and recording stories, aboriginal art offers a stunning visual representation of culture. It also allows artists an income in an area that has very few other opportunities. Gannon House Gallery works with artists from the central and western desert including the communities in Kintore, Kiwikurra, Alice Springs, Ti-Tree, Utopia. We also work with the communities in Arnhem Land including Maningrida, Oepelli and Yirrikala.
According to the tradition of the central desert Arrente people, the ancestors lived during the dreamtime (Jukurrpa), the creation era when the totemic ancestors rose from the fearless mass of Mother Earth and sang themselves into existence. They called out their names as they stretched up to the sun: “I am Honey Ant” “ I am Snake!” Slowly they began to move across the barren land naming all things and thus bringing them into being. Their words formed verses and as the ancestors walked about they sang the mountains, rivers, and rocks into existence. The Arrente people place particular importance on the Todd River, it’s water Holes and soakages. These provided a good supply of food and sites for the ceremonial cycles of the Arrente people. The land surrounding the Todd River is known as Mparntwe and was believed to have been created by ancestral caterpillars moving out from Anthwerre( Emily Gap).
As they traveled, the ancestors hunted, ate made love, sang and danced, leaving a trail of dreamings along the Song lines. Finally at the end of the journey the ancestral beings sank bank into the earth where they can be seen sleeping in the land formations.
Tales of the dreamtime explain the Law, which is an integral part of the structure of aboriginal society. In order to express the Dreamtime more fully, the stories are told through dance, music, story telling and art.
The Anangu people traditionally held ownership of Uluru and Kata Tjuta national park. They believe that they are the direct descendants of the Tjururitja ancestors. The Tjukurpa explains the creation time, where the Tjuriritja ancestors transformed the landscape from a flat, featureless plain to a land which provides all the necessities of life – water, plants and animals.
It was in Papunya in 1971 when traditional designs began to be transferred into acrylic on canvas. The Australian government moved aboriginal people from their traditional lands into centralised communities. Many of the people who ended up in Papunya did not speak the same language and came from different kinship groups so the community tensions were rife. A teacher at the school tried to persuade young students to paint their stories as a way of communicating. Some of the senior men advised him that the young children were not allowed to paint their stories until they were initiated. The teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, then encouraged the men to paint some murals. This experiment resulted in the most exciting art movement of the century. Remaining true to tradition but expanding the form and colour palette, the artists have created a striking collection of modern art, which contains multiple layers of visual history and oral tradition.
You can read more about the community at Papunya here.
Acrylic paintings are merely a new form of incorporating the classical elements of Aboriginal life, the state of a person’s relationship to those around him, to the land and to the Dreaming. Yet they also represent a new context of interaction between indigenous and western societies.
Australian Aboriginal art has been exhibited around the work to much acclaim. There are many works included in the major collections of public galleries in Europe, the UK and the US.
In 2006 the Musee du Quai Branly was opened in Paris. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the building has very clean lines and a modern design but incorporates the paintings of eight artists, Ningura Napurrula, Tommy Watson, Lena Nyadbi,Judy Watson, Micheal Riley, Paddy Bedford, Gulumbu Yunupingu and John Marwarndju into the ceiling, and walls of the building.
You can read more about this extraordinary building and an exhibition of work in an essay by Judith Ryan from the NGV here.
Art making in Utopia began with the need for the inhabitants to prove that the community was financially viable. In the hearing related to their land claim the women and men were heard separately and the women used their knowledge of the land, expressed in the Batik as proof of their attachment and essential relationship with the land. In 1977, the technique of making batik was introduced to the women of Utopia in a workshop run by Suzie Bryce and Yipati Williams, a Pitjantjatjara woman. In 1978 the women learned more about the process of making batik from the schoolteacher, Toly Sawkeno, initated by the adult educator at Utopia, Jenny Green who helped with the formation and organization of the Utopia Women’s Batik group.
The Utopia batiks showed the aspects of country that were important to the women but also the new structures and influences on the community such as the general store and the new food and clothing that were available. In 1987 CAAMA (The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) with Rodney Gooch as the helm took over the running and finances of the Utopia artists and in 1988 commissioned a number of batiks. The women were encouraged to create batiks that would describe life in the Utopia outstations. Eighty-eight batiks were created and presented which then served as the opening exhibition at the new Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide in October 1988. The Batiks were deigned to be shown together and agreements were made, prior to the initial exhibitions, that they would stay together. This was possible through the generosity and vision of Janet and Robert Holmes a Court. The exhibition later toured to Ireland, after which it was purchased in it’s entirety by the Robert Holmes à Court Collection.
In the summer of 1988-1989 the medium of acrylic paint on canvas was introduced to the artists of Utopia. The versatility of the medium and the ease of creating beautiful artwork was attractive and it was a well established medium in the western desert by this time.
An exhibition entitled A Summer Project: Utopia Women’s Paintings: The First Works on Canvas was shown at the SH Irwin Gallery in Sydney. It consisted of one hundred small canvases of all the same size and used only four fundamental ceremonial colours, black, white, and yellow and red.
This new medium saw the rise of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who paved the way for a freer, fresher and very vibrant contemporary art form, unique to the women’s paintings of Utopia. Others followed suit, including Ada Bird Petyarre, Gloria Tamarre Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Rosemary Petyarre and Nancy Petyarre.