With works of art in the area spanning over tens of thousands of years, it is easy to be immensely fascinated by the sheer historical importance and almost other worldliness of these visual accomplishments of a bygone time. Prehistoric aboriginal art functioned not only as images for display but as a means by which to communicate ideas. Today, Aboriginal artists draw upon this long standing history and tradition in order to create works with modern meaning and context. With its own unique and identifiable style and motivations, Aboriginal art offers much to contemporary discourses and conversations about art and how it can serve a culture.
Aboriginal cultures were first established in Australia as far back as between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. The oldest known Aboriginal art, and among the oldest known art in the world, is a charcoal drawing on a rock fragment in southwestern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This finding establishes aboriginal artwork as the world’s longest standing unbroken artistic practices in history, with artists of Aboriginal descent still working in the Australian region today.
"...much of early Aboriginal art was centered around storytelling, recording the places, events, knowledge, and beliefs that were familiar to them as a people."
With no written language, pictorial images were crucial for early Aboriginal cultures to pass on information and preserve their culture throughout thousands of years. Because of this much of early Aboriginal art was centered around storytelling, recording the places, events, knowledge, and beliefs that were familiar to them as a people. Traditional methods of creating artwork included rock engraving, body painting, carving, sculpting, weaving, dot painting, bark painting, and more.
While Aboriginal artists used ochre for thousands of years to paint on a variety of readily available surfaces, it was not until relatively recently that paint was taken to canvas. Albert Namatjira was a well-known watercolorist who painted local landscape scenes, celebrating the regional and natural beauty that was unique to Australia. In 1937, his work was exhibited in Adelaide.
Later on in the century, Aboriginal artists would draw upon oral storytelling traditions for their canvas paintings. For generations, people would sketch images into the sand with their fingers while conveying stories to an audience; in the 1970's, they began to put these images into more permanent form with murals and paintings. Today this is known as the Papunya Tula Art Form.
Artists must have permission from their community to convey traditional stories in this form, and may only use those which have been passed down to them through their family. Wanting to keep these elements of tradition personal and untainted by Western influence or interpretation, they obscure certain sacred meanings with dots. While these seemingly abstract patterns and amorphous forms of color and shape are unintelligible to the Western eye, they are in fact readable by those who have been taught these stories as a narrative. This aspect of Aboriginal art lends the art form not only aesthetic beauty but a heightened sense of cultural importance. With many of these artists being displaced and far from their original home due to Western colonisation, these artistic renderings of traditional storytelling are a means by which to hold a connection to their roots and preserve identity.
As the oldest uninterrupted artistic practice in the world, Australian Aboriginal art is without a doubt one of the most culturally important on Earth. Its roots in history as well as prehistory is indisputably fascinating and incredible as an example of the intellectual feats and accomplishments of humanity as a whole, while still serving as a unique byproduct of a culture that has managed to remain intact throughout tens of thousands of years in spite of colonial oppression and influence. It is because of this persisting endurance of unique cultural quality that Australian Aboriginal art is so captivating.