Aboriginal Art

Australian Aboriginal art illustrates the Aboriginal dreamtime (Jukurrpa) explains the creation, law, religion and customs which is an integral part of the structure of aboriginal society. These Dreamtime Stories are told through dance, music, story telling and art.

In Papunya in 1971 traditional designs began to be transferred into acrylic on canvas to become what is now know as Aboriginal Art. 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. 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 always refer to sights where mystical activity is believed to have occurred and where the ancestral power still remains. Aboriginal Artists employ a basic set of symbols such as dots, concentric circles and curved straight lines. All have multiple meanings depending on their context.

Aboriginal Art in the form of 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. Through modern aboriginal art, the Aboriginal people are able to introduce and express their dreaming’s to the world so that it may continue.



The desert painting movement only began in 1971, with the stimulation of a local art teacher at Papunya, Geoff Bardon. He began to encourage the children to paint a mural on a school wall using geometric shapes and symbols. Some of the older men were watching from the distance and became intrigued. Upon coming closer, and with encouragement, they took over the task of painting and completed a traditional honey ant design over the whole surface. Within only a couple of months, this depressed desert community at Papunya had become infused with fervor to paint, as up to 20 artists began to cover every available scrap of masonite or board producing numerous paintings about their religious beliefs and land using, completely traditional symbols. Within a few years the paintings had developed to the point where artists were making completely articulated large abstract canvasses which stunned the ‘outside’ viewer.

The modern paintings are for the most part motivated by a creative desire to communicate important truths of the dreaming. Dreaming refers to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality about the Dreamtime. The expression Dreamtime refers to the time of the creation of all things when Ancestor Spirits came to Earth in human and other forms and the land, the plants and animals were given their form as we know them today. These Spirits also established relationships between groups and individuals, (whether people or animals) and where they traveled across the land, or came to a halt, they created rivers, hills, etc., and there are often stories attached to these places.

Once their work was done, the Ancestor Spirits changed again; into animals or stars or hills or other objects. For Indigenous Australians, the past is still alive and vital today and will remain so into the future. The Ancestor Spirits and their powers have not gone, they are present in the forms into which they changed at the end of the ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’, as the stories tell.

These dreaming stories are handed down through the ages and are an integral part of Aboriginal life. From an early age, storytelling plays a vital role in educating children. The stories help to explain how the land came to be shaped and inhabited; how to behave and why; where to find certain foods. Then, as children grow into young adults, more of the history and culture is revealed. Adults then take responsibility for passing on the stories to the following generations. In this way, the Stories of the Dreaming have been handed down over thousands of years.

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 Napurula, 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.

Arnhem Land

Gannon House Gallery sources artwork from Maningrida, Yirrikala and Oenpelli. these communities produce works on paper, bark, baskets and weavings, hollow logs and other sculptural works such as large fish baskets.

The western Arnhem Land style is typified by x-ray paintings, forceful images of spirit ancestors and delicate paintings of the Mimi spirits predominate. These figurative images of hunting animals and stick-like figures which have come to symbolise, for many, the very essence of all Aboriginal Art.

The term x-ray art was originally coined because many of the paintings of figures, animals, birds and fish, reveal the internal organs as well as the external features. Heart, lungs, intestinal canal and spinal column were often clearly shown. Numerous extraordinary beautiful ancient examples of the x-ray style of painting appear on rock faces throughout the area.


Paintings of Mimihs in the traditional Mimih art style depict them as thin spirit creatures in various positions which display their extreme agility and flexibility. The oldest cave paintings in Western Arnhem Land are of Mimih figures running and hunting, often wearing head dresses and carrying several weapons and utensils. These type of figures were given the term ‘dynamic’ by the  Rock Art historian, George Chaloupka.


The Mimihs are thought to be the original beings who occupied the land before humans and continue to live in rocks, caves, trees and water although they are rarely seen. According to Kunwinjku people mimihs taught them everything they needed to know to survive; how to hunt, gather and prepare food, sing, dance and perform ceremonies.


Yawk Yawk

Yawk Yawk are female water spirits that closely resemble the European idea of mermaids. Half spirit, half fish, they entice unwary fishermen beneath the water of the lagoons that are their domain throughout Arnhem Land. They may have long hair like reeds of trailing water weed and can take on the features of fish or body of a snake. When fully grown Yawk Yawk spirits can leave their water hole to forage for food by changing their fishtails into legs to walk on dry land or assume the shape of a dragonfly to fly. Yawk Yawk figures are also closely associated with Ngaloyd, the Rainbow Serpent and can be associated with sorcery.