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  • Howard Morphy,
  • Andrée Rosenfeld,
  • Peter Sutton,
  • Ian Keen,
  • Catherine H. Berndt,
  • Ronald M. Berndt,
  • Paul Memmott,
  • Kate Khan,
  • Betty Meehan,
  • Carol Cooper,
  • Luke Taylor,
  • Robert Layton,
  • J. V. S. Megaw,
  • M. Ruth Megaw
  •  and Francesca Cavazzini

Culture of the original inhabitants of Australia and their descendants. This survey covers the traditional art forms of the Australian Aborigines, such as rock art, sculpture in wood, clay and sand, body decoration, and bark painting, both before and after European colonization took place at the end of the 18th century. It also examines the interrelationships between the art of Aboriginal groups living in different regions on the continent. Traditional art forms have continued to be produced in most regions well into the late 20th century, but at the same time some contemporary Aboriginal artists, influenced by the dominant white culture in which they now live, have begun to explore new forms and media; this art, produced mainly for external markets, is discussed separately.

I. Introduction.

1. Geography and early settlement history.

Australia and New Guinea formed a single landmass, the prehistoric continent of Sahul, until c. 8000 years ago, when the rising sea-level separated them at the Torres Strait. This continent was first occupied at least 40,000 years ago, by people who arrived by boat from South-east Asia. By 30,000 bp people had spread across most of the continent, although the Central Desert remained largely unoccupied until 10,000 years ago (White and O’Connell). Until European colonization at the end of the 18th century Australian Aborigines were hunters and gatherers, even though they had been in contact with agriculturalists north of the Torres Strait for many thousands of years. According to the earliest European records, at the time of colonization in 1788 the population had reached a level variously estimated between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people, speaking some 200 separate languages with a great range of dialects (Dixon). Population density varied enormously according to environmental factors. Many of the well-watered coastal regions and the great inland river system of the Murray–Darling supported relatively dense populations for hunting and gathering societies, whereas the vast region of the Western Desert contained only a few thousand people in total (see fig.). Although there is considerable overlap in the environmental resources across the continent, populations in the richer tropical environments of the north and the well-watered temperate regions of the south-east were semi-sedentary with a predictable annual cycle of movement, whereas in some of the less fertile and drier areas populations were nomadic and occupied vast tracts of land.

Aborigines have had a major impact on the Australian environment. Most profoundly, the use of fire both in hunting and in clearing the undergrowth has altered the flora and fauna of the continent in favour of a regime that tolerates, and in some cases benefits from, the regular burning of land. The archaeological record shows that changes occurred over time, including an increase in the systematic use of fire, the invention of polished stone axes c. 20,000 years ago, the introduction of the dog 4000 years ago, and the general tendency towards the development of smaller stone tools and the production of composite hafted implements (Mulvaney; White and O’Connell). The correlation between social and technological changes is not precisely known, but by the time of European colonization Aborigines had developed a highly complex hunter–gatherer society involving the skilful management of land and resources, a predictable seasonal cycle, and a system of social and religious organization centred on rights over land that ordered the relationship between people and the environment.

2. Religion.

Despite considerable variation, Aboriginal religions throughout Australia share many common features. A central concept is the belief in a time of world-creation frequently referred to in English as the ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ (Stanner). In the Dreaming, ancestral beings occupied the surface of the earth, emerging from beneath the ground or journeying from distant places. These ancestral beings varied in form, sometimes having the shape of animals or inanimate objects such as stones, at other times human characteristics. They travelled across the land, sometimes in groups, encountering others on the way and acting rather as humans do but on a grander scale. Through their actions they transformed the earth’s surface, creating the form of the landscape: where they walked valleys were created, where they bled lakes were formed and where they left their digging sticks in the ground, or splintered their spears against a rock, trees grew. Every action affected the landscape, which then took on mnemonic importance in their lives. At the end of the Dreaming, the ancestral beings withdrew from the surface of the earth, returning beneath the ground or simply transforming themselves into features of the landscape (Maddock; Charlesworth and others). They left behind human groups whom they had created and set in the landscape.

Although ancestral beings no longer occupied the earth, they continued to exist in another dimension necessary to the humans who succeeded them. They left behind a body of sacred law—songs, dances, and paintings—that arose out of their world-creating acts and provided an account of them. The human groups used this sacred law to re-enact and preserve the memory of Dreamtime events in ritual, thus providing a source of spiritual power for subsequent generations. The songs and paintings, like the landscape itself, are considered to be not merely representations of the ancestral past but also manifestations of the ancestral beings themselves and a means of establishing contact with them.

People are linked with the ancestral past in a continuous cycle through the process of spirit conception, the performance of ritual, and the return of the spirits of the dead to the ancestral domain. Within the landscape the ancestral beings created reservoirs of spiritual power, which provide the conception spirits that initiate each new existence. As people take part in ceremonies throughout their lives, they accumulate spiritual power progressively, moving closer to the ancestral domain towards the end of their lives. On death, their spirits return to the land or to certain lands of the dead, where they are reincorporated within the time-frame of the Dreaming, becoming a source of spiritual energy for subsequent generations. Religious practices are aimed at maintaining contact with the ancestral past and controlling the cyclical movement of spiritual power to ensure that the souls of the dead return to the land and that the fertility of people and land is maintained (Morphy, 1984).

There are important political dimensions to Aboriginal religion, in maintaining the relationship between groups of people, ancestral beings, and land (Myers) and in reinforcing these relationships by means of a system of restricted knowledge. Through their journeys, ancestral beings are associated with particular areas of land, and in many parts of Australia rights to land are believed to have been entrusted by those ancestral beings to the founding human ancestors of patrilineal clans. The sacred law became a charter of rights for the continued ownership of the land by subsequent generations of the clan and a source of spiritual strength (Williams). Elsewhere, especially in the more sparsely populated desert regions, rights to land and membership of totemic cult groups are established on a wider basis, including kin ties through women and links to particular conception sites. Throughout Aboriginal Australia the system of restricted knowledge is associated with the segmentation of society based on age and gender. Religious knowledge is sometimes treated as secret, with certain objects and their meanings being revealed only within the closed context of the ceremonial ground to those who possess rights to such knowledge and have passed through previous stages of initiation. Usually it is the right to disseminate information and to be present in certain contexts that is controlled rather than the knowledge itself. In many parts of Australia, in particular towards the centre of the continent, ceremonies or phases of them may be restricted to men or women only. In general the authority of men and (to a lesser extent) women increases as they grow older and gain access to spiritual power by participating in ceremonies and acquiring knowledge.

3. Representational systems.

Aboriginal art displays an enormous variety of styles, both regionally and over time. However, within this broad range of variation, it is possible to identify two contrasting systems of representation that each reflect formal similarities throughout the continent. One system consists mainly of figurative representations and has been referred to as ‘iconic’ or ‘motivated’, since there is a direct relationship between image and object. The other is characteristically geometric and has been called ‘arbitrary’ or ‘unmotivated’, since the same configuration can be attributed with various interpretations (Morphy, 1980, 1989; Munn). The distinction between the two systems is not an absolute one, and there are examples that do not fit neatly into either category; nevertheless it is a distinction that has proved useful. In most regions both systems are employed, often in different contexts, but sometimes in combination. For example, figurative representations in rock paintings are often thought to be the impressions of ancestral beings left behind on the rock surface, whereas geometric representations are believed to be designs that the ancestral beings painted on their bodies or that originated through ancestral action. The designs are both manifestations of ancestral beings, in that they are thought to be their creations or (like the landscape itself) an integral part of them, and representations of the ancestral past, in that they encode events that occurred in the Dreamtime.

In most cases the geometric art can be interpreted only by someone who already knows its meaning, as is appropriate for a system of restricted knowledge. Much of the sacred geometric art represents schematic relationships between topographic features, not entirely unlike maps. However these geometric configurations are multivalent and can encode a multiplicity of meanings, without giving priority to any single one. The same design can represent an area of land, marks on the body of an ancestral being, or the ‘crest’ of a totemic cult group associated with that area of land. Thus geometric art can be used to encode the relationships and associations between particular places, the ancestral events that created them, and the social groups that have rights in them.

4. Role of the artist.

Since art mediates between the present and the ancestral past, the artist plays an important role in Aboriginal society and may possess significant status in ceremonial and political affairs. Paintings, sculptures, ground drawings, and ceremonial constructions, like all other humanly produced expressions of the ancestral past, are forms of religious knowledge passed on from one generation to the next. People can only reproduce works of art in which they have inherited rights. Moreover, art production is usually part of a ceremonial role that is defined by such factors as kinship relations to other participants, moiety affiliation, and ritual status or seniority. Frequently only one or two people can perform the requisite act. On some occasions, however, when several individuals may be in the appropriate category, three factors are relevant in deciding who should produce the work: the right to produce it, knowledge of its correct form, and the ability to produce it. Although there is no separate category of ‘artists’ in Aboriginal society, some people are recognized as being better at producing paintings and ceremonial objects than others; people who combine knowledge with skill are often given a major role in ceremonies.

With the exception of Tiwi artists of Melville and Bathurst Islands who produce pukamani funerary poles (see §II, 5), artists seldom receive payment, but they may be fed and looked after while working. Although emphasis is placed on reproducing ancestral forms and there is a general denial of innovation, in reality considerable room for individual creativity exists. In rare cases, such as among the Tiwi, innovation is overtly encouraged in some contexts (Goodale and Koss), and throughout much of central Australia (see §III, 2) ‘new’ designs can enter the system through an individual’s dreams, even though ideology will have it that this is simply the rediscovery of pre-existing forms.


  • W. E. H. Stanner: On Aboriginal Religion, Oceania Monographs, 11 (Sydney, 1966/R 1990).
  • J. C. Goodale and J. D. Koss: ‘The Cultural Context of Creativity among Tiwi’, Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: 1967, pp. 175–91; also in Anthropology and Art: Readings in Cross-Cultural Aesthetics, ed. C. M. Otten (Garden City, NY, 1971), pp. 182–200.
  • D. J. Mulvaney: The Prehistory of Australia: Ancient People and Places (London, 1969/R Ringwood, 1975).
  • K. Maddock: The Australian Aborigines: A Portrait of their Society (London, 1972).
  • N. D. Munn: Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (Ithaca, NY, 1973).
  • R. M. W. Dixon: The Languages of Australia (Cambridge, 1980).
  • H. Morphy: ‘What Circles Look Like’, Canberra Anthropology, 3/1 (1980), pp. 17–36.
  • J. P. White and J. F. O’Connell: A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul (Sydney, 1982).
  • M. Charlesworth and others: Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology (St Lucia, Queensland, London, and New York, 1984).
  • H. Morphy: Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest (Canberra, Washington, DC, and London, 1984).
  • F. R. Myers: Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines (Washington, DC, Canberra, and London, 1986).
  • N. M. Williams: The Yolngu and their Land: A System of Land Tenure and the Fight for its Recognition (Canberra, 1986).
  • H. Morphy: ‘On Representing Ancestral Beings’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy, One World Archaeology, 7 (London, 1989), pp. 144–60.
  • W. Caruana: Aboriginal Art, World A. (London, 1993).
  • D. Horton, ed.: Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, 2 vols (Canberra, 1994).

II. Traditional art forms.

Aboriginal art is rich in the variety of its forms. The most durable art, and also that for which the earliest evidence exists, is rock art: examples of rock paintings and engravings, or petroglyphs (as they are also known), are found through the Australian continent. A wide variety of abstract and figurative sculptural forms is also produced across Australia, using a rich variety of materials—wood and stone, feathers, grasses and seeds, sand, clays, and resins. Sand sculptures, though they sometimes occur separately, often provide the basis for more complex ceremonial constructions combining a variety of different media, such as painting, wooden objects, and feather string, within the same overall creation. Perhaps the most widely used medium throughout Australia, however, is the human body. As with rock art, early evidence exists for ornaments and body decorations, both directly in the form of excavated artefacts and indirectly through representations on rock surfaces. Forms of art can also be defined according to their contexts of occurrence. Mortuary art is a particularly important category outside the desert regions. Architectural forms for the most part consisted of temporary constructions, occupied for part of the year only. But even so, bark huts, like most material culture objects, could become the subject or object of art. The use of bark and wood as supports for painting is now widely associated with Aboriginal art production, but it is a relatively recent development (since colonization) and occurs only in northern Australia.

1. Introduction.

  • Howard Morphy

Aboriginal designs often exist independently of particular manifestations. The same design may be reproduced in such different art forms as body painting, sand sculpture, and rock art. And because designs exist independently of particular objects and media, almost anything can be made into an art object. It may have a design produced on its surface, or it may be incorporated within a ceremonial construction. Producing the work of art often involves fitting the design to the shape of the surface and to the space available.

Most of the materials and techniques employed in the manufacture of everyday objects can be used in the production of art objects. Sculptures are frequently composite forms made from such naturally occurring materials as wood, plant fibres, animal fur, feathers, resins, seeds, and beeswax. Numerous pigments are used, including mineral and vegetable dyes, which are combined with many different fixatives such as egg yolk, orchid juice, and blood. Four colours (red, yellow, black, and white) are most common, although the particular shade chosen may expand the range of variation. With mineral pigments, the source may be as significant as the colour, since particular ochre deposits are often transformations of the blood of specific ancestral beings.

Specialist equipment is limited to the woodworking tools available. Traditionally this would have included stone axes, shell or stone scrapers, engravers made from stone or teeth, and naturally occurring rasps such as the sharkskin employed in Arnhem Land. Pigments are applied by hand or sprayed on by mouth, although in many parts of Australia specialized brushes made from bark and various other fibres were and sometimes still are used.

2. Rock art.

Most regions of Australia have examples of rock art, which occur on outcrops or under the overhangs of rock shelters (see fig.). Some regions, such as the Arnhem Land escarpment (see §III: Regions, 4–5) or the western Kimberleys (see §III: Regions, 3), are known for their high density of rock art sites and the distinctive character of the art. Images may be created by additive means, such as painting or drawing, or by extractive techniques, such as pecking, pounding, or abrading the outer patinated layer of rock. Painting may be done in natural mineral pigments mixed with water; drawing, which occurs less frequently, uses lumps of dry pigment like crayons. Images created by extractive techniques are conventionally referred to as engravings, although the true engraving technique of incising the rock is uncommon in Aboriginal rock art. Engravings may be tens of millimetres deep or so shallow as to be imperceptible. Newly made engravings are visible due to colour differences between the freshly exposed rock and its patinated surround and in some cases due to the difference in depth. Many rock-engravings are difficult to see except in oblique light conditions, as the exposed rock has weathered back to the same patina as the original rock.

(i) Context and dating.

Pigmented art is known only from rock shelters (usually sandstone or quartzite) where the walls are relatively well protected from rain and other destructive agents. Engravings may also be executed in rock shelters, but they are most abundant on other types of rock exposures. These range from broad, horizontal rock surfaces such as the ridge tops of the Sydney Basin region in south-east Australia to vertical walls of cliffs or boulders, such as those that characterize the massive screes of the Pilbara sites in Western Australia. Some rock art is closely associated with archaeological evidence of camping activities: stone artefacts, food debris, and the ash of fires. Other rock art sites have clearly not been used for daily secular activities. In central Queensland, an extensive study of the relationship between paintings and other evidence of shelter use showed that in many cases these paintings were associated with burials (Morwood). There is, however, no consistent correlation between the visual characteristics of the art and the nature of related archaeological evidence.

Recent advances in radiocarbon dating provide new techniques for dating organic matter in pigments and in the patina formed on freshly exposed rock-engravings. Although results obtained to date are experimental, these techniques may eventually prove useful for dating rock art. The principal means of estimating the age of rock art in Australia remains to assess its relationship to other archaeological data. Only rarely has this been achieved by excavation of rock-engravings below archaeological deposits. More commonly, the postulated relationships are indirect, and only fairly broad estimates of the age of various rock art styles can be made. Excavated evidence from Cape York Peninsula (see §III: Regions, 6) suggests that the tradition of rock-engraving in Australia dates back to the late Pleistocene epoch (c. 13,000 bp; Rosenfeld, Horton, and Winter; see also Quinkan Galleries). Indirect evidence relating the fauna represented to past environments indicates that some rock paintings in Arnhem Land may be of similar age. Depictions relating to European contact, such as horses, ships, or men with guns, show that both rock painting and engraving were carried out in early colonial times. At the end of the 20th century rock painting was still periodically, if rarely, practised in the Kimberleys and in areas in the Northern Territory.

(ii) Stylistic classification.

In 1976 Lesley Maynard proposed a threefold classification for all Aboriginal rock art, which she believed showed its chronological development. Though later research has invalidated Maynard’s chronological sequence, her classifications have provided a framework for analysing the principal stylistic characteristics of Aboriginal rock art throughout the continent. She distinguished between Figurative styles, with images mainly of native fauna and humans (see §(b): Figurative Styles) and Non-figurative styles of circles, arcs, and other motifs (see §(a): Non-figurative styles) in which animals are indicated only by their tracks. She named the latter the Panaramittee style, after a locality in the Flinders Ranges. Panaramittee-style sites are most commonly found in the arid zones of the interior, where contemporary art in other media also relies heavily on Non-figurative patterns and tracks. The Figurative art styles are more widely distributed and these were classified by Maynard into the earlier Simple Figurative style and the more recent Complex Figurative style. This chronology was rejected when some of the art styles that she considered to be Complex Figurative were shown to be among the earliest known paintings. As a first guide to the geographical distribution of stylistic preferences, her schema still has value, but some rock art, notably the elaborate stencilled designs of the Carnarvon Ranges in central Queensland (see the Tombs), are excluded from this classification.

(a) Non-figurative styles.

The arid-zone rock art sites comprise open rock exposures with engravings consisting of a fairly restricted range of motifs, principally circles, arcs, dots, meandering lines, and the tracks of macropods, birds (probably emu), and humans, as well as rock shelters with similar motifs in paint. Distinctions between sites, however, can be established through a range of more complex designs, which tend to occur in relatively smaller numbers and vary significantly in form from area to area. Some of the most unusual are the elaborate but schematic, face-like designs of the Cleland Hills, 200 km west of Alice Springs (see Thomas Reservoir), the large feathery patterns and stick humans with huge headdresses at N’Dahla Gorge, 90 km east of Alice Springs, and the maze design at Panaramittee in the Flinders Ranges. Most of these engravings are heavily patinated despite their location in arid environments in which rock weathers slowly. This, together with the absence of dingo tracks and a supposed similarity to Tasmanian rock engravings, led R. Edwards to argue for a Pleistocene age for these arid-zone, Non-figurative, Panaramittee-style engravings. Since Tasmania was cut off from the mainland at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, c. 12,000 years ago, Edwards considered that this tradition of rock-engraving must have flourished and reached the island before that event. However, a re-evaluation of the Tasmanian engravings has shown that all the known sites (see Mt Cameron West) are located on the present, post-glacial shoreline of the west coast and that they are associated with shell-middens dating no earlier than c. 1000 bc, making them a recent development in Tasmanian prehistory. Moreover, the similarity between Tasmanian and Panaramittee-style engravings is of such a generalized nature that an ontogenetic relationship is open to question and difficult to substantiate. The Tasmanian engravings consist almost exclusively of circles, dots, and diffuse peck marks, and only at Mt Cameron West are more complex motifs found: some of the circles contain linear infill and are themselves contained within a larger enclosing outline. Similarities with the arid-zone engravings are limited to the shared use of circular motifs and the absence of figurative motifs.

An age of c. 10,000 years obtained by radiocarbon dating from calcrete covering the patina of Panaramittee-style engravings at Sturt's Meadow, western New South Wales (see under Mootwingee), has confirmed a near-Pleistocene age for the site, although the duration of the tradition as a whole remains unresolved. There are, for instance, striking similarities between the feathery motifs engraved at the Panaramittee-style site of N’Dahla Gorge and recent paintings in one of the shelters at Ayers Rock (Uluru) in the same region. In general, the recent rock-shelter paintings and other art works of the arid zone tend to use complex arrangements with the same range of motifs as those found on the earlier engravings. This seems to indicate a long and continuous artistic tradition.

(b) Figurative styles.
  • Andrée Rosenfeld

Figurative art styles appear to be much more varied than the Panaramittee styles but, to some extent, this diversity results from regional elaborations of a shared body of basic motifs. In most Figurative art styles essentially the same schemata are used for the most commonly depicted animals and for the human form. Larger animals, such as the emu, are depicted in profile; short-legged or low animals, such as goannas and echidnas, are shown in bird’s-eye view. Human figures are generally shown frontally. Female figures are commonly indicated by a lateral displacement of the breasts under the arms, while male figures are distinguished by their genitalia. Sexual exaggeration or overtly sexual themes, however, are rare, except in some sites of the Pilbara in Western Australia. Figures of humans and animals are usually static, and the compositional relationship between figures is often difficult to discern.

In some cases, the repetition of formal arrangements is suggestive of intentional and meaningful composition. For instance, the representation of a long snake superimposed by a number of diverse human and animal figures arranged in a frieze is repeated several times in shelters of the Laura region of Cape York Peninsula. More commonly, painted figures appear to have been placed more or less haphazardly over suitable rock surfaces. In the rock shelters of the Cobar Plain, in south-east Australia, small-scale paintings show groups of seemingly related figures in action (see Mt Grenfell). Here groups of men ‘dancing’, playing clapsticks, or spearing game can be identified. Movement is suggested primarily by the angle and positioning of the limbs of the stick human figures and the silhouetted animals. In contrast to this lively style, the larger-scale paintings, such as those in the Laura area (see Quinkan Falleries), are striking in their anatomical and decorative elaboration and in the use of several colours, but their effect is static.

Essentially the same artistic devices as at Laura are reduced to simple outline in the large-scale engravings of the Sydney Basin. The multicoloured paintings of the Lightning Brothers, in the north-west of the Northern Territory, are similar in style. In this case, the colourful elaboration is not mere embellishment: black, the colour of strength, highlights the backbone, feet, armpits, eyes, and ears of the two mythological figures after whom the site is named, whose eyes must resist the brightness of lightning and whose ears resist the sound of thunder produced by the stamping of their feet.

Probably the most spectacular examples of Figurative rock art are the Wandjina-style paintings of the western Kimberley ranges (see §III: Regions, 3) and the figures known as ‘X-ray paintings’ of Western Arnhem Land (see §III: Regions, 4). Both these types of rock paintings are relatively recent. They are still integral to the contemporary Aboriginal cultures of their respective regions. The most characteristic figures of the Kimberley paintings are large-scale human figures depicting ancestral heroes with large helmet-like headdresses that symbolize the storm clouds that herald the rainy season. The paintings are the transformations of the Wandjina spirits who created the land, the people, and their laws. Wandjina paintings must be ritually maintained and repainted in order to ensure the continuance of the natural order, the seasons, and the abundance of plants and animals. Many paintings in this region show evidence of superimposition, with variation in the details or even fairly substantial modification of the images.

In Western Arnhem Land a complex sequence of changing art styles has been uncovered. Authors differ on the details of the sequences identified but generally agree on the principal stages. The earliest is characterized by large-scale, but static, images of animals and humans painted in red. Some unusual figures among these have been identified as extinct animals and, on this basis, an antiquity of up to 25,000 years has been suggested (Murray and Chaloupka). These identifications, and hence the age of the paintings, are debated. The next recognized stage of paintings, known as the Dynamic style, constitutes the most detailed and controlled body of Aboriginal rock art known. The paintings are small-scale (200–300 mm high) and dominated by stylized, long-limbed human figures, whose exaggerated movements create an impression of frenetic activity (for illustration see Ubirr). They are adorned with huge headdresses, tassles, dancing skirts, and other accessories and are shown carrying or using a range of weapons and other objects. The accompanying animal figures also show much detail of fur, feathers, and other features, but their form and proportions are closer to reality. The absence of estuarine and wetlands animal species from this art style suggests that it pre-dates the establishment of the present environment following the post-glacial rise in sea-level c. 6500 years ago. The line-work is exceedingly delicate and must have required the use of a fine brush and thorough grinding of pigments to prepare the paints.

The Dynamic style gave way, through a series of less easily defined stages, to the style known as X-ray art. The distinguishing characteristic of this most recent rock art is the formalized depiction of internal organs and of skeletal traits in some animal figures. Not all the figures in this style are shown with X-ray features. These paintings are considerably larger than those in the earlier Dynamic style, sometimes almost life-size. Fine line-work, intricate, almost geometric design for the X-ray features and the frequent use of a range of colours make this art visually very striking. This style appears to be the immediate precursor of contemporary bark paintings of Western Arnhem Land.


  • F. D. McCarthy: Australian Aboriginal Rock Art (Sydney, 1958/R 1979).
  • I. M. Crawford: The Art of the Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Painting in Kimberley, Western Australia (Melbourne, 1968).
  • R. Edwards: ‘Art and Aboriginal Prehistory’, Aboriginal Man and Environment in Australia, ed. D. J. Mulvaney and J. Golson (Canberra, 1972), pp. 356–67.
  • E. J. Brandl: Australian Aboriginal Paintings in Western and Central Arnhem Land (Canberra, 1973).
  • V. Blundell: ‘The Wandjina Cave Paintings of North-west Australia’, Arctic Anthropology, 11 (1974), pp. 213–23.
  • L. Maynard: ‘Classification and Terminology of Australian Rock Art’, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Biennial Conference: Canberra, 1974.
  • L. Maynard: ‘Classification and Terminology in Australian Rock Art’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 387–402.
  • L. Maynard: ‘The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art’, Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania, ed. S. M. Mead (Honolulu, 1979), pp. 93–110.
  • A. Rosenfeld, D. Horton and J. Winter: Early Man in North Queensland: Art and Archaeology of the Laura Area (Canberra, 1981).
  • E. Godden and J. Malnic: Rock Paintings of Aboriginal Australia (Sydney, 1982).
  • M. Morwood: ‘The Prehistory of the Central Queensland Highlands’, Advances in World Archaeology, 3 (1984), pp. 325–80.
  • G. Chaloupka: ‘Chronological Sequence in Arnhem Land Plateau Rock Art’, Archaeological Research in Kakadu National Park, ed. R. Jones (Canberra, 1985), pp. 269–80.
  • R. Layton: ‘The Cultural Context of Hunter–Gatherer Rock Art’, Man, 20/3 (1985), pp. 434–53.
  • A. Rosenfeld: Rock Art Conservation in Australia (Canberra, 1985).
  • P. Murray and G. Chaloupka: ‘The Dreamtime Animals: Extinct Megafauna in Arnhemland Rock Art’, Archaeology in Oceania, 19 (1986), pp. 105–16.
  • R. Layton: Australian Rock Art: A New Synthesis (Cambridge, 1992).
  • G. L. Walsh: Bradshaws: Ancient Rock Paintings of North-west Australia (Geneva, 1994).

3. Sculpture.

Using a broad definition of sculpture, most Aboriginal three-dimensional objects can be grouped into one of the following categories: carvings, moulded forms, constructions using several different media, assemblages and installations, and sand or ground sculpture. These categories should not be considered as exhaustive or closed: for example, a ‘stuffed emu’, recorded as having been used in an initiation ceremony in New South Wales in the 1870s, falls outside these groupings.

Most examples of Aboriginal sculpture found in permanent collections are sacred and depict ancestral beings, totemic heroes, or mythological events. They thus refer either directly or obliquely to specific sites in Aboriginal religious geography and tend to express the association of specific groups of people with those places. Besides their mythological import, many also had ceremonial functions.

An increasing proportion of new Aboriginal sculpture, especially that produced since the 1950s, is non-sacred. The more secular works range widely, from those made for love magic to those that focus primarily on contemporary politics, for example Maralinga (1990; Perth, A.G. W. Australia; Crumlin, p. 106) by Lin Onus. Many sculptures created specifically for the smaller artefact market have human or animal subjects, for example, the wooden figure of a Darwin Policeman (1964; Perth, U. W. Australia, Berndt Mus. Anthropol.) by Mithinari (see Berndt, Berndt & Stanton, p. 130); a human-headed gypsum pipe bowl (c. 1920s; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; see 1988–9 exh. cat., p. 198) by Jim Kite (b c. 1870s); birds made by Malangawa from buffalo horns (see Berndt and Phillips, p. 302); and the large number of wooden reptiles made in Central Australia and found widely in souvenir shops (see Brokensha).

(i) Carvings.

The most widespread category of Aboriginal sculpture is carving in wood. Such sculptures are frequently painted, incised, or branded and sometimes complemented with fibre, feather, or other symbolic attachments. Fragmentary records from the 19th century and the early 20th indicate that wooden effigies of totemic and ancestral beings were used in ceremonies in both south-west and south-east Australia; carved sacred objects were also found in the latter region. But apart from the carved trees of New South Wales, with their highly varied geometric religious designs (see §III: Regions, 1(ii)), and the cylindro-conical stones (or cylcons) of the Darling River area, few if any free-standing carved works survive from colonial or pre-colonial times in this region. Some affinity with sculpture in the round is exhibited by innovative relief-carving of implements, emu eggs, and walking sticks from the Flinders Ranges, Adelaide, and northern New South Wales, engraved pearl shells from the central and north-west regions, and the extensive south-east Australian tradition of geometric incision of weapons (see §III: Regions, 1(i)).

Wooden figures of anthropomorphic ancestral beings, spirits, totemic animals, and human beings are common in north-east Arnhem Land, as are sacred clan emblems (rangga), dancing-poles, memorial posts, representations of heads of deceased people, and log bone-receptacles. Perhaps the most massive of all Aboriginal wooden sculptures are the poles used in the Kunapipi ceremonies of north-east Arnhem Land, which are up to 8 m high. The elongated Mimi figures of Western Arnhem Land are an energetic development in the adjacent region from the 1970s. Their impact is well matched by that of elaborately constructed ceremonial carvings from the Aurukun region in Cape York Peninsula, such as a totemic cult sculpture representing the culture hero Nhampa-Ngulpanh, which was photographed during a ceremonial performance in 1962 (Canberra, N. Mus.; see also §III: Regions, 6).

From Cape York in the east to the Kimberleys in the north-west, a basic commonality prevails of visual conventions, techniques, and materials in wooden anthropomorphic sculpture. Somewhat culturally distinctive, the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands are noted for their tradition of monumental graveposts, carved and painted in a vast variety of geometric and naturalistic designs, as well as for their powerful iron-wood figures of people and animals and their elaborately serrated spears. Carved stone works were first produced in the Kimberleys in the 1960s and consist principally of human heads.

Anthropomorphic carvings in wood from desert Australia are far rarer than in the tropical north but include remarkable engraved spirit-child figures from Jigalong, unpainted and smooth human figures from Docker River and Yuendumu (e.g. Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.), and powerful painted figures produced in Utopia in the 1980s. The Central and Western Desert areas are better known for the sacred, non-public slabs of stone and wood (tjurunga), which bear highly schematic and geometric engraved representations of ancestral beings, sites and mythic events, and also for the way-markers (toas) of the Lake Eyre area, which appear to have had a public role but a similar iconography to that of more restricted objects. Small ritual icons of painted wood have also been recorded from Kununurra in the north-west, Victoria River in north-central Australia, and Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

(ii) Moulded forms.

These include the small beeswax figures of north-east Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula; clay heads used for sorcery in Western Arnhem Land; early works in mud by the Kimberleys artist Dodo (b 1910); gypsum grave-markers of far western New South Wales; and many of the gypsum forms moulded on to way-markers in southern central Australia. In the early 19th century, images of totemic animals and human figures in clay or grass were observed at an initiation ceremony in south-east Queensland. This suggests that such forms were not restricted to the arid and tropical zones. The work of Thancoupie (b 1937) of Cape York Peninsula is one of few forays into ceramic sculpture by an Aboriginal artist (see §IV).

(iii) Constructions.

Among the most spectacular of Aboriginal religious sculptures are constructions, usually consisting of a wooden base or frame to which hair-string, twine, feathers, moulded wax, or gypsum and a wide variety of other objects may be attached. These were frequently worn fixed to the bodies of ceremonial performers or were carried by them, the boundary between ritual apparel and sculpture being thus blurred. In central Australia the most notable of such constructions are the waninga (or wanigi) string crosses and decorated tnatantja poles. Up to 5 m high, these sculptures are of astonishing beauty and variety but are largely kept hidden from public view. Trees, ‘fantastically crowned at the summit’, which from their description sound similar, were observed at a ceremonial ground in south-east Queensland in 1824; and inverted trees topped with bark lacework were seen at an initiation in the same region a few years later.

Like waninga, small public ritual icons in north-east Arnhem Land also combine wood with string and feathers in their construction. The ritual body-masks of Princess Charlotte Bay, Lockhart River, and Pennefather River, all in Cape York Peninsula, and the complex tin, string, and wood mythic emblems (or ‘portable scenery’) of ceremonies at Mowanjum, Western Australia, are among the most elaborate and arresting constructions borne by ceremonial performers in Australia. By contrast, a simple Tasmanian model raft collected in 1843 (Oxford U., Pitt Rivers Mus.) is at the humbler end of the construction scale.

(iv) Assemblages and installations.
  • Peter Sutton

These normally combine a set of different sculptures of the categories already discussed. Tiwi graveposts, for example, are clustered at the grave, and a number of Aurukun installations consist of a dozen or more individual sculptures suspended from a rail resting on forked posts. Large sacred objects were observed c. 1812 in a bower construction on an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The assemblage of carved skulls, bones, and implements, known both as Violent Death and Carving of Bones (1982; Darwin, Museums & A. Gals N. Territ.), by the innovative Arnhem Land artist Njinawanga (b 1947) has a powerful narrative structure.


  • U. H. McConnell: ‘Native Arts and Industries on the Archer, Kendall, and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland’, Records of the South Australian Museum, 11 (1953), pp. 1–42.
  • C. P. Mountford and R. Tonkinson: ‘Carved and Engraved Human Figures from North Western Australia’, Anthropological Forum, 2/3 (1969), pp. 371–90.
  • R. M. Berndt and E. S. Phillips, eds: The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts (Sydney, 1973).
  • P. Brokensha: The Pitjantjatjara and their Crafts (Sydney, 1975).
  • Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat. by C. Cooper and others, Sydney, Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2).
  • R. M. Berndt, C. H. Berndt and J. E. Stanton: Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective (Sydney, 1982).
  • J. Isaacs: Thancoupie the Potter (Sydney, 1982).
  • K. Akerman and P. Bindon: ‘Love Magic and Style Changes within One Class of Love Magic Objects’, Oceania, 57/1 (1986), pp. 22–32.
  • P. Jones and P. Sutton: Art and Land: Aboriginal Sculptures of the Lake Eyre Region (Adelaide, 1986).
  • J. Hoff: Tiwi Graveposts (Melbourne, 1988).
  • Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Mus. A.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90).
  • B. J. Dodo, K. Akerman and K. McKelson: Kimberley Sculpture (exh. cat., Perth, 1989).
  • R. Crumlin, ed.: Aboriginal Art and Spirituality (exh. cat., Canberra, High Court of Australia, 1991).
(v) Sand sculpture.
  • Ian Keen

Sand sculptures generally consist of engraved lines or ridges of sand or earth on a flat area of ground, or of shaped mounds forming simple bas-reliefs. Intimately linked to places terrestrial and celestial, they form a focus for ritual and dance, and as such are not primarily a mode of personal expression but an aspect of religious practice. They sometimes incorporate holes, leaves, rocks, sticks, or carved objects, and even fire or water at a certain stage of the ritual. The term ‘sand sculpture’ is used to refer to three-dimensional designs in contrast to ground paintings, which are two-dimensional. Since both forms exploit the same materials and occur in similar contexts, this distinction is somewhat arbitrary for Aborigines. However, sand drawings, used by the Walpiri people in central Australia (see §III: Regions, 2), are considered to be different despite their visual resemblance, as they are an informal improvisational aspect of story-telling. Sand sculpture is also closely related to other media of expression, especially paintings in ochres on the body and on bark (see §4: Body decoration and §7: Bark painting), and in the south-east on carved trees (see §III: Regions, 1(ii)).

Many sand sculptures made by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land are formed from simple geometric shapes, such as circles and semicircles, squares and rectangles, parallel lines, lenses, diamonds, and triangles. While all are ‘iconic’, albeit schematized, some are more obviously figurative, such as a depiction of the dugout canoe belonging to Dingo Ancestor. They are employed primarily in mortuary ceremonies (see §5: Mortuary art), especially water, fire, and smoke purification rites, as well as in ceremonies in which the disinterred bones of the dead are crushed and placed in a hollow-log coffin. For example, the Bukulup (washing) ceremony is performed for the purification of the close relatives of a person who has recently died. Men of a patrilineal clan sing throughout the day in the camp while a man of the clan or the son of a woman of the clan makes a sand sculpture in a cleared area, usually c. 5 m or more across. Near sunset others begin to gather; a few at a time stand in the sand sculpture, which depicts a lagoon or spring at the clan’s country, while others pour water over them as a clan leader calls out names of the ancestors. In this way an ancestral water-hole is recreated wherever the ceremony is enacted, perhaps far from the country represented. In other ceremonies a simple sand sculpture forms the arena for dances.

The sand sculptures of the Yolngu are simplified, geometric versions of painted ancestral designs. As such, they have many possible interpretations, of varying degrees of secrecy. Each is a kind of map of the clan’s country and a depiction of its ancestral beings and sacred objects, which are transformations of some attribute of an ancestor. The design is also specific to the clan that owns the country, while being similar in form to the designs of clans with the same ancestral being. The design thus encodes the connection between ancestor, place, the sacred object that the ancestor put into the country, and the group that he or she created, as well as connections with other countries and clans related to the ancestral journey.

Sand engravings formerly used in the Burbung initiation ceremonies of the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales were both figurative and geometric. Some depicted anthropomorphic spirit beings, while others took the form of animals such as kangaroos and emus. The dominant geometric forms were meandering parallel lines, concentric circles and squares, and combinations and elaborations of these figures. The designs that depicted various aspects of ancestral beings, such as the Sky Being Biame, were revealed to male initiates and formed the focus of dances. One design, for example, represented the mounds in which mound-building birds incubated their eggs.


  • R. H. Mathews: ‘The Burbung of the Wiradthuri Tribes’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland [cont. as J. Royal Anthropol. Inst. GB & Ireland], 25 (1896), pp. 295–318, pls xxv–xxviii; xxvi (1897), pp. 272–85.
  • R. M. Berndt: Australian Aboriginal Religion (Leiden, 1974).
  • M. Clunies Ross and L. R. Hiatt: ‘Sand Sculptures at a Gidjingali Burial Rite’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 131–46.
  • I. Keen: ‘Yolngu Sand Sculptures in Context’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 165–83.
  • H. Morphy: ‘Yingapungapu: Ground Sculpture as Bark Painting’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 205–9.

4. Body decoration.

  • Catherine H. Berndt

Throughout Aboriginal Australia, adult men and women decorate their bodies and those of their children in many different ways. Decorative items that are worn include necklets, chaplets, waist- and armbands, and pubic coverings. The naked body is a natural medium for painting. This is usually done by someone else for a particular reason, sometimes simply for enjoyment or enhancement of personal appearance, but more often it has some form of religious or magical significance, specifically identifying a person as a participant within a ritual or ceremony. Most parts of the body are decorated; designs cover the face, chest, thighs, and upper legs and continue over the shoulders to the back.

A more permanent form of decoration, common in most Aboriginal areas, is scarring or cicatrization. Designs are usually arranged across the chest or arms and sometimes on the legs, to indicate the death of a close relative or spouse. On Melville and Bathurst Islands, for example, scarring called miunga covers both sides of the upper back as well as the upper and outer parts of the arms and thighs of men and women. Horizontal lines are also made across the chest and forehead. The V-shaped designs represent fronds of the zamia palm or barbs of spears. Such body decoration is apparently carried out in youth, but not as part of a formal rite. However, in north-central South Australia and some southern parts of the Western Desert, scarring constitutes part of the ritual process during the Wilyaru initiation of youths. Parallel cicatrices cut on the back of a novice are said to represent the marks on the mythic Lizard Man who instituted this ritual in the Dreaming.

Among the extensive range of body designs specific to any one region, each design or series of designs symbolizes particular mythic characters and relates to their activities in the creative era of the Dreaming. Moreover, the designs are usually linked directly to specific parts of the landscape. Often a highly stylized configuration is a shorthand statement of the topography associated with, or shaped by, these mythic beings. Men or women wearing these painted designs in ritual must be affiliated, by birth or in some other special way, to the body of myths concerned. Since the aim of ritual is to bring about such events or conditions as the renewal of natural species, fertility of the land, or the social well-being of the group, the actions of mythic beings must be replicated and the original scene of the Dreaming re-enacted as closely as possible. Actors, according to their ritual role and body painting, are believed to assume the character and quality of a Dreaming personage or natural species symbolizing that being. Body painting is therefore a means of ensuring the spiritual presence of these deities at a ritual.

In the secret–sacred rites the actual painting is part of the ritual itself, which is accompanied by songs or the retelling of the appropriate mythological accounts. The painting process can take several hours, especially in north-east Arnhem Land where the chest designs extend down the front of the legs to the knees. A person’s body is prepared for painting by removing hair and smearing the skin with red ochre. The pigments used—red and yellow ochre, white pipeclay, and black manganese or charcoal—are crushed on flat stones and mixed with water. They are applied with burred twigs, orchid roots or stems, sometimes with the fingers and, in Arnhem Land, with a brush made from human hair.

In central Australia and some other regions extensive use is made of birds’ down, usually from eagle nestlings, although other white down and wild cotton are also used. Some of it is rubbed in red ochre while the rest is left in its natural colour (see fig. for an illustration of this practice). After rubbing an initiate’s body with red ochre, the basic design is lightly sketched, and the down or cotton is then superimposed, piece by piece, using human blood as an adhesive. The down covers the chest, back, shoulders, and thighs. It often extends up the neck and the face and is integrated with an elaborate, usually conical headdress, decorated in the same way and tipped with feathers or a sacred object. In the central Australian area alone, thousands of patterns were used in the various ritual cycles, each clearly distinguishable and specifically related in meaning to a particular Dreaming character or place. For example, the design may refer to a Honey Ant place, the sun, or to some creature such as a bandicoot, emu, or snake in the form of a human or natural species.

In northern Australia in the great Kunapipi fertility rituals feather down is also used in body designs together with elaborate extensions in the form of headdresses. The meanings of these relate to the great northern epic concerning the mythological travels of the two Wawilak Sisters, who were swallowed by the Yulunggul Snake, which eventually led to the onset of the monsoonal season. Among these designs, Yulunggul is referred to by cabbage trees associated with him as well as by lightning and by various creatures that became sacred by jumping into his watering-place. As the Kunapipi ritual spread south-westwards, it became known as Gadjari (‘Old Woman’ or ‘Mother’) and body painting resembling that of the Western Desert was incorporated.

In Queensland, mainly in the Boulia area but also spreading into north-eastern South Australia, dancer–actors are painted to represent an unpredictable spirit, Molonga, in ceremonies witnessed by both men and women. They wear a bound and feathered conical headdress and their body designs consist of two red bands across the face and forehead with long bands down the body.

The body painting of women, although similar in many respects to men’s, differs in meaning and sometimes in intention. Girls’ puberty rites, while structurally comparable to the initiation of male youths, are shorter and generally less of a social occasion. The associated body painting is also less complex in most areas. In the Boulia area a girl is decorated with bands of charcoal and feather down: painted men and women dance to welcome her on her return to the main camp. Among the Aranda of central Australia, she is finally decorated with a headband, tips of bandicoot tails, necklets, and string armlets, and her body is painted with a mixture of fat and red ochre. Actual body designs are apparently rare in female puberty rites: an example from Western Arnhem Land, however, is the painting of a crescent moon in white clay below the breasts, intended symbolically to regulate the girl’s menstrual flow. On occasion, a naturalistic representation of Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, is also used.

Body painting has particularly flourished within the sphere of women’s secret–sacred rituals, especially in the west-central sector of the Northern Territory, west into the Kimberleys, and throughout the Western Desert. In the Northern Territory there are two primary ritual–myth sequences: the Yawalyu and the Djarada (or Yilbindji). The Yawalyu, with wider connotations and more direct and powerful Dreaming implications, is concerned with the re-enactment and symbolic interpretation of mythological events and characters and with their territorial associations. In the Djarada the focus is on the supernatural powers of the two Dreaming Munga-munga women and on harnessing their powers for personal use (i.e. desirability to men, and healing). Indirectly, the concern is with fertility, since the Munga-munga are daughters of the great Gadjari (Kunapipi). In this ritual the bodies of participants are painted with ochre on a background of animal fat. Since the songs relevant to any Djarada ritual are arranged in series, distinctive sets of designs are correspondingly used. For example, rows of dots and bands with central, stylized configurations of genitalia represent the original patterns believed to have been worn by the Munga-munga. Other bands depict boomerangs and the grooves made by the Munga-munga’s dancing feet. Yawalyu designs include representations of the Rainbow Serpent and the dangerous Djundagal snake; particular sites associated with mythic beings; clouds, water, rain, and thunderbolts; red dust tossed about by a whirlwind; goanna tracks; stone spearheads; and various creatures.

In almost all sacred ritual, whether for males or females, the most important of the mythic beings and the most elaborate and symbolically significant of these sacred designs are revealed only towards the end of a ritual sequence. Body painting and associated paraphernalia are essentially a kind of camouflage, intended to provide an extra dimension to the person painted, hiding his or her own human identity in the manifestation of a supernatural one—that of a Dreaming deity.


  • W. E. Roth: Ethnological Studies among the North-west-central Queensland Aborigines (Brisbane, 1897).
  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen: The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, 1899/R 1969).
  • T. G. H. Strehlow: Aranda Traditions (Melbourne, 1947).
  • C. H. Berndt: ‘Women’s Changing Ceremonies in Northern Australia’, L’Homme, 1 (Paris, 1950).
  • C. P. Mountford: The Tiwi: Their Art, Myth, and Ceremony (London, 1958).
  • R. M. Berndt, ed.: Australian Aboriginal Art (Sydney, 1964/R 1968).
  • R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt: The World of the First Australians: An Introduction to the Traditional Life of the Australian Aborigines (London and Canberra, 1964/R Canberra, 1988).
  • N. D. Munn: Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (Ithaca, NY, 1973, rev. Chicago, 1986).
  • R. M. Berndt: Australian Aboriginal Religion (Leiden, 1974).
  • H. Morphy: Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (Chicago, IL, 1991).

5. Mortuary art.

  • Ronald M. Berndt

In their concern about the fate of their dead, Aborigines generally believe that spirits eventually find their way to the land of the dead, where they are reunited with the Dreaming deities, or that they return to their own countries, perhaps to be reborn. Regional attitudes toward these beliefs and to related artistic expressions vary considerably. Highly developed and distinctive forms of mortuary art are characteristic of the northern coastal regions of Australia and to some extent the tablelands of New South Wales. In other areas, art forms clustered around the rites of death were and are less spectacular.

The Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands prepare and erect wooden posts on and around a grave about two months after a death. These posts, the rituals associated with them, the mourners, and the corpse before burial are all termed pukamani, connoting a taboo condition. Rituals involving a wide range of dancing by men and women extend intermittently over three months or more. There is also ritual feeding of the ‘workers’ who cut, carve, decorate, and erect the posts. Posts erected before the 1930s tend to be limited in their range of designs, with openings and projections at the apex. By the mid-1950s the designs had become more varied and innovative; many posts are surmounted by naturalistic human and spirit figures, as well as other creatures. Stylized designs are painted in ochres on their trunks. Apart from the more readily identifiable naturalistic representations, some of the upper parts of posts bear depictions such as limbs of trees, women’s breasts, rocks, windows, and doors. In their total conception most represent the deceased persons or their close relatives, while the designs, either carved or painted, refer to events in those persons’ lives.

When the posts are brought to a graveside from the secluded places where they have been made, they are erected amid highly emotional scenes. Mourners throw themselves on the grave; men dance around the posts, while both men and women sing personal songs of grief. The posts are not only memorials to the dead, but are believed to house temporarily the dead person’s spirit. Such spirits (mopaditi) are considered unpredictable. They remain at or near their graves both because they resent their death and are ready to blame the living for it and because they are attached to their relatives. On completion of the rituals, they leave for the land of the dead, or their particular countries. During the dancing, participants are decorated, some with ornate facial and body designs, and they wear various items, all of which are specifically named. Women wear chaplets of human-hair string with dog-tail tips. Men hold between their teeth a ball pendant of feathers, stained with mixed red and yellow ochres, and wear painted bark armlets with projecting decorations of feathers, sometimes ornamented with red seeds. Those dancing carry discs. Men also wave intricately carved and painted spears, made as gifts to the dead. At the conclusion of the rites the beards of the chief male mourners are plucked and the decorations are washed from their bodies, signifying that they are now released from their pukamani responsibilities and that the spirits of the dead have left the grave site. The posts are left to rot on the grave.

The mortuary art of the Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land encompasses a wide variety of forms, easily differentiated from those of the Tiwi. They include decorated hollow logs, ground structures, wooden figures, and flags. Although most corpses are now buried, traditionally a dead person was painted with his or her sacred clan designs and then exposed on a platform awaiting decomposition, so that the bones could be collected. After some months or even years, when the bones were ready for collection, they were covered in red ochre and placed temporarily in a painted bark coffin. The dead person’s skull was cleaned and painted with its emblematic design and then worn as a shoulder-necklet by a widow or close female relative in memory of the dead person. Later, a tall hollow log (laragidj) was prepared and painted, and the bones broken up and placed inside. The log was then ritually erected in the main camp and left to disintegrate; finally its remains were scattered across the camp. The designs painted in ochre on the trunks of the logs represent the clan emblem of the dead man or woman. They vary according to the person’s moiety affiliation and refer to his or her country and its mythological associations. Moreover, the logs themselves are often carved into highly conventionalized representations of a mythic creature such as a fish, an animal, a natural object, or a feature related to the clan’s mythology. Ground structures consisting of a complex patterning of sand mounds are topographic and mythological representations of the deceased’s country.

Each of the two patrilineal intermarrying moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja, has its own substantiating mythological repertory that sponsors not only the use of particular designs but also different objects. That relating to the Dhuwa moiety focuses mainly on the Banumbir ‘Morning Star’ song cycle in which spirits at Bralgu, the land of the dead, send out that star to their living relatives. In the actual mortuary rituals, long dancing-poles with lengths of feathered string and feather balls are used to signify this daily occurrence. The Yirritja moiety includes, among other things, a wuramu post figure representing either the deceased’s image or a mythic or historical character. The wuramu tradition is usually associated with Indonesian (‘Macassan’) traders from the Celebes who visited the north Australian coast c. 1600–1900. During a delayed mortuary ritual, a carved wooden figure called a ‘collection man’, with feathered-string arms, is first carried through the camp and anything that is left lying around is collected to compensate the men responsible for making it. Afterwards it is erected near the deceased’s camp to the accompaniment of songs and dancing relating to these early Indonesian visits. Masts and specially designed flags are used symbolically to bid farewell to the spirit of the dead. The figures represent Indonesians, the Dutch (balanda, now a general term for Europeans), or effigies of specific dead persons. The wide range of innovative designs of these sculpted figures often contrasted markedly with those produced by members of the Dhuwa moiety.

While in north-east Arnhem Land hollow logs are primarily of mortuary significance, in western and southern Arnhem Land their use in this context is combined with the initiation of young men. Mythologically, the ritual associated with this concerned Moon Man, who tried to persuade Red-Eyed Pigeon Man to do as he did—not to die permanently, but to return regularly to the world of the living; Pigeon Man was not convinced, and that is why human beings die physically. The Lorgun rites (the term refers to both the ritual and the actual hollow log) take place when the moon is waning, some time after a death. The log (lorgun) is relatively short compared with the north-east Arnhem Land variety; it has a V-shaped ‘mouth’ and is hung with lengths of feathered string. When people arrive for the rites, the deceased’s mother or another close female relative prepares the dancing ground and then calls the men to paint themselves. Novices are brought forward to witness the dances and are told they must now observe a number of food taboos. Eventually the log is brought from its hiding place and the deceased person’s bones are removed from their stringybark bundles and placed into the receptacle. As the last bones are put in, a song is sung whose words refer to the dead person’s spirit diving into the sea. To the accompaniment of wailing, the log is erected in the main camp at sunrise and left there to disintegrate.

Among the people of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi language groups of the New South Wales tablelands, carved trees feature in mortuary rites. Within a clearing where a grave has been dug, up to four adjacent trees are engraved boldly with geometrical, stylized designs arranged within a long oval of natural bark. These are said to be ‘totemic’ in significance, although their meanings have not been recorded. It seems that they symbolize the pathway that the spirit of the dead should take to its ultimate resting place in the Skyworld. According to reports, only important persons were given this form of burial and, like the Lorgun rites of the north, such rites were also relevant to male initiation.

Complex ‘rituals of death’ are observed in most areas of Aboriginal Australia, but they rarely involve the elaborate aesthetic manifestations common in northern Australia. This undoubtedly reflects the need felt in the north to retain an individual’s personal identification after death, defining his or her role within the land of the dead. Aboriginal groups living in areas of northern Australia maintained complex forms of mortuary ritual into the late 20th century (see §III: Regions, 6). In contrast, in New South Wales and other parts of Australia there is less emphasis on the aesthetic aspects and more on the social transformation, the depersonalization and merging of the deceased within the reservoir of the dead who are subject to being channelled back into the world of the living.


  • H. Basedow: ‘Anthropological Notes on the Western Coastal Tribes of the Northern Territory of South Australia’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 31 (1907), pp. 1–62.
  • W. B. Spencer: Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (London, 1914).
  • W. L. Warner: A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (New York and London, 1937, rev. 1958).
  • C. H. Berndt: ‘Expressions of Grief among Aboriginal Women’, Oceania, 20 (1950), pp. 286–332.
  • F. D. McCarthy: Australia’s Aborigines: Their Life and Culture (Melbourne, 1957).
  • C. P. Mountford: The Tiwi: Their Art, Myth and Ceremony (London, 1958).
  • J. C. Goodale: ‘The Tiwi Dance for the Dead’, Expedition, 2/1 (autumn 1959), pp. 3–13.
  • R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt: The World of the First Australians: An Introduction to the Traditional Life of the Australian Aborigines (London and Canberra, 1964/R Canberra, 1988).
  • R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt: Man, Land, and Myth in North Australia: The Gunwinggu People (Sydney, 1970).
  • R. M. Berndt and E. S. Phillips, eds: The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts (Sydney, 1973, rev. 1978).
  • R. M. Berndt: Australian Aboriginal Religion (Leiden, 1974).
  • R. M. Berndt, C. H. Berndt and J. E. Stanton: Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective (Sydney, 1982).
  • H. Morphy: Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest (Canberra, 1984).
  • H. Morphy: Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (Chicago, IL, 1991).

6. Architecture.

  • Paul Memmott

Indigenous Aboriginal architecture of north Australia has been well documented, but knowledge is sparse for the centre and the south. The dominant functional category was domestic shelter, the principal purpose of which was to protect against the weather. Separate shelters were used in settlements for diurnal activities, when men and women often congregated apart, and for nocturnal gatherings. when nuclear families resided together. People either sat or lay inside shelters, so that these were consistently low (h. 1.2–1.5 m). There was also a wide distribution of common structural principles and forms, but materials and construction details were subject to regional variations. The mobile hunter–gatherer life style resulted in impermanent structures that were not technologically specialized and up to seven or eight shelter types might be employed during the changing seasons.

Two examples from the northern monsoonal coasts exemplify the influence of materials on form. The most suitable claddings were bark sheets from Melaleuca leucadendron (paperbark) and Eucalyptus tetradontra (stringybark). Paperbark is very flexible and thus suitable for making a dome over a structure of pliable saplings (see fig.). At the start of the wet season, this coastal type was occupied with the opening sealed off and filled with smoke to repel mosquitoes. In contrast to paperbark, stringybark can bend in only one direction. As the wet season continued, the stringybark could be prised off its trunk and used in a range of vaulted forms supported on both single and double ridge-poles (9b). To avoid the boggy ground a further elaboration was a sleeping platform under which fires could be burnt to repel mosquitoes (9c).

In Arnhem Land the forked post and crosspole of this type of structure are still esteemed as religious objects rich in meaning. Their significance derives from the mythological activities of the Wawilak Sisters, ancestral heroines who built the first vaulted dwelling in the region. Among the many interpretations, one clan regards the horns of the fork as a personal totem representing red noses, fire, blood, and the wet mud of a sacred well from which sacred objects emerged (Reser, 1977).

Domes covered either circular or elliptical ground-plans up to 3.6 m in diameter according to the size of the occupant group. A common type in the arid interior had a framework of rigid curved boughs (9d). Cladding was of thatched grass, foliage, or reeds, sometimes with a coating of mud or clay, possibly for insulation against extremes of temperature or to keep off rain; examples have been recorded in all conditions. For the south-east of the continent there are reports of domes supported on low, circular stone walls. Conical forms were less common but nevertheless widely distributed (9e). A cubic wet-weather structure has been documented at two locations in the Gulf of Carpentaria (Biernoff; Memmott). A more complex architectural form was built by a sedentary group in the north Queensland rain-forest. Clusters of intersecting domes were clad with layers of palm-leaves plaited on to cane frames, covered with an outer skin of another type of leaf and overlaid with cane sticks for further stability. These domes were large enough to stand up in and were occupied by several families (Koettig).

Stringybark was also used for unsupported structures of both a folded plate (9f) and a barrel vault type. Other common seasonal shelters were windbreaks (linear and circular), open sleeping platforms, and tree platforms for flood-prone areas. Shade was provided by implanting leafy boughs in the ground and erecting a horizontal roof structure (9g), or making a lean-to with a ridge-pole. Entry ‘porches’ were attached to some enclosed shelters (9h).

Apart from shelters, Aboriginal structures included rock-wall fisheries, hunting nets strung between posts, ground ovens, wells, storage platforms and posts, ceremonial stone arrangements, and circular mounds, as well as foliage walls, trenches, and pit traps for game. Various regional types of structure were used to house the dead: mounds, mounds inside huts, platforms, graves, and cylindrical bark coffins (see §5: Mortuary art). These were embellished by the various cultural groups with different types of symbolic markers and objects, including feathers, bones, painted wooden structures, cylindro-conical stones (cylcons), incised bark, carved tree trunks representing the dead person’s chest cicatrices, the deceased’s possessions, and a fire laid ready for use at the time of reincarnation. Complex architectural symbolism was a product of the intellectual preoccupation with cosmology and cosmogony.


  • R. B. Smyth: The Aborigines of Victoria and Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, 2 (Melbourne and London, 1878).
  • W. E. Roth: Ethnological Studies among the North-west-central Queensland Aborigines (Brisbane, 1897).
  • T. Worsnop: The Prehistoric Arts, Manufactures, Works, Weapons, etc. of the Aborigines of Australia (Adelaide, 1897).
  • W. Roth: ‘North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin No. 16: Huts and Shelters’, Records of the Australian Museum, 8/1 (1910).
  • D. Thomson: ‘The Seasonal Factor in Human Culture’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, n. s. 4 (1939), pp. 209–21 [West Cape York Peninsula].
  • P. Hamilton: ‘Aspects of Interdependence between Aboriginal Social Behaviour and the Spatial and Physical Environment’, Aboriginal Housing, ed. Royal Australian Institute of Architects (Canberra, 1972), pp. 1–13 [desert shelters and camps].
  • M. Koettig: Rising Damp: Aboriginal Structures in Perspective (diss., U. Sydney, 1976).
  • J. P. Reser: ‘The Dwelling as Motif in Aboriginal Bark Painting’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 210–19 [Arnhem Land].
  • J. P. Reser: ‘Values in Bark’, Hemisphere, 22/10 (1978), pp. 27–35 [Arnhem Land].
  • D. Biernoff: ‘Traditional and Contemporary Structures and Settlement in Eastern Arnhem Land with Particular Reference to Nunggubuyu’, A Black Reality: Aboriginal Camps and Settlements in Remote Australia, ed. M. Heppell (Canberra, 1979), pp. 153–79.
  • P. Memmott: ‘Lardil Artifacts and Shelters’, Occasional Papers in Anthropology, 9 (1979), pp. 107–42.

7. Bark painting.

Elaborately painted sheets of bark have gained appreciation in galleries, museums, and private collections and for a while, in the 1960s and later, became almost synonymous with Aboriginal art. This type of bark painting, however, is relatively recent—the product of a gradually developing arts and crafts industry that began with European colonization—and the creation of such works is restricted to one main area, Arnhem Land (see §III: Regions, 4 and 5). In Arnhem Land bark painting is part of an active artistic tradition that continues to be expressed in other media such as body painting, sand sculpture, and ceremonial carving, but bark has the advantage of being portable and therefore easily traded with Westerners. Before European colonization, bark painting was apparently carried out in varied traditional contexts over a more widespread area.

(i) Techniques.

The bark for painting comes from the local species of stringybark tree and can be obtained most easily when the sap is flowing during the wet season and the following few months. The bark is removed by making two horizontal rings around the trunk with an axe, one close to the base, the second at the top of the trunk. A vertical line is then cut between the two and the sheet of bark is prised away using a pointed stick or lever. The bark is then straightened by laying its outer surface on a gently burning fire and allowing it to uncurl. Following this procedure the outer layer of stringybark is removed and the inner surface is sanded to a smooth finish in preparation for painting. The bark is then left flattened under heavy stones for a few weeks in order to be seasoned and to retain its shape.

Similar techniques are used for painting on bark as on other surfaces, although they vary somewhat according to area. Pigments are produced using natural ochres, pipe clay, and charcoal, which are ground on stone palettes and applied with brushes of stringybark, human hair, or palm fronds or with commercially made brushes. Natural fixatives, such as gulls’ eggs or the juices of a tree orchid, are either added to the pigment or rubbed over the surface to preserve the painting and to add to its sheen. Since the 1960s, however, increasing use has been made of commercial wood glue for this purpose. In north-east Arnhem Land a split stick is fixed across the top and bottom and bound together at either end to keep the bark straight; while in Western Arnhem Land a series of holes are made at the top and bottom of the painting and sticks are bound to it using loops of string.

(ii) Early evidence.

Early records for the colonial period suggest that bark may have been used for painting in parts of southern Australia, for example, Tasmania, the eastern part of South Australia, and Queensland, where there were suitable trees (Groger-Wurm). The reports refer to paintings or drawings on the inside of bark huts or, more rarely, to the use of bark painting in ceremonial contexts. François Péron (1775–1810) provided the earliest published reference (1807) to painted sheets of bark at the site of an Aboriginal grave on Maria Island, off the east coast of Tasmania. There are other references to drawings in Tasmanian bark huts, including one depicting the bullock carts of an early European colonist, but no paintings survive and little detail has been recorded. Similarly only two works, both from Victoria, have survived from the rest of southern Australia (London, BM; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria). They depict scenes of Aboriginal life engraved on the fire-blackened inner surface of a bark sheet, but they may be atypical.

Traditional contexts for the use of bark painting are much better known from northern Australia. Painting on the inside of wet-season huts seems to have been a common practice in Western Arnhem Land, the region of Darwin, and other parts of the tropical north. A few paintings survive from the 1870s and 1880s. The best known are those from the Port Essington region (collected before 1878; U. Sydney, Macleay Mus.) and those from the walls of a dismantled hut collected by Capt. James Carrington in 1887 (Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.). In 1912 Sir W. Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) started compiling a major collection of bark paintings from Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land. He also dismantled wet-season huts but soon began commissioning paintings, resulting in the first commercial bark production. Painting on the inside of bark huts continues in those rare places where the huts are still made. In ceremonial contexts, bark paintings usually occurred on objects made from bark rather than on flattened bark ‘canvases’. Among the main bark ceremonial objects in Arnhem Land were the cylindrical stringybark containers in which the remains of dead relatives were kept for several years until the final burial. The Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands used elaborately painted baskets in burial ceremonies (see §5: Mortuary art). There are, however, isolated accounts from as far apart as central Arnhem Land (Warner) and Victoria (Groger-Wurm) of painted bark sheets being used in initiation ceremonies.

(iii) Contemporary work.
  • Howard Morphy

Bark paintings produced today reflect the range of stylistic characteristics of their region rather than, as formerly, the particular ceremonial context and set of subjects. Following European colonization, bark-painting imagery and styles became a product of the interaction between artists and purchasers. In Western Arnhem Land the emphasis has been on X-ray art (Taylor) with few geometric designs being produced other than those from the Port Keats region west of Darwin, which are predominantly geometric. In Eastern Arnhem Land the full range of regional art styles has been employed (Morphy), with a slight emphasis on the inclusion of a figurative component, as in the bark painting being completed by Narritjin Maymurru. Groote Eylandt paintings are mainly figurative and often somewhat starkly outlined on a black background. Paintings from Melville and Bathurst Islands are often based on designs for the Pukamani mortuary ceremony (see §5: Mortuary art).

Although Arnhem Land remains the main area for the production of contemporary bark paintings (see fig.), works for sale are also produced by people living in the Kimberleys, where the figurative imagery is mainly of Wandjina ancestral beings (see §III: Regions, 3). The technique was briefly introduced on Mornington Island in north Queensland and in the Cape York Peninsula. In Arnhem Land, however, bark painting is an important economic activity, which also plays a vital role in the indigenous cultural system. It provides the main opportunity for the training of artists and for passing on knowledge about the artistic system. Also, since the imagery painted on bark and other surfaces can only be produced by those with an inherited right to it, bark paintings are used as a means of presenting Aboriginal culture to outsiders.


  • F. A. Péron and C. L. de Freycinet: Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes …pendant les années 1800,1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804, 2 vols (Paris, 1807–16).
  • W. B. Spencer: Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (London, 1914).
  • W. L. Warner: A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (New York and London, 1937, rev. 1958).
  • C. P. Mountford: Art, Myth, and Symbolism (1956), 1 of Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, 1948 (Melbourne, 1956).
  • H. M. Groger-Wurm: Eastern Arnhem Land, 1 of Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretations, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 30; Social Anthropology Series, 5 (Canberra, 1973).
  • H. Morphy: ‘Schematisation to Conventionalisation: A Possible Trend in Yirrkala Bark Paintings’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Palaeolithic Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 198–204.
  • L. Taylor: ‘Seeing the “Inside”: Kunwinjku Paintings and the Symbol of the Divided Body’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy, One World Archaeology, 7 (London, 1989), pp. 371–89.

8. Other arts.

The beauty of other Aboriginal artefacts, such as containers, ornaments, pipes, and weapons, is largely due to the way natural resources are used. Ochres, charcoal, clay, plant and hair fibres, root dyes, woods, resins, feathers, teeth, skin, and shells are fashioned into objects of simple elegance that contrast sharply with the better-known, bolder, and more highly coloured artefacts produced by the Maori people of New Zealand to the east (see Maori, §1) and by the peoples of Papua New Guinea to the north. Despite pronounced similarities in the approach to design, much variation occurred throughout Australia, partly as a result of the diverse materials available for the process of manufacture in different locations and also because of the distinct artistic traditions of the various social groupings.

(i) Containers.

Aboriginal people manufactured many types of containers, including baskets woven from various plant fibres, bags made of string produced from the root bark of particular trees, and a range of receptacles of different shapes and sizes made from bark, skin, and shell. In Arnhem Land and parts of Cape York Peninsula, women make softened bark from the stringybark tree and fig tree into lengths of string. This handspun string is woven into rectangular ‘dilly’ or ‘string’ bags, using a variety of stitches (e.g. knotted netting, single loop, hour-glass and loop, and twist). Sometimes, before weaving, the string is dyed red or yellow with the roots of such plants as Haemodorum coccineum or Ceolospernum reticulatum. Dyed string is also used to add contrasting, horizontal bands of colour to the natural string bag. For special occasions, tiny, brightly coloured feathers from the necks of parakeets or the delicate white feathers from the breasts of magpie geese are rolled into the string, so as to give the bags a soft, fluffy outer surface.

Baskets, either flat-based or conical in shape, are made from the young, green fronds of pandanus (especially Pandanus spiralus). These are split into strips, dried in the sun, and then either left their natural colour or dyed and used as weft threads of the woven pattern. Some conical baskets are woven so tightly that honey from the hives of wild bees and water can be carried in them. Sometimes, especially since the emergence of a tourist industry, several split strands of pandanus fibre dyed bright orange, yellow, brown, pink, or purple are bound into cylindrical lengths, which are then coiled into basket shape and held in place with blanket stitch to create a container resembling a European shopping basket.

Crescent-shaped baskets are made in the rain-forest regions of north Queensland from lengths of split lawyer cane (Calamus caryotoides), a prolific climbing plant. The basket is made using two continuous strands of cane, with several straight strands extending the length of the base. The distinctive shape is formed by stringing the ends of the split cane like a bow and attaching it by top-stitching to the inner surface. Sometimes men paint the outer surface with red and yellow ochres, white clay, and charcoal. Coiled baskets of reeds were formerly made in eastern Australia. The reeds were wound on a continuous spiral starting from the centre of the base and ending at the rim. In Tasmania, women made delicately shaped, globular baskets from Juncus reeds for carrying personal items and food. These resembled the baskets of Aboriginal women in Victoria. Nowadays European materials are sometimes used in the manufacture of bags and baskets. For example, commercial dyes are used to colour plant fibres and strips of brightly printed cloth are used as decoration on small round-bottomed baskets made of pandanus. Some bags, such as those normally made from bark string, are crocheted from coloured wool or nylon string.

The Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands make large rectangular containers for use in mortuary ceremonies (see §5: Mortuary art). These comprise a long sheet of flattened and cleaned stringybark folded in half lengthwise and sewn together at the sides with pandanus strips threaded through punched holes. Striking and bold geometric designs are painted on the outer surface.

In the Kimberleys region of Western Australia two types of elegant bark containers are made for utilitarian purposes. One, unique to the region, is shaped like a European bucket with the bark base attached to the cylinder by seams of handspun bark-fibre string. It is waterproofed with a thick layer of resin. String handles are added and the outer surface is decorated with traditional symbols, stencilled hands, and Wandjina figures (see §III: Regions, 3), using white clay, sometimes blown on to the surface. The other type, similar to those found in northern Queensland and Arnhem Land, is long and cylindrical. Bark’s tendency to curl back into the form of the original tree trunk is exploited by Aboriginal women, and rough bark at the ends of the rectangular strip is thinned to enable it to be pleated and bound into place with stick handles and twine. The outer surface is also sometimes decorated with designs using white clay, often on a red ochre background.

Elegantly carved, elongate wooden dishes are made in the desert region of central Australia. After chipping, shaping, and hollowing, these multipurpose containers are usually left plain and smooth or they are finely chiselled with fluted decoration and covered with red ochre. For ceremonial purposes, Warlpiri, Pintupi, and Luritja women painted Dreamtime designs on both the inner and outer surface of these wooden containers, using ochres to make circular and dotted motifs. Some bowls are now made for sale and these are often decorated with a wide range of acrylic paints. Pitjantjatjara women use hot wire to incise swirling linear designs of Dreamtime motifs on such bowls.

In several areas of Australia, large gastropod shells are used to carry food and water. In Arnhem Land, for example, water is carried in the large Syrinx aruanus shell, to which is attached a fig-string handle.

(ii) Ornaments.

Aboriginal people adorn their bodies with a variety of materials. In the Kimberleys, pearl shell pendants are highly prized and often traded far afield. String, handspun from human hair and sometimes greased and heavily laden with red ochre, is attached to the apex of the shell, so that the pendant can be hung around a man’s neck or waist. The beauty of this pendant lies in the interlocking key design, incised into the pearly inner surface and filled with red ochre to highlight the pattern.

During mortuary ceremonies, Tiwi men wear various special ornaments (see §5: Mortuary art), and in Arnhem Land male dancers wear delicate handspun bark-fibre cords or tiny entwined parakeet feathers suspended from bark-fibre waist- and headbands. Finely plaited pandanus-fibre strips may be worn around the upper arm.

Throughout most of northern and central Australia, men often dance with bunches of fresh green leaves tied around their ankles. In Arnhem Land the practice is restricted to certain ceremonies such as initiation and mortuary rites. Human hairstring belts, greased and thickly covered with red ochre, are also worn. In the rain-forests of northern Queensland, white and yellow feathers from sulphur-crested cockatoos were used in the past for men’s headdresses. These were either arranged as a radiating flat crown, with the central shaft of feather spines held together by beeswax, or they were clustered into small feather bunches stabilized with beeswax and affixed to separate locks of hair or beard. Forehead bands were made of handspun bark-fibre or possum-fur string, from which eel bones, kangaroo teeth, or seeds were suspended so as to hang over the temple.

Women in the Western Desert regions of central Australia use bright red and yellow seeds from the bean tree (Erythrina vespertilio), threaded on string handspun from human hair. They wrap these strings of seeds across their breasts, over their shoulders and around their waists and wear them as armbands. Strips of white sheeting are also sometimes worn as a headband with a bunch of white feathers just above the centre of the forehead.

Delicate reed necklaces, threaded on vegetable-fibre string, are worn by Aborigines in eastern Australia. In Tasmania, striking necklaces are made from possum fur or kangaroo sinew, raddled with red ochre, and from iridescent trochus shell. Similar shell necklaces are still made by Aboriginal women on Cape Barren Island, but these are now threaded with European sewing cotton or nylon thread. As part of daily attire, incised kangaroo bone and reed ornaments were worn through the nasal septum by men in the rain-forest region of north Queensland. Many were decorated with tiny, incised parallel lines and short dashes and rubbed over with charcoal to highlight the pattern.

(iii) Pipes.

Drone pipes (didjeridu) are found in Arnhem Land and more recently in the Kimberleys and Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They are made from small tree trunks or branches, the cores of which have been eaten out by termites. They are between 1.2 and 1.8 m long and vary considerably in diameter. In some areas the mouthpiece is shaped with beeswax to suit the player. In the Kimberleys these drone pipes are painted black or deep red-brown and then incised with images of Dreamtime figures and handprints so as to allow the natural colour of the timber to show through. In Arnhem Land the drone pipes are painted with earth ochres or acrylic paints in designs similar to those found on bark paintings from the region. Mornington Island pipes are coated with black or red-brown commercial paint, and bands of red, black, and/or white often adorn part of the surface. Suitable lengths of metal or plastic piping are also occasionally used.

The smoking pipe was introduced to Arnhem Land by Indonesian (‘Macassan’) traders. Macassan pipes have a slender, cylindrical shaft of softwood, about 500–600 mm in length, with a metal bowl. The softwood barrel is decorated with finely incised, cross-hatched, and geometric designs and painted with earth ochres or with yellow, black, white, and red acrylic paints. These continue to be used in Arnhem Land together with European pipes and those made from the claw of the large mud crab.

(iv) Weapons.
  • Kate Khan and Betty Meehan

Aboriginal peoples from all over Australia used similar groups of weapons for both hunting and combat. These included clubs, shields, spears, spear-throwers, and boomerangs. However, boomerangs were not used in Arnhem Land or Cape York, and neither boomerangs, shields, nor spear-throwers were used in Tasmania. In the Kimberleys, distinctive elongated hardwood shields are decorated on the outer surface with multiple incised zigzag designs. Some are covered with red ochre and others are infilled with alternate red and white bands. Arnhem Land spears and spear-throwers are sometimes painted with cross-hatched ochre designs similar to those of the region’s bark paintings. Those from Port Essington are light and elegant with a beeswax knob at the handheld end decorated with an impressed linear design, and subtle red and white ochre motifs on the shaft. Bathurst and Melville Islands ceremonial spears and clubs are highly decorated, echoing the bold geometric designs of the islands’ baskets, bark paintings, burial poles, and body painting.

In the desert regions of central and north-western Australia, the thin, leaf-shaped spear-thrower made of mulga-wood (Acacia aneura) was a multipurpose object of great elegance. Besides being used to propel a spear, it also doubled as an adze, as it had a stone blade embedded in resin at one end. Water, pigments, or blood could be collected in its concave surface.

There are two distinctive central Australian hardwood boomerangs. The first type is fluted, coloured with red ochre, gently curved, and is either returning or non-returning. The other is the hook boomerang, sometimes known from its shape as a ‘number 7’. These are left plain or decorated with parallel bands of incised lines filled with red ochre; some also have white bands painted on the hook as well as on the handheld end. Often a small band of dots and circles, reminiscent of the Dreamtime designs found in ground paintings from this region, is painted on one end or both.

Light, oval-shaped shields, made from bean-wood (Erythrina vespertilio), were similarly embellished with parallel grooves on both surfaces. They were usually red from ochre and sometimes a dot, circle, and line design depicting Dreamtime events was painted on the outer surface in red, yellow, white, and black. Today acrylic paints and a wider range of colours are often used.

In eastern Australia, extremely large, heavy boomerangs were decorated with delicate linear incisions. The natural grain of the wood sometimes enhanced the design. Narrow parrying shields had similar incised markings covering the outer surface. In the past these markings were engraved with a possum tooth or stone tool. The most common incised design was a diamond figure set in a field of herringbone patterns, parallel chevrons, and diagonal fluting. A fine 19th-century shield from the Darling River, NSW, is illustrated below.

A unique one-handed sword was used in the north Queensland rain-forest. Made of heavy hardwood, it had a small handgrip and a long blade with plain, polished, convex surfaces. The sword was used only with a highly decorated, kidney-shaped shield that was cut from the buttress of a fig-tree, the natural curve determining its shape. Ornate linear patterns were painted on the shield’s outer surface, using red and yellow ochres, white pipeclay and ground charcoal. Blood, either human or animal, was used as a fixative. Designs were painted with the fingers, brushes made from lawyer cane chewed at one end, or with commercially produced brushes. It is thought that the designs probably related to totems.


  • F. A. Péron and C. L. de S. de Freycinet: Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes … pendant les années 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804, 2 vols (Paris, 1807–16).
  • W. B. Spencer and F. Gillen: The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, 1899/R 1969).
  • W. E. Roth: North Queensland Ethnography, Queensland Government Printer, Bulletins nos 1–8 (1901–6); Records of the Australian Museum, 6–8 (1907–10) [Bulletins nos 9–18].
  • U. H. McConnel: ‘Native Arts and Industries on the Archer, Kendall, and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland’, Records of the South Australian Museum, 11/1 (1953), pp. 1–42, pls i–xvii.
  • F. D. McCarthy: Australia’s Aborigines: Their Life and Culture (Melbourne, 1957).
  • C. P. Mountford: The Tiwi: Their Art, Myth, and Ceremony (London, 1958).
  • P. Brokensha: The Pitjantjatjara and their Crafts (Sydney, 1975).
  • C. C. Macknight: ‘The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia (Melbourne, 1976).
  • J. Clark: The Aboriginal People of Tasmania (Hobart, 1983).
  • J. Isaacs: Arts of the Dreaming: Australia’s Living Heritage (Sydney, 1984).
  • K. Khan: ‘North Queensland Aboriginal Baskets’, Craft Australia, 4 (1985), pp. 18–22.

III. Regions.

Australia is here divided into a number of geographical regions that reflect broad variations in the cultural and artistic systems of their Aboriginal populations (see fig.). The south and south-east was the first region to be colonized by Europeans, and knowledge of its art is less detailed than that of other areas. Nevertheless, the region does seem to have considerable unity, especially in the widespread tradition of finely engraved and incised wooden artefacts. The central region, stretching from south-east Queensland in the east across to the coast of Western Australia, is an arid zone with low population densities and considerable cultural continuities. Across the northern coastal region there is greater linguistic variation and art styles can differ markedly between adjacent areas, making it possible to define a number of more precisely demarcated regions. From west to east these comprise the Kimberleys, characterized by paintings of the legendary Wandjina heroes; Western Arnhem Land with its X-ray paintings; and Eastern Arnhem Land with its intricate clan designs. Cape York Peninsula on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria has distinctive art forms that show some continuities with works from the Torres Strait Islands. Within each region there is considerable variation and in some cases, such as Melville and Bathurst Islands, Groote Eylandt, and Lake Eyre, sub-regions exist that have their own distinctive art styles.

1. South-east Australia and Tasmania.

This cultural and stylistic region can be defined as the area south and east of an arc drawn from near Adelaide in South Australia up through the great Murray–Darling River system of New South Wales and south-west Queensland to a point along the north-east coast just below Brisbane, together with the island of Tasmania. Over this entire area engraved linear designs display recognizable combinations of motif that typify the region’s art. Within this overall style, variations on a theme have led to distinctive, localized designs. As in all Australian Aboriginal art, the designs are related to the land or country of their maker. They are primarily found incised on hunter’s weapons, but variations occur on burial and ceremonial trees and on the richly decorated skin cloaks peculiar to some areas within the region. They even characterize the relatively sparse rock art of the region (see Mootwingee). A number of significant rock art sites exist in south-eastern Australia. Among the most notable are the Sydney-Hawkesbury sandstone engravings at Cobar in central western New South Wales. Rock-engravings fit in with sequences found elsewhere in Australia. Paintings in rock shelters in New South Wales seem to be a more recent development, though the situation may have been distorted by differential preservation. Most extant specimens of traditional south-east Australian art were made, used, bartered, and collected in the 19th century. Representative examples of small-scale works are found in museums throughout the world. Since the 1990s, Aboriginal people from the region have sought to strengthen their identity, resulting in a revival of interest in traditional arts and crafts. In such areas as the Lower Murray River replicas of ‘traditional’ weapons have been made based on 19th-century material preserved in museums.

As a result of the devastating impact of European colonization, little survives of the art of Tasmania. The early records suggest that rich and varied traditions similar to those in the rest of Australia also existed in Tasmania (see Ruhe for a summary). The paintings of Thomas Bock (1790–1855) and early photographs reveal traditions of elaborate hair decoration and body adornment (see Morphy and Edwards).

(i) Weapons.

The formal and graphic elements that are combined to produce the recognizable ‘South-eastern’ style are relatively few and simple. The several varieties of weapons, shields, clubs, boomerangs, and spear-throwers that were made throughout the region were decorated with designs formed from repeated crosshatch, herringbone, zigzag, chevron, diamond, interlocking diamond, and rhombic elements. In some localities red, white, and black pigments were used to accentuate areas of design. Discrete motifs were relatively uncommon, but when they do occur they usually take the form of curvilinear or geometric shapes enclosing smooth, recessed, raised, infilled, or coloured areas. Human, animal, and other representational figures are rare on artefacts, though their use was greatly stimulated when artefacts were produced for barter and sale outside Aboriginal society. One example, a club collected by R. B. Smyth from the Aborigines of Victoria (Rome, Mus. N. Preist. & Etnog.), is decorated on both surfaces with finely incised representations of an emu and iguanas. Smyth thought such figures represented the totems of their maker’s tribe. Another club (Melbourne, Mus. Victoria) possesses a linear design that Smyth claimed represented a lagoon and an anabranch of a river, the space enclosed by the lines showing the country occupied by the tribe of the weapon’s owner.

The workmanship displayed in some of the old weapons, especially the shields traditionally carved by stone or animal-tooth tools, is striking, as is seen in a rare and superbly decorated specimen from the Darling River region (London, BM). Made of hardwood rather than bark, its handle was cut into the solid wood at the back of the shield with a stone tool. The finely carved design was executed with an engraving tool made from a possum’s jawbone. Broad shields of this type were about 1 m long on average and were used throughout south-east Australia to deflect spears in general fights between warring parties. The shields’ designs stressed both individual and group identity. Like their owners, they were often ‘painted up’ for fights, as ethnographic accounts record, though this example has no traces of pigment and appears to have relied instead on the striking nature of its complex incised design for its effect. The unusual inclusion on the shield of circular motifs, which are uncommon for the south-east, link this design with those of the Lake Eyre region further west.

Stylistic variation between the internal groupings within the larger region is discernible. Just as the excellence of the work of individual craftsmen or artists stands out, so do particular styles that suggest specific provenances. For instance, in the early years of the 19th century Aborigines living in the upper Darling River area, more specifically along the tributaries of the Bogan and Macquarie rivers, seem to have possessed a special inventiveness in wood-carving, which is revealed in many particularly unusual and beautiful pieces.

(ii) Carved trees and decorated cloaks.
  • Carol Cooper

The greatest concentration of dendroglyphs or carved trees (associated with either burial or ceremonial grounds) is also found to the east of the Darling, on the Bogan and Macquarie rivers, in Kamilaroi tribal lands. This area is noted for the greatest variety of motifs and greatest skill in their execution. One particular carved tree (Sydney, Austral. Mus.) was recorded by Etheridge (1918) as being one of two trees that marked ‘the grave of a celebrated boomerang-thrower of the Macquarie tribe, killed in a fight with the Bogan blacks’. Though the design is cut with a metal tool, the deterioration in workmanship and design integrity often associated with the introduction of metal tools is not evident here. Indeed, the introduction of European woodworking tools into this area appears to have stimulated wood-carving skills, resulting in the production of some particularly fine carved weapons and trees.

Possum-skin cloaks, the other major vehicle for linear designs in the region, are extremely rare. While there are many records of these beautiful objects being collected, few survive in museums. Two outstanding examples come from the region’s coastal area. One (Melbourne, Mus. Victoria) consisting of 50 engraved possum pelts, still bears traces of red-ochre decoration; it was obtained in 1872 from Lake Condah Aboriginal station in coastal Victoria and is remarkably similar in design to one collected in 1838–42 from the Hunter River in eastern New South Wales (Washington, DC, N. Mus. Nat. Hist.).

The exact relationship of the designs on the cloaks to those on the trees and weapons is obscure. Early commentators had difficulty in obtaining information from local Aborigines, who were hesitant to discuss their traditional practices with Europeans. There are, however, indications that there were associations between body cicatrice designs and those on the cloaks, trees, and artefacts, as well as with ephemeral ceremonial-ground drawings.


  • R. B. Smyth: The Aborigines of Victoria, 2 vols (London, 1878).
  • R. Etheridge: The Dendroglyphs, or ‘Carved Trees’ of New South Wales, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales: Ethnological Series, 3 (Sydney, 1918).
  • N. Peterson: ‘The Natural and Cultural Areas of Aboriginal Australia: A Preliminary Analysis of Population Groupings with Adaptive Significance’, Tribes and Boundaries in Australia, ed. N. Peterson, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Social Anthropology Series, 10 (Canberra, 1976), pp. 50–71.
  • Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat. by C. Cooper and others, Sydney, Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2), pp. 29–42, 82–120.
  • D. Bell: Aboriginal Carved Trees of Southeastern Australia: A Research Report (Sydney, 1982).
  • H. Morphy and E. Edwards, eds: Australia in Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum Monograph 4 (Oxford, 1988).
  • P. Sutton, P. Jones and S. Hemming: ‘Survival, Regeneration, and Impact’, Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York: Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Gal.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90), pp. 180–212.
  • E. L. Ruhe: ‘The Bark Art of Tasmania’, Art and Identity in Oceania, ed. A. Hanson and L. Hanson (Honolulu, 1990), pp. 129–48.
  • C. Cooper: Designs in Wood (diss., Canberra, Austral. N. U.) (in preparation).

2. Central Australia.

  • Luke Taylor

This extensive cultural region stretches from Tennant Creek in the north to the Flinders Ranges in the south, and from Queensland in the east to the west Australian coast. The main language groups are the Aranda, Warlpiri, Pintubi, Luritja, and Pitjantjatjara. Most artists are based in the towns of Hooker Creek, Yuendumu, Papunya, Hermannsburg, Ayers Rock (Uluru), Ernabella, Utopia, Kintore, and Balgo, although many live in smaller camps between these larger centres.

Throughout this vast area there is much stylistic continuity in the graphic designs used in sand drawings, body painting, and the decoration of ceremonial objects. Patterns of circles, lines, and dots characterize the designs, which are used in a variety of contexts to represent specific localities and events of ancestral importance. The indigenous symbolism and use of such designs has been thoroughly documented by Nancy Munn, who identified a set of 13 graphic elements regularly used in sand drawings; these include circles, arcs, dots, ovals, and meandering or straight lines. Each element has a wide range of potential meanings: a simple circle can be used to indicate such varied items as a nest, water-hole, tree, hill, or camp fire; a short, straight line may identify a spear, a digging stick, or an animal or person lying down or moving in a certain direction. The exact reference to each element is fixed within the accompanying narrative. The elements are combined into larger design units that build a broader picture of details about the daily activities of particular ancestral subjects.

While both men and women publicly engage in sand drawing to tell stories of ancestral times, they also control their own designs in different types of ceremonial contexts. Women’s designs (yawalyu) are revealed to them in dreams by spirit children (yinawuru), acting as proxies for ancestral beings. The painting of such designs on the body in Yawalyu ceremonies is said to enhance the personal, sexual, and procreative aims of the wearer. Although the accompanying stories are associated with specific ancestral figures and with a general locality, such locational references are not stressed by women (Munn). They tend rather to see in their dreams the ancestral precedent for their own hunting and gathering or food-consuming activities. Yawalyu body designs differ from those in sand drawings in that the basic elements are often outlined with one or more lines. Hence, circles become concentric and parallel lines are used instead of single straight lines.

Designs controlled exclusively by men (guruwari) are considered to be reproductions of marks originally created by the ancestral beings, although men also produce new designs from their dreams. They are painted on the body and on regalia such as shields and are incised on wooden or oval stone slabs known as tjurunga, as well as on way-markers known as toas. Larger and more elaborate designs may be constructed on the ground using white and ochred bird down or plant fibre. The ceremonies in which these designs are used include the Bulaba, a ritual that dramatizes ancestral events for the benefit of the whole camp; Guridji circumcision rituals; and Banba or major fertility ceremonies that ensure the maintenance of different totemic species and of life sources as a whole. Since the standardized designs represent specific ancestral localities, their use during ceremonies is intended to tap the reserves of ancestral power left at these places and to communicate it to the participants and the objects. Guruwari designs are similar to women’s yawalyu designs but generally larger. The concentric circle patterns are identified with sites created by ancestral beings when they stopped and the lines indicate the path of their travels. The designs help to create symbolic links between the hunting and ceremonial journeys undertaken by contemporary humans and the journeys and exploits of the ancestral beings. The prime underlying symbolic reference of concentric circles is to female sexuality, while parallel lines are associated with male sexuality.

For details concerning the Hermannsburg school of watercolourists, established in the area in the 1930s, and the contemporary production of acrylic paintings and batik textiles, see §IV: Contemporary art.


  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen: The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, 1899/R 1969).
  • C. P. Mountford: ‘Aboriginal Crayon Drawings Relating to Totemic Places Belonging to the Northern Aranda Tribe of Central Australia’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 61 (1937), pp. 84–95.
  • G. Roheim: The Eternal Ones of the Dream: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Australian Myth and Ritual (New York, 1945).
  • N. O. Munn: Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (Ithaca, NY, 1973, rev. Chicago, 1986).
  • G. Bardon: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Adelaide, 1979).
  • L. Taylor: Ancestors into Art: An Analysis of Pitjanjatjara Kulpidji Designs and Crayon Drawings (diss., Canberra, Austral. N. U., 1979).
  • N. Peterson: ‘Art of the Desert’, Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat. by C. Cooper and others, Sydney, Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2), pp. 43–51.
  • P. Jones and P. Sutton: Art and Land: Aboriginal Sculptures of the Lake Eyre Region (Adelaide, 1986).

3. Kimberleys.

  • Robert Layton

This cultural region between the Ord and Fitzroy rivers in Western Australia is occupied by speakers of a number of non-Pama-nyungan languages. The region is best known for its rock art (see also §II: Traditional art forms, 2), though Aboriginal communities have produced art in various media, including body painting and, in recent years, commercial paintings on board and bark. Two types of figures are characteristic of the region’s rock paintings: Bradshaw and Wandjina figures. The first belong to a tradition that is no longer practised. They are known in the local languages as Giro-giro or Kiro-kiro but among archaeologists as ‘Bradshaw figures’, after their European discoverer, Joseph Bradshaw, who encountered them in 1892. These figures are caught in mid-action, often wear headdresses and other ornaments, and sometimes occur in groups. Painted in red ochre, they are generally less than 300 mm high and in style are similar to the Mimi figures of the Oenpelli–Kakadu region of Western Arnhem Land (see §4). Bradshaw figures are found in both the western and eastern Kimberleys (though relatively little is known of the art of the eastern area). Welch (1993) considers that two phases can be detected within the ‘Bradshaw’ art, characterized by different headdresses, artefacts and poses. He tentatively equates the later Bradshaw art of the Kimberleys with the Lewis Stick period in the rock art of Western Arnhem Land.

Wandjina are legendary heroes depicted as mouthless human-like figures wearing semicircular headdresses. The Wandjina are often accompanied by animals with which they are associated in legends; these are depicted in a twisted perspective: the body shown in profile but the feet, anus, and head seen from other angles. In the same caves as the Wandjina there are small, roughly drawn figures representing either malevolent and capricious beings that subvert the ancestral order established by the Wandjina, or the victims of sorcery. The latter were painted by people wishing to invoke the Wandjinas’ power to cripple and kill their opponents (Layton). Indirect evidence suggests the Wandjina style is up to 3000 years old, since the earlier Dynamic ‘Bradshaw’ styles do not depict the use of stone-tipped spears, and Kimberley stone spear points are thought to appear c. 1000 bp (see Crawford, 1968, 1977; Welch, 1990). Confined to the western half of the Kimberleys, bounded roughly by the Drysdale River, the Wandjina tradition is later than that of the Bradshaw figures. It was first documented by Sir George Grey (1812–98) in 1838.

The Wandjina are seen as having established the Aboriginal social order by demarcating clan territories and instituting ceremonial exchanges (Blundell and Layton; Blundell). Each clan holds pre-eminent rights over an area containing one or more rock shelters bearing Wandjina and other paintings. The clans are totemic and in the western Kimberleys each is associated with a named Wandjina hero. Traditionally, the clan had a ritual responsibility for the increase of the particular animal species associated with its Wandjina, which was discharged at ceremonies in which the Wandjina paintings were retouched. This aspect of the cult ceased, probably during the 1930s, following the severe disruption caused by the attempts at white pastoral settlement and the relocation of Aboriginal groups on missions (Blundell). Senior men have nonetheless continued to repaint Wandjina whenever possible. A number of cases have been recorded between 1947 and 1986. Rituals celebrating the Wandjina were being performed in the late 1980s–early 1990s, while commercial bark paintings of Wandjina heads are a popular modern art form. Pearl shell pendants, once exclusively produced for ceremonial exchange, are now also available commercially.

Little of the rock art in the eastern Kimberleys is directly associated with ‘increase’ ceremonies, although in one documented example the paintings are said to have been executed by an ancestral hero (Capell, 1972). Most paintings are placed in apparently random assemblages, not linked by the legendary associations of the site, and are more stereotyped than in the western zone. Only images of the spirits of unborn children are retouched, ‘to replace a spirit-child born into the human world’ (Kaberry, 1935, 1936; Capell, 1972).

Recent rock art styles are more static, and compositions are rarer. Figures are often more than 1 m high and are outlined and infilled in red, black, and white on a white background. Among recent important contemporary developments in the region is the art from Turkey Creek in the East Kimberleys. The art developed as part of a renaissance of a ritual that followed the death of a woman in a car accident, commemorated by the Krill Krill song cycle. Paintings on board made for rituals have become well known. The paintings of Rover Thomas with their stark geometricity have gained an international reputation (see 1994. exh. cat).


  • A. P. Elkin: ‘Rock-paintings of North-west Australia’, Oceania, 1 (1930), pp. 257–79 [eye-witness accts of ptg tech.].
  • J. Love: ‘Rock Paintings of the Worrora and their Mythological Interpretation’, Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 16 (1930), pp. 1–24.
  • P. M. Kaberry: ‘The Forrest River and Lyne River Tribes of North-west Australia’, Oceania, 5 (1935), pp. 408–36.
  • P. M. Kaberry: ‘Spirit-children and Spirit-centres of the North Kimberley Division, West Australia’, Oceania, 6 (1936), pp. 392–400.
  • J. Love: Stone-age Bushmen of Today (London, 1936) [eye-witness accts of ptg tech.].
  • A. Capell: ‘Mythology in Northern Kimberley’, Oceania, 9 (1939), pp. 382–404.
  • I. M. Crawford: The Art of the Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia (London and Melbourne, 1968) [colour photos].
  • A. Capell: Cave Painting Myths: Northern Kimberley (Sydney, 1972).
  • V. Blundell and R. Layton: ‘Marriage, Myth and Models of Exchange in the Western Kimberleys’, Mankind, 11 (1978), pp. 231–45.
  • V. Blundell: ‘Symbolic Systems and Cultural Continuity in Northwest Australia: A Consideration of Aboriginal Cave Art’, Culture, 11 (1982), pp. 3–20.
  • R. Layton: ‘The Cultural Context of Hunter–gatherer Rock Art’, Man, n. s., 20/3 (1985), pp. 434–53.
  • D. Welch: ‘The Bichrome Art Period in the Kimberley, Australia’, Rock Art Research, 7 (1990), pp. 110–24.
  • D. Welch: ‘Early “Naturalistic” Human Figures in the Kimberley, Australia’, Rock Art Research, 10 (1993), pp. 24–37.
  • G. L. Walsh: Bradshaws: Ancient Rock Paintings of North-west Australia (Geneva, 1994).
  • Roads Cross: The Paintings of Rover Thomas (exh. cat. by R. Thomas, Canberra, N. G., 1994).
  • J. Schmiechen: Survey of Aboriginal Rock Art and Cultural Sites: Drysdale River, East Kimberley, Western Australia: Report of Findings (in preparation).

4. Western Arnhem Land.

  • Luke Taylor

This cultural region is located in the Northern Territory of Australia and is bounded by the East Alligator and Liverpool rivers. Its landscape is dominated by spectacular escarpments, many containing caves decorated with rock paintings—among the most extensive and best-preserved of which are in the Ubirr complex in Kakadu National Park. The two other most important art forms are ceremonial body painting and bark paintings on stringybark produced for sale. Such bark paintings replaced the traditional painting of rock shelters and bark in wet-season huts as the arena for representing secular subjects, but in response to market demand, contemporary bark painters have been incorporating more sacred subject-matter relating to the creative actions of ancestral beings. Artists paint in recognizable local ‘schools’ or styles centred around the Aboriginal townships at Oenpelli, Maningrida, and Bamyili, and at small bush camps throughout the region. Although the Aboriginal peoples of the region speak some ten different languages of the non-Pama-nyungan group, multilingualism is common, and this facilitates movement throughout the area and participation in major regional ceremonies. As a result artists share stylistic traits that emphasize their cultural distinctiveness from groups in Eastern Arnhem Land.

Among the large body of documented rock paintings in Western Arnhem Land, two characteristic styles are known: Dynamic Figurative, which was subsequently replaced by the X-ray style (see §II: Traditional art forms, 2(ii)(b) above). The term ‘Dynamic Figurative’ was introduced to describe the small, red, human-like figures (h. c. 200–300 mm) actively engaged in hunting, fighting, and ceremonial scenes (for illustration see Ubirr). Neither the original meaning nor function of the Dynamic Figurative style paintings is known. Contemporary Aborigines describe them as representations of Mimi (rock country spirits), said to be long, thin, trickster spirits that live in the crevices of the rock caves. They also attribute the production of such paintings to the Mimi; hence some scholars refer to them as Mimi art. This type of painting has considerable antiquity, but direct evidence of its age is lacking. A Pleistocene date (c. 10,000 bp) has been suggested by relating the subject-matter of the paintings to geomorphological studies of environmental changes in the region (Chaloupka).

‘X-ray’ art, the term used to describe rock paintings of animals infilled with schematic representations of internal organs and skeletal features, continued to be produced until recent times. The subject-matter reflects the changing economy of Aboriginal groups over a long period of environmental change, from pre-estuarine to estuarine (c. 7000–5000 bc) and finally to the present-day freshwater, wetland conditions (c. ad 1000). The region’s Aborigines do not have a single term for all the different types of X-ray painting, although they acknowledge it as ‘our way of painting’ and its style is continuous with some paintings used in contemporary ceremonies.

The designs used in ceremonial body painting are believed to have been created by the ancestral beings and handed down through the generations. Figurative X-ray motifs are painted on the body during the most public stages of the Mardayin ceremony, performed to ensure the fertility of the natural world, to initiate young men, and to settle the souls of the dead. During the more sacred stages of this ceremony, elaborate, geometric designs called rarrk are painted in natural ochres on the bodies of initiates and on sacred objects. Rarrk consist of geometric grids of dotted lines infilled with polychrome crosshatching patterns. These designs represent both features of the clan lands of the owner of the designs and the associated ancestral events. Since landscape is often conceived to be the transformed remains of ancestral beings, rarrk can also be interpreted as showing body parts. As ancestral creations, rarrk designs are considered to contain some of the power of the original beings, which can be transferred to the initiates who wear the designs. The Mardayin ceremony dramatizes the manner in which the power of the original ancestral beings is now controlled by the clan groups who own the designs.

Similar functions and interpretations are also ascribed to buluk designs, which are constructed from coloured cotton wool or kapok stuck to a dancer’s torso. These designs are worn in the most important phases of the Kunapipi and Yabburdurrwa ceremonies, which are re-enactments of the Dreaming concerned with initiation and fertility. Buluk designs consist of either highly schematic figures or wholly geometric motifs.

Western Arnhem Land bark paintings are characterized by figurative subjects; the most common are representations of hunting scenes derived from stories of the Mimi spirits. Such paintings generally show a relatively large X-ray representation of a common food species in combination with a much smaller Mimi figure in the act of spearing the animal. These paintings are associated with others that show the butchery or cooking of game. The characteristic body features that identify the distinct species of animal are carefully represented.

To indicate the particular creative and transformable characteristics of ancestral beings, the artist may elaborate either the internal infill or the outline of the figure. For example, the use of crosshatching infill, combined with X-ray motifs, identifies the painting with rarrk ceremonial designs. Since ancestral beings are also thought to have transformed themselves freely into different animal types or into composite animal and human body forms, artists may also modify the outline of the figures, combining figurative elements from a number of distinct species to create monstrous configurations that embody these mythical figures. A common example is seen in the paintings of Ngalyod (the First Mother) or Rainbow Serpent, the original mythical creator of Western Arnhem Land. The latter has been painted with a body form that combines elements from such diverse species as kangaroo, crocodile, snake, or barramundi to indicate its status as the creator of all subsequent beings.


  • W. B. Spencer: Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (London, 1914).
  • A. P. Elkin, R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt: Art in Arnhem Land (Melbourne, 1950).
  • C. P. Mountford: Art, Myth and Symbolism, 1 of Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, 1948 (Melbourne, 1956).
  • R. M. Berndt, ed.: Australian Aboriginal Art (Sydney, 1964/R 1968).
  • K. Kupka: Un Art à l’état brut: Peintures et sculptures aborigènes d’Australie (Lausanne, 1962); Eng. trans. as Dawn of Art: Painting and Sculpture of the Australian Aborigines (Sydney, 1965).
  • R. M. Berndt and C. H. Berndt: Man, Land and Myth in North Australia: The Gunwinggu People (Sydney, 1970).
  • E. J. Brandl: Australian Aboriginal Paintings in Western and Central Arnhem Land: Temporal Sequences and Elements of Style in Cadell River and Deaf Adder Creek Art (Canberra, 1973).
  • P. J. Carroll: ‘Mimi from Western Arnhem Land’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 119–230.
  • Kunwinjku Bim: Western Arnhem Land Paintings from the Collection of the Aboriginal Arts Board (exh. cat. by A. Brody, Melbourne, N.G. Victoria, 1984).
  • G. Chaloupka: ‘Chronological Sequence of Arnhem Land Plateau Rock Art’, Archaeological Research in Kakadu National Park, ed. R. Jones (Canberra, 1985), pp. 269–80.
  • L. Taylor: ‘Seeing the “Inside”: Kunwinjku Paintings and the Symbol of the Divided Body’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy, One World Archaeology, 7 (London, 1989), pp. 371–89.

5. Eastern Arnhem Land.

  • Howard Morphy

This cultural region in the Northern Territory stretches from Cape Stewart in the west to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the east, and as far south as Blue Mud Bay. The area is occupied by some 5000 speakers of the Yolngu family of languages. Intensive European contact in the region began in the late 1920s with the establishment of the mission stations of Milingimbi, Elcho Island (Galiwinku), and Yirrkala. These have become the main centres for the Aboriginal population and are associated with minor variations in the regional art style.

People belong to patrilineal clans, which are divided between two moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each clan owns an area of land, the sacred law and objects associated with it, and the ancestral designs on which all Yolngu art is based. Designs are produced in various media and on different objects according to the needs of the ceremonial context. For example, the same basic design can occur as a sand sculpture or body painting, or on a flat surface such as a coffin lid; it can be painted on a memorial post, woven into the pattern of a sacred basket, or incised on to the wooden core of a sacred object.

The most characteristic features of this regional style are the geometric rendering of the clan designs and the elaborate crosshatching that covers much of a painted surface. Each design is unique in its details, although those associated with the same ancestral being often have common features. For example, the Wild Honey/Fire set of ancestral beings is associated with an overall diamond design. Alternate diamonds are infilled in varying ways to represent different attributes of the ancestral beings. Their meaning depends partly on focus, as the designs are multivalent: a red-infilled diamond could represent flames or the honey-filled cell of a honeycomb. Each clan along a particular ancestral track has its own variant of the respective design: diamonds, for example, might be equilateral, elongated or in varying sizes.

Paintings are often divided into segments that represent different areas of land and sometimes adjacent segments may contain different clan designs, reflecting the association of different ancestral beings with the land. In addition to clan designs, paintings include other geometric elements representing features of the landscape and the ancestral events that resulted in their creation. Thus each painting has an underlying geometric structure, which relates to the area’s totemic geography, serving both as a guide to its interpretation and as an active agent in the process of generating new paintings (Morphy, 1989). Figurative representations can be used to represent ancestral events and natural species associated with particular geographical features, and because of the multivalency of the geometric art many alternative figurative realizations of a geometric design are possible. The most sacred paintings (mardayin miny’tji) consist largely of clan designs and other geometric elements, although they may also include some figurative representations of associated totemic species. Paintings produced in public contexts tend to have greater figurative content than those produced in more restricted contexts.

Crosshatching, the last component of a painting to be completed, is produced by drawing a long brush of human hair across the surface of the painting to produce alternating colour sequences of fine parallel lines. The resulting shimmering effect is highly valued by the Yolngu, for it represents the ancestral power within the painting.

Some paintings and sacred objects are highly restricted forms, integrated within a hierarchical system of knowledge and revealed only to initiated adult men (Morphy, 1991). Moreover, knowledge of the meaning of designs is revealed to an individual only gradually; women are ostensibly denied access to the most restricted levels of knowledge. In ceremonies, designs are used as a means of contacting the ancestral being represented or creating a source of power that can be directed towards particular ends. In a circumcision ceremony, for example, initiates have their bodies painted with designs that belong to their own or a closely related clan. The painting reinforces an initiate’s position as a clan member and is thought to endow his body with spiritual power. Individuals are thought to accumulate power throughout their lives by participating in ceremonies and becoming associated with sacred objects. On the individual’s death, paintings are used as a means to return that power, in the form of the dead person’s soul, back to the ancestral clan lands. The designs are painted on the dead person’s body, or in recent years more commonly on the coffin lid, to place the deceased in contact with ancestral powers who will assist the soul on its journey.

Since World War II Eastern Arnhem Land paintings on bark and other surfaces have taken on new functions. They have become an important commodity for sale to white Australians, with individual artists such as Mawalan Marika (see Marika, (1)), Narritjin Maymurru, and David Malangi gaining widespread reputations. They have also acquired new significance in the political arena as symbols of Yolngu identity. One of the best-known events of the struggle for Aboriginal land rights occurred in 1963, when the people of Yirrkala sent a bark petition to the Australian Federal Parliament. Since then paintings have been used in many land right cases to demonstrate the religious basis for Aboriginal rights, for the art of Eastern Arnhem Land is rooted in the relationship between people, ancestral beings, and land.

See also fig. above.


  • A. P. Elkin, R. M. Berndt, and C. H. Berndt: Art in Arnhem Land (Melbourne, 1950).
  • H. M. Groger-Wurm: Eastern Arnhem Land, 1 of Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretations (Canberra, 1973).
  • H. Morphy: ‘ “Now you Understand”: An Analysis of the Way Yolngu Have Used Sacred Knowledge to Retain their Autonomy’, Aborigines, Land, and Landrights, ed. N. Peterson and M. Langton (Canberra, 1983), pp. 110–33.
  • H. Morphy: ‘Maintaining Cosmic Unity: Ideology and the Reproduction of Yolngu Clans’, Property, Power and Ideology in Hunting and Gathering Societies, ed. T. Ingold, D. Riches and J. Woodburn (Oxford, 1988), pp. 141–63.
  • H. Morphy: ‘On Representing Ancestral Beings’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy, One World Archaeology, 7 (London, 1989), pp. 144–60.
  • H. Morphy: Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (Chicago, 1991).

6. Cape York Peninsula.

  • Peter Sutton

This cultural region stretches from the Mitchell River drainage basin in the south to the tip of Cape York Peninsula in the north. It is an area of great linguistic diversity including many speakers of languages of the Wik group. The best known art forms of the region are the extensive paintings in the rock shelters of the Laura and Princess Charlotte Bay areas (see §II: Traditional art forms, 2 above). The galleries of the Laura region Caves, in particular, are spectacular, numerous, and frequently on a large and imposing scale (see Quinkan Galleries). The subjects most frequently depicted are the animals, plants, and ancestral beings that comprised the main totemic and ceremonial symbols of the region’s Aboriginal religion. Many of the human-like figures have been identified as images created during the practice of sorcery and sexual magic. Much of the rock art appears to be ancient, and engraved designs in one shelter have been assigned a minimum age of 13,000 years (Rosenfeld, Horton, and Winter). Works from the colonial period are readily identified by their depiction of such subjects as armed horsemen and pearling boats.

Such rock art cannot, however, be taken as typical of the whole region, most of which lacks rock shelters or rocky country of any description. In fact, the Cape York Peninsula peoples concentrated greater artistic efforts on decorating bags, spears, throwing-sticks, and other useful artefacts, and on ephemeral ceremonial objects and body painting. All portable works were made of local organic materials and, typically and intentionally, had a short life. Family resemblances among these objects identify them as coming from the Peninsula region. Such resemblances include the use of red abrus beads as decorative finishes to adhesives on throwing sticks, fire-stick holders, and umbilical-cord pendants; the use of shell—for example, trochus shell pendants and baler shell counterbalances on the handles of throwing-sticks; and the geometric, linear, painted designs on spears and ceremonial objects.

Melanesian influences are manifest in the region’s ceremonial art and in the designs on Cairns rain-forest shields, traditions that were well entrenched in mainland Aboriginal culture at the time of colonization. Elaborate painted masks, drums, and such features of painting styles as linear enclosures of colour fields and the use of triangular forms suggest, even more strongly, artistic influence from Torres Strait and New Guinea.

Ceremonial masks, some of which have entered public collections, were often highly detailed, painted constructions that covered not only the face or head but often the whole body. Normally, they were associated with esoteric rituals of the highest order and were not made for sale. By the 1990s they had all but disappeared from the living cultures of the region. With the introduction of steel woodworking tools to Aurukun in the 1940s, the production of carved wooden representations of mythic beings increased dramatically. These were still being made in the 1980s and 1990s, their basic carving and painterly conventions being the same as they were at the time of the earliest European contact. A good example is provided by two figures known as the Two Young Women of Cape Keerweer (Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.), which were carved for a ceremony held to release the spirit of a young man who had died in Aurukun gaol. A similar sculptural tradition existed in the south-east of the region, near Cooktown in the Starcke River area, where two highly decorated sculptures of Crocodile totemic beings were produced in the early 20th century (Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.).

The art of Cape York Peninsula has never attained the same degree of fame as that of its counterparts in Arnhem Land or central Australia. This is partly because the destruction of ritual traditions has been greater but also because the Aboriginal people of the region have not been much involved in the production of art aimed at a non-Aboriginal cash market.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the traditional Aboriginal works leaving the region were utilitarian artefacts—woven bags, fire-sticks, throwing-sticks, and spears, intended for sale at relatively low prices in the ‘crafts’ market. With reproductions based on photographs and examples preserved in museum collections, the production of Cairns rain-forest shields resumed. With the encouragement of art teachers at a local college, some artists in the town of Cairns began to apply designs adopted from the region’s art to intaglio printmaking. At the same time, some attempts were made to enter the fine arts market. A small number of sacred carvings from Aurukun and bark paintings from Aurukun and elsewhere were sold. The bark paintings were experiments in the use of a new medium, influenced by the example of Arnhem Land and encouraged by non-Aboriginal entrepreneurs. Neither sacred carvings nor bark paintings became a major medium of production for the market, and by the early 1990s few works of significance were being made within the artistic traditions of Cape York Peninsula, apart from those meant for private use.


  • D. Thomson: ‘The Hero Cult, Initiation, and Totemism on Cape York’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland [prev. pubd as J. Anthropol. Inst. GB & Ireland], 63 (1933), pp.453–537 and pls xxvii–xxxvii.
  • U. H. McConnel: ‘Inspiration and Design in Aboriginal Art’, Art in Australia, n. s. 2, 59 (1935), pp. 49–68.
  • I. Dunlop: Dances at Aurukun, 1962 (Sydney, 1964) [film].
  • F. D. McCarthy: ‘The Dancers of Aurukun’, Australian Natural History, 14 (1964), pp. 296–300.
  • P. Trezise: Rock Art of South-east Cape York (Canberra, 1971).
  • P. Trezise: ‘Aboriginal Rock Art of Cape York Peninsula’, The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts, ed. R. M. Berndt and E. S. Phillips (Sydney, 1973), pp. 118–28.
  • H. Morphy: ‘The Art of Northern Australia’, Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat. by C. Cooper and others, Sydney, Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2), pp. 52–65.
  • A. Rosenfeld, D. Horton, and J. Winter: Early Man in North Queensland: Art and Archaeology in the Laura Area (Canberra, 1981).
  • Cultural Exhibition of Queensland (exh. cat. by J. Bartlett, Omiya, Saitama Prefect. Mus., 1989) [well-illus. overview].

IV. Contemporary art.

Much of 20th-century Aboriginal art is ‘transitional’ in a number of ways. It is the art of people overwhelmed by an alien culture within which they have had to learn to live. It has also accepted and used new media of expression learnt from the dominant culture. Most of the new forms are made for sale to white tourists, collectors, museums, and public and private art galleries. Equally, many white teachers, missionaries, anthropologists, artists, and crafts- and art-advisers have supported the emergence of new forms of Aboriginal art. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they have influenced Aboriginal artistic expression in both form and content. For many contemporary Aboriginal artists, the content of their art still provides a link to the Dreamtime past of their ancestors and in particular their connection with ancestral lands. Yet the forms their art now takes are often commercially motivated, and the proceeds of its sale provide the only non-Governmental income for many communities.

1. Painting and drawing.

In central Australia in the 1930s, Aranda children on the Finke River Lutheran Mission at Hermannsburg produced drawings in a ‘European’ manner under the influence of Arthur Murch (1902–89) and Frances Derham (1894–1987). In the same decade Albert Namatjira decided to develop the foundations of the still continuing Hermannsburg school of Aranda watercolourists after some instruction from the Western artist Rex Battarbee (1893–1969) of Victoria. After decades of disdain by white art critics, Namatjira’s work has recently been more sympathetically reassessed. In the 1940s lively genre pictures were executed at the Carrolup Aboriginal School in Western Australia, now an Aboriginal controlled settlement and a flourishing centre for ‘new’ arts and crafts including textile printing and potterymaking.

But even before that, from the late 1920s, the regular production for sale of bark paintings (see §II: Traditional art forms, 7) was actively sponsored by missionaries in north-east Arnhem Land. Barks are now produced mainly in Arnhem Land but also by the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands and in the Kimberleys region of Western Australia. This commercial production has encouraged new techniques to preserve both bark and pigments, and, although the use of designs for ritual purposes has continued (Berndt, Berndt, and Stanton), new, non-secret designs have been used by artists willing to indulge Western tastes for more representative imagery. Women, who until recently in Arnhem Land were confined to weaving baskets, bags, and mats, are also beginning to paint barks, for example at Yirrkala, using both traditional designs and portrayals of their everyday life or even Christian iconography. Most recently, the all-pervading use of acrylic paints has been extended to the ‘translation’ of bark painting subjects to canvas.

The acrylic paintings—or ‘dot paintings’ as they are popularly referred to—of the various communities of central and Western Australia represent the most innovative and—again in Western terms—most successful contemporary art movement in Aboriginal Australia. They are based on the traditional iconography of largely curvilinear motifs which are still employed in ritual body painting and on sacred objects such as the flat oval stone or wooden slabs (tjurunga) and ground designs, as well as in less ‘restricted’ forms on shields, spears, carrying dishes, and boomerangs, and in the illustrating of stories told to children. The translation into the modern, saleable medium of paint, canvas, and artist’s board came about in 1971 at the instigation of an art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon (b 1940), then working at the government-established Papunya settlement west of Alice Springs. Such paintings, like their prototypes, are generally a formalized mapping of a particular geographical location associated with a specific mythological happening or individual. In the early days of the movement, many Papunya paintings incorporated clearly recognizable figures and even secret–sacred objects, but since 1971 there has been an increasing abstraction of motifs, a recodifying that renders impossible precise interpretation by the uninitiated. Certain artists have used a restricted palette corresponding to the traditional earth colours of body and ground painting. Others, especially the newer artists in communities such as Balgo, Lajamanu, and Utopia—who now include a significant number of women—continue to exploit the total chromatic freedom allowed by modern acrylic paints.

The success not only in Australia but also on the international art market of the work of such male artists as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri of the Anmatyerre/Aranda language group (see fig.); the Pintupi Charlie Tjaruru Tjungarrayi, the first Papunya artist to have been the subject of a retrospective exhibition, held in 1987; as well as the younger Warlpiri Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, who has worked closely with the Sydney-based former conceptual artist Tim Johnson (b 1947), has led to an escalation of prices. In 1971 Papunya paintings sold for £A30–40; in the early 1990s they frequently fetched £A5000–10,000. This rise in individual acclaim has put strain on some communities since paintings are often collaborative works. Recognition has also encouraged the establishment of other acrylic painting centres, for example, in the Warlpiri community at Yuendumu, west of Papunya, where women form 70% of the painters. This may have resulted from the fact that both the anthropologist and the teacher who encouraged the new art form were themselves women, while at Papunya, Bardon had found relations with the older men easier in a strictly gender-defined society. Yuendumu painting uses a wider range of colours than that from Papunya. In the same way that several Papunya artists have painted Hermannsburg-style watercolours, some Aranda painters, notably Wenten Rubuntja (b 1926), now work almost exclusively in the Papunya manner.

At Mt Allan (Yuelumu) in central Australia the elders of the Warlpiri and Anmatyerre community took a conscious decision in the 1980s to allow all members, men, women, and children, to paint in acrylics. Some of the most accomplished work technically has been by girls as young as 12, though ownership of the stories, and the cash generated by their sale, remain with their parents. In Western Australia, the Balgo community has also turned to acrylic painting for external sale, while other groups have continued to prefer to use ochres on board or canvas. At Turkey Creek in the eastern Kimberley Ranges an artistic community has emerged around the painter Rover Thomas.

2. Other arts.

  • J. V. S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw

While the Tiwi (both men and women) of Bathurst and Melville Islands continue to carve and paint pukamani poles as part of their own ceremonial life, they are also now producing them for sale as well as other carvings of birds and mythical beings. For the 1988 Bicentennial, the Aboriginal art adviser Djon Scott Mundine of Ramingining Arts in north-east Arnhem Land persuaded the Australian National Gallery to commission and purchase 200 log coffins, which their Aboriginal creators regarded as a proper commemoration of 200 years of white occupation.

In the north-west desert regions of South Australia dedicated white teachers introduced a whole range of new art forms to the women of the Pitjantjatjara and Yunkuntjatjara communities. From 1954, largely under the guidance of Winifred Hilliard at Ernabella, spinning and rug-weaving were introduced, but from c. 1971 these gave way to the less labour-intensive batik-printing for fashion fabrics. Anmatyerre/Aliawarra women at Utopia (in the central region) and Pitjantjatjara and Yunkuntjatjara women at Indulkana also turned to batik. Skills acquired from Indonesian textile-workers were used to produce a range of swirling foliate designs, which have also recently been translated by these and other communities into silkscreen or linocut prints. Women in the far west of Australia and at Yuendumu in central Australia as well as much further north on Bathurst Island and at Yirrkala have also taken up batik. Figures like those on the pukamani carvings are being repeated as motifs in the fabric printing of the Tiwi Designs Cooperative. Woodblock and silkscreen printing was begun in 1969 under the supervision of Madeline Clear as a partnership between two young Tiwi, Bede Tungutalum (b 1948) and Giovanni Tipungwuti. Other fabric production in more urban settings includes that of Jumbana Designs in Adelaide, Bronwyn Bancroft in Sydney, and the aggressive marketing of the fabrics and prints of Jimmy Pike, born in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. Some fabrics, like some of the craft pottery now produced by various Aboriginal communities, including the Tiwi, have met with considerable white sales resistance for not looking ‘Aboriginal’ enough. Almost unique in gaining wide recognition and in achieving a freedom of expression in ceramics, both small pieces and murals, is the work of Thancoupie (b 1937), who is from Weipa on Cape York Peninsula but was trained in Sydney.

Though many Aborigines object to the use of the word ‘urban’—an alternative Aboriginal term, ‘Koori’, is preferred in the south-east—the adjective does serve to describe the current residence of many Aboriginal artists living outside the communities of central or northern Australia. Like Thancoupie, many of these are working exclusively in non-traditional media. They are more likely to work without community support and to have to deal more directly with Western society and its art world. Among them is Banduk Marika (see Marika, (3)), who until the late 1980s spent most of her adult life in Darwin and Sydney. Sister of one famous bark painter and daughter of another, she has used traditional images, though for linocuts and prints, not barks, and refers to her work as ‘contemporary traditional’. Those without tribal upbringing or their own inherited traditional imagery include art school-trained Trevor Nickolls from Port Adelaide, who in his search for roots has used a wide range of subject-matter and styles, including the dotting techniques of acrylic paintings from central Australia, yet has also expressed a wish to be recognized as an artist and not ‘merely’ as an Aboriginal artist (Beier). Sally Morgan (b 1951, active in Perth) and Robert Campbell Jr (b Kempsey, NSW, 1944, d 1993) have also used the dotting or hatching techniques of traditional art to tell their own autobiographies or make political statements. Byron Pickett (b 1955) has used his silkscreen prints to show the different worlds of traditional Aborigines and Western culture, though even his grandparents did not live traditional Aboriginal lives. ‘Koori’ artists of Sydney and Melbourne, such as Gordon Syron (b 1941), Lin Onus (see fig.), Jeffrey Samuels (b 1956), Arone Raymond Meeks (b 1957), and Fiona Foley (b 1964), have consciously sought out and borrowed from their Aboriginal heritage. Aboriginal photographers and film makers are also gaining recognition, such as Polly Sumner (b 1952) in Adelaide and Tracey Moffatt (b Brisbane, 1960) in Sydney. Much of the art of this group is nonetheless deeply concerned with the questions of Aboriginal identity and the problems of Aboriginal poverty and deprivation and is often more obviously political than that of groups still living in the communities of central and northern Australia.


  • N. H. H. Graburn, ed.: Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World (Berkeley, 1976).
  • G. Bardon: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Adelaide, 1978).
  • R. Edwards, ed.: Aboriginal Art in Australia (Adelaide, 1978).
  • A. Crocker: Mr Sandman Bring Me a Dream (Sydney, 1981).
  • R. M. Berndt, C. H. Berndt, and J. E. Stanton: Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective (Sydney, 1982, rev. 1989).
  • J. Isaacs: Thancoupie the Potter (Sydney, 1982).
  • J. Isaacs: Australia’s Living Heritage: Arts of the Dreaming (Sydney, 1984).
  • Koori Art ’84 (exh. cat., ed. T. Johnson and V. Johnson; Sydney Artspace, 1984).
  • U. Beier: Dreamtime–Machine Time: The Art of Trevor Nickolls (Bathurst, New South Wales, 1985).
  • W. Caruana: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art (Canberra, 1986).
  • Dot and Circle: A Retrospective Survey of the Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings of Central Australia (exh. cat., ed. J. Maughan and J. Zimmer; Bedford Park, Flinders U. S. Australia; Melbourne, Royal Inst. Technol. A.G.; 1986).
  • The Dreamtime Today: A Survey of Contemporary Aboriginal Arts and Crafts (exh. cat., ed. J. Maughan and J. V. S. Megaw; Bedford Park, Flinders U. S. Australia; Adelaide, Royal S. Austral. Soc. A., Kintore Gal.; 1986).
  • Aboriginal Australian Views in Print and Poster (exh. cat., ed. J. Samuels and C. Watson; Melbourne, Prt Council Australia, 1987).
  • Australia—Art and Aboriginality 1987: Portsmouth Festival U.K. (exh. cat., ed. V. Johnson; Portsmouth, Aspex Gal.; Sydney, Aboriginal A.; 1987).
  • Charlie Tjaruru Tjungarrayi (exh. cat., ed. A. Crocker; Orange, Reg. A. G., Hist. Soc. Mus., 1987).
  • J. Davila: ‘Aboriginality: A Lugubrious Game?’, Art and Text, 25/4 (1987), pp. 53–7.
  • KARNTA: Aboriginal Women’s Art (exh. cat., ed. C. McGuignan, 1987).
  • Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Gal.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90).
  • J. Altman, C. McGuigan and P. Yu: The Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Industry: Report of the Review Committee, Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Canberra, 1989).
  • J. Isaacs: Aboriginality: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings and Prints (St Lucia, Queensland, 1989, rev. 1992).
  • Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert (exh. cat., ed. J. Ryan; Melbourne, N.G. Victoria, 1989).
  • Nothing to Celebrate? Australian Aboriginal Political Art & the Bicentennial (exh. cat., ed. M. Ruth Megaw; Bedford Park, Flinders U. S. Australia, 1989).
  • S. Britton, L. Dauth, and F. Wright, eds: ‘Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art’, Artlink, 10/1–2 (1990).
  • Balance 1990: Views, Visions, Influences (exh. cat., ed. M. Eather and Marlene Hall; Brisbane, Queensland A.G., 1990).
  • East to West: Land in Papunya Painting (exh. cat., ed. J. Kean; Adelaide, Tandamya Aboriginal Cult. Inst., 1990).
  • G. Bardon: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert (Melbourne, 1991).
  • M. Boulter: The Art of Utopia: A New Direction in Contemporary Aboriginal Art (Tortola, BVI, 1991).
  • R. Crumlin, ed.: Aboriginal Art and Spirituality (North Blackburn, Victoria, 1991).
  • T. Smith: ‘From the Desert: Aboriginal Painting, 1970–90’, Australian Painting, 1788–1990, by B. Smith with T. Smith (Melbourne, 1991), pp. 495–517.
  • Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition (exh. cat., ed. H. Perkins; Sydney, A.G. NSW, 1991).
  • J. Hardy, J. V. S. Megaw, and M. Ruth Megaw, eds: The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia (Melbourne, 1992).
  • G. Bennett: ‘Aesthetics and Iconography: An Artist’s Approach’, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians—Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Artists (exh. cat., ed. B. Lüthi; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen; London, Hayward Gal.; Humlebæk, Louisiana Mus.; Sydney, Mus. Contemp. A.; 1993–4), pp. 85–91.

V. Collectors and dealers.

  • Francesca Cavazzini

Over two centuries of European colonization, interest in Aboriginal art has attracted the attention of different types of viewers and collectors. Aboriginal objects have been collected as art rather than as ethnographic curios only since World War II. They were first obtained during such voyages as those from 1768 by James Cook (1728–1779) and in 1800–1804 by François Péron, but little of this material survives. In 2015 and 2016 two rare examples from the Cook voyages held in the collection of the British Museum, London, were displayed as part of an exhibition entitled Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation which then toured to the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, under the title Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum. The most important of these objects is known as the Gweagal shield, said to have been collected in 1770 by either Cook himself or Sir Joseph Banks in a violent encounter at Botany Bay where a Gweagal man was shot while using the shield as protection. Four fishing spears collected onshore after the confrontation were also on display.

In the 1960s important research on the items collected on Cook’s voyages began thanks in large part to American anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler (b 1935). Prior to this, artifacts were preserved by individuals as mementoes of Australia: many found their way into European museums, but were generally not individually itemized and recorded, and documentation on these objects and on their collectors is largely lost. Much of the material in Europe returned to Australia in the 1970s as part of the Christensen collection loaned to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

From the 1850s onward, a more systematic approach to collecting began with the acquisition of artifacts for private collections or for museums in Australia and overseas. One of the great collectors of this period was the amateur naturalist R. E. Johns, who formed two large collections from southeast Australia, one of which was given to the Robert O’Hara Bourke Memorial Museum in Beechworth, Victoria, in 1868, while the other was acquired by Museums Victoria (formerly National Museum of Victoria) in 1910. Operating on a smaller scale were people such as Mary Bundock, who spent most of her life at an isolated sheep station on the Richmond River, New South Wales, and used her contact with Aboriginal groups to collect for several museums during the 1870s, including the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Kew Gardens, London, and the Australian Museum in Sydney. The development of Australian anthropology in the 1890s owed much to the work of such collectors and recorders of Aboriginal artifacts and customs.

Until well after World War II missionaries and anthropologists were responsible for the major collections for the study of Aboriginal society, the former including Carl Strehlow and R. G. Reuther, and the latter Sir W. Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) and W. E. Roth. T. T. Webb and Wilbur Chaseling made large collections from Milingimbi and Yirrkala respectively and sold them to museums in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. In the 1930s and 1940s Donald Thomson of Melbourne University compiled one of the best-documented Arnhem Land collections, which was transferred on his death to the then National Museum of Victoria. Ronald Berndt and his wife Catherine collected from the 1940s onward and their holdings became the basis of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology (formerly the Anthropology Research Museum) at the University of Western Australia, Perth. C. P. Mountford developed collections based on his expeditions to Arnhem Land, Melville, and Bathurst Islands and central Australia. During this period museum ethnographers, such as Norman Tindale of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide, and Fred McCarthy of the Australian Museum, Sydney, took active roles in acquisitions, and, in the 1960s, Helen Groger-Wurm acquired a superb collection for the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory in Darwin.

Many of these missionaries and anthropologists amassed large collections of bark paintings in particular, from various communities across Arnhem Land, such as the distinctive Groote Eylandt examples on a black manganese background which is found in large deposits in the area, the figurative barks of Western Arnhem Land on a plain red ocher ground, often referred to as “X-ray paintings,” to the geometric compositions of Eastern Arnhem Land, which strongly feature clan designs, and the Central Arnhem land works, which generally feature a combination of the latter two techniques. During this period, bark painting was the most widely recognized form of Aboriginal art and its production was stimulated by increased demand from anthropologists and collectors. Prior to this, bark paintings were created for spiritual, cultural, and instructive purposes. Two of the earliest surviving examples of bark painting were part of the 2015–2016 British Museum exhibition, collected at Port Essington, Northern Territory, probably prior to 1868. Few pieces from this period survive as typically, once their purpose had been met, they were discarded. The earliest recorded paintings on bark, dating back to the Baudin expedition in 1802, were images engraved into bark shelters seen in Tasmania. Typically these shelters were then left to deteriorate once they were no longer required.

The activities of anthropologists and missionaries stimulated private collecting in two ways: they gradually increased awareness of Aboriginal art and helped make art a commodity. From the late 1950s onward the market in Aboriginal art began to expand rapidly, and, although it was still largely based on local community enterprises, a few major collector/dealers began to emerge. Jim Davidson, a Melbourne businessman, made annual journeys to the Northern Territory to purchase Aboriginal art and, in addition to dealing in the works, established a large personal collection. Dorothy Bennett began collecting and dealing in the early 1960s as a result of her involvement with an anthropological expedition, organizing exhibitions in Australia and Japan and establishing a shop in Darwin. Sandra Holmes also built up large collections of Arnhem Land and Tiwi art in particular, concentrating on the work of Yirawala, whose art she did much to promote.

In 1971, in order to further stimulate the emerging market, the Australian Government set up Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Ltd to market and distribute works via numerous outlets across Australia. Through the 1970s, production of works for market steadily increased, most notably at Papunya. This remote community west of Alice Springs saw the emergence of what was to be the first of a large network of community-owned and community-run art cooperatives, now known as the art centers. Encouraged by Geoffrey Bardon, an art teacher working at Papunya, the men in the community began to record their ancestral stories in acrylic paint on composition board, forming the genesis of the Western Desert Painting Movement. Prior to this, artistic practice had been in the form of rock painting, the engraving and painting of ceremonial objects and artifacts, and in the impermanent forms of body painting and ground painting for ceremony. The paintings done for Geoffrey Bardon were more permanent and in a portable form, and were intended to assist in teaching and retaining the important ancestral knowledge of these respected community elders. Paintings might depict a number of different Dreamings and, as many of the stories were considered secret/sacred in nature, the artists developed a technique to “hide” these elements, covering them in areas with fine dotting and designs so that the non-initiated viewer would only understand these works on a superficial level. Each work would have a number of levels of interpretation and the relevant parts for each would be disclosed depending on the viewer.

The establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board by the Australia Council in 1973, which heavily promoted internationally touring exhibitions; increased collecting by public institutions; and an increase in commercial galleries dealing in Aboriginal art all combined to attract collectors and media attention. An important shift began to occur, transitioning market perception from the ethnographic to the contemporary. Notable international collectors of the period included Franco-Czech artist and ethnographer Karel Kupka, American professor Edward L. Ruhe, Louis Allen, and American graphic artist Jerome Gould.

In the 1980s many more private collections continued to emerge. The most notable Australian collections were those of Robert Holmes à Court (1937–1990), Lord McAlpine of West Green (b 1942), Margaret (Mrs Douglas) Carnegie and Sir Roderick Carnegie (b 1932), and internationally those of Thomas Vroom in the Netherlands and Richard Kelton, John Kluge, Harvey Wagner, and Will Owen in America. The 1990s heralded a new era for the market with the promotion of Aboriginal art at international art fairs by dealers such as Gabrielle Pizzi, the acquisition of significant works by state institutions, and an increase in the frequency and complexity of exhibitions held by commercial galleries.

Though Aboriginal art had been included in some of the first auctions held by Sotheby’s in Australia, the mid-1990s saw the international house hold the first dedicated Aboriginal art auction. Quickly, other houses followed suit. Major collectors emerged with Americans Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, Dennis Scholl, and John and Barbara Wilkerson regularly acquiring works along with Australians Colin and Elizabeth Laverty. The international demand was such that Sotheby’s toured auction highlights to Europe and America prior to sale in Australia and at the peak of the market in 2007, works at auction were heavily sought after in equal measure by both local and overseas collectors.

Following a period of extraordinary market growth, 2008 witnessed the beginning of an extended contraction. As a result of a combination of a change in government policy, oversupply, and volatile global money markets, the auction market volume for Aboriginal art shrunk over consecutive years from $26,455,000 in 2007 to $12,795,000 in 2015. Several of the most renowned gallerists and collectors withdrew from the market and, from 2010 onward, a series of stand-alone “single owner” auctions saw major collectors dispose of their works. Reception for well-provenanced works from important, often published, private collections continued to be high, although challenging market conditions continued to prevail.


  • McBryde, I. “Museum Collections from the Richmond River District.” In Records of Times Past: Ethnohistorical Essays on the Culture and Ecology of New England Tribes, edited by I. McBryde. Canberra, 1978.
  • Aboriginal Australia.  Text by C. Cooper and others. Sydney: Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2. Exhibition catalog.
  • Altman, J., and Taylor, L., eds. Marketing Aboriginal Art in the 1990s: Papers Presented to a Workshop in Canberra, 12–13 June 1990. Canberra, 1991.
  • Morphy, H. Aboriginal Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998.
  • Myers, F. R. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Caruana, W. Aboriginal Art, World of Art Series. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
  • Morphy, H. “Aboriginal Australian Art in America.” In Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art at the Hood Museum of Art, edited by Stephen Gilchrist. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2012.
  • Sculthorpe, G., and others. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation. London: British Museum Press, 2015.
  • Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum. Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2015.

VI. Museums and exhibitions.

The term ‘Aboriginal art’, as distinct from Aboriginal ethnographic objects, was hardly used as a category until the 20th century. Indeed, until the 1950s Aboriginal objects were not displayed in Australian art galleries but in museums of natural history. Even today the vast majority of Aboriginal art works are still housed in ethnographic departments of state and national museums.

Within Australia the largest collections of Aboriginal art are in museums in the state capitals: the Australian Museum in Sydney; the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne; the South Australian Museum, Adelaide; the Queensland Museum, Brisbane; and the Western Australian Museum, Perth. These museums all began to establish collections in the 19th century, beginning with the Australian Museum (1827) and the then National Museum of Victoria (1854). Much of the best 19th-century material, however, left Australia for museums in Europe. The British Museum, London; the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; the Manchester Museum; the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University; and the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin all have large collections, as do most of the major ethnographic museums in Europe, for example, the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich and the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg. Missionaries, in particular, continued to supply large collections to museums in their home countries until the beginning of the 20th century: as late as 1913 Otto Liebler, a Lutheran missionary, presented a collection of 606 Arrente objects to the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde (now Linden-Museum) in Stuttgart.

As the 20th century progressed, the development of public collections shifted from overseas to Australian museums, which now house nearly all the major collections made during the first half of the century. In the 1960s major new collections were developed in Darwin through the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory and in the National Ethnographic Collection in Canberra (now part of the National Museum of Australia). After World War II, Aboriginal art began to gain a place in the state art galleries, beginning with the paintings collected by C. P. Mountford during the 1948 Australian–American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. By 1988 the Australian National Gallery in Canberra had the fastest-growing collection of Aboriginal art and had begun to devote considerable space to its exhibition. The first major exhibition of its holdings was launched in 1989. In the 1970s and 1980s overseas museums, especially the British Museum in London, the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, began again to expand their holdings of Aboriginal work.

Major exhibitions of Aboriginal art were not held until about the mid-20th century, although Aboriginal artefacts were displayed as examples of Australian crafts at many 19th-century Great Exhibitions and they were housed in museum ethnographic galleries. The first generally recognized exhibition, Australian Aboriginal Art, took place in 1929 at the National Museum of Victoria. A second exhibition, Primitive Art, was organized in Melbourne in 1943 by Leonhard Adam. This exhibition stimulated Australian interest in Aboriginal art, according to Tony Tuckson, the artist and gallery director, who in 1960 organized the next major exhibition, Australian Aboriginal Art, which toured the major state capitals.

The first exhibition of an individual Aboriginal artist’s work (apart from that of the watercolourist Albert Namatjira) was that of Yirawala, the Kunwinjku artist, at the University of Sydney in 1971. This was followed in 1978 by the joint exhibition in Canberra of work by Banapana Maymurru and Narritjin Maymurru. The first individual exhibition in a commercial gallery was that of Johny Bulunbulum at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries in 1981, followed shortly afterwards by a show devoted to works by Peter Marralwanga in the Creative Native Aboriginal Art Gallery in Perth. Also held in 1981 was Aboriginal Australia, which was circulated by the Australian Gallery Directors Council and which by the mid-1990s was the largest exhibition of Aboriginal art so far organized. The frequency of exhibitions increased greatly in the 1970s and 1980s, going from less than one per year in the 1960s to more than 20 a year by the mid-1980s; overseas exhibitions similarly increased during this period. The Australian bicentennial in 1988 further stimulated interest in Aboriginal art; this resulted in a series of major exhibitions in Australia and the USA, including The Inspired Dream and Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. These were followed in Europe by Aratjara: Art of the First Australians.


  • Australian Aboriginal Art (exh. cat. by C. Barrett and A. S. Kenyon, Melbourne, Mus. Victoria, 1929).
  • Primitive Art (exh. cat., intro. L. Adam; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria, 1943).
  • J. A. Tuckson: ‘Aboriginal Art and the Western World’, Australian Aboriginal Art, ed. R. M. Berndt (Sydney, 1964/R 1968), pp. 60–68.
  • Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat. by C. Cooper and others, Sydney, Austral. Gal. Directors Council, 1981–2).
  • Koori Art ’84 (exh. cat., ed. T. Johnson and V. Johnson; Sydney Artspace, 1984).
  • Dot and Circle: A Retrospective of the Aboriginal Paintings of Central Australia (exh. cat., ed. J. Maughan and J. Zimmer; Bedford Park, Flinders U. S. Australia; Melbourne, Royal Inst. Technol. A.G., 1986).
  • The Inspired Dream (exh. cat., ed. M. West; Brisbane, Queensland A.G., 1988).
  • Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Gal.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90).
  • Aratjara: Art of the First Australians–Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Artists (exh. cat., ed. B. Lüthi; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen; London, Hayward Gal.; Humlebæk, Louisiana Mus.; Sydney, Mus. Contemp. A.; 1993–4)

VII. Historiography.

  • Howard Morphy

The authors of the early literature on the Australian Aborigines, such as Thomas Worsnop (1821–98), Robert Brough Smyth (1830–89), and Edward Curr (1820–89), occasionally referred to art but provided little detailed information. Indeed the prevailing attitude throughout most of the 19th century was that Aborigines did not produce ‘art’. Evolutionary theorists placed Aborigines at the lowest level of human development and their paintings and carvings were dismissed cursorily: the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), for example, described them as ‘rude frescoes’. This attitude may partly have arisen because much Aboriginal art, restricted to the ceremonial ground, was unknown to Europeans, while certain forms, such as body painting and sand sculpture, are ephemeral. Yet even when the art was recorded and admired, its Aboriginal roots were denied: Sir George Grey (1812–98) wrote in 1841 of the Wandjina paintings of the Kimberleys: ‘…whatever may have been the age of these paintings, it is scarcely probable that they could have been painted by a self-taught savage’.

Sir W. Baldwin Spencer, F. J. Gillen, and, to a lesser extent, Alfred Howitt (1839–1908), Robert Mathews (1841–1918), and W. E. Roth produced the first detailed accounts of Aboriginal art at the end of the 19th century. Although Spencer and Gillen shared the prevailing evolutionary paradigm (Morphy, 1988), they wrote extensive ethnographic accounts of Aboriginal art and its ritual contexts: the rock art and bark paintings of Western Arnhem Land, for example, are referred to in positive terms (Spencer). Few other anthropologists wrote about Aboriginal art until after World War II, although references to art appear in general descriptive accounts (e.g. Tindale) and catalogues were produced to accompany the few exhibitions of Aboriginal art that were held during the period (see §VI and Aboriginal Australian contemporary art, 1990–2010). The diffusionist anthropologist Daniel Sutherland Davidson (1900–52) produced some comparative papers on Aboriginal art, and this work strongly influenced the prehistorian Fred McCarthy, who began his study of rock art. One of the few to write on Aboriginal art before World War II was Margaret Preston, who saw Aboriginal design as a possible source of inspiration in her desire to create a uniquely Australian art, although she tended to interpret its positive qualities as the accidental product of inadequate technique.

From the 1940s, writings on the subject increased with the publication of both substantial exhibition catalogues and monographs on the art of particular regions. C. P. Mountford, Ronald Berndt, and Catherine Berndt discussed the ceremonial context of art, illustrating and documenting the meanings of paintings and objects. This provided invaluable data but did not attempt to analyse the systems of representation or the integration of art within Aboriginal knowledge. Nancy Munn filled this gap in the 1950s and 1960s by revealing the iconography and symbolism of art in the context of socialization in Warlpiri and Pitjantjantjara society. Building on Munn’s work, Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor produced detailed semiological studies of the artistic systems of the Yolngu and Kunwinjku respectively, focusing on the role of art in the reproduction of systems of knowledge and structures of authority.

Two schools developed in the flourishing study of rock art: some scholars, such as John Clegg and Lesley Maynard, saw rock art as primarily archaeological data, while others, including Robert Layton, Michael Morwood, and Andrée Rosenfeld, integrated rock art within general anthropological approaches to art. Ethnographic accounts of rock art began to appear just as the practice of painting on rocks was dying out (Chaloupka; Taçon; Blundell).

With the increased recognition and commercial success of Aboriginal art in the 1970s, and its prominence in Australian consciousness, it began to be written about from various different perspectives by art historians, artists, and journalists as well as anthropologists. A more extensive range of art-historical problems began to be considered, including questions relating to aesthetics and audience creation (Morphy, 1987; Jones). Other major themes concerned the commercialization of art (Altman), the development of continuing traditions (Bardon; Megaw), and the effects on art of the dialogue between Aboriginal and European societies (e.g. Morphy, 1983; Jones and Sutton; Loveday and Cooke). Concerns with cultural heritage and conservation became important issues (Edwards, 1972; Edwards and Stewart; Rosenfeld) and interests extended to consideration of the art of urban Aboriginal people and the role of art in the creation of identity in the post-colonial context (e.g. Johnson). By 1990 Aboriginal art was liberated from its previous isolation in ethnographic museums, having gained increasing relevance to several academic disciplines and audiences, and it featured strongly in discourse on Australian art, its definitions, and directions.


Early Studies
  • G. Grey: Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-west and Western Australia during the Years 1837, 38 and 39 (London, 1841).
  • R. B. Smyth: The Aborigines of Victoria and Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, 2 vols (Melbourne and London, 1878).
  • E. M. Curr: The Australian Race: Its Origins, Language, Customs, 4 vols (Melbourne, 1886–7).
  • E. B. Tylor: Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (London, 1892).
  • R. H. Mathews: ‘Rock Carvings and Paintings of the Australian Aborigines’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 37 (1897), pp. 466–78.
  • W. E. Roth: Ethnological Studies among the North-west-central Queensland Aborigines (Brisbane, 1897).
  • T. Worsnop: The Prehistoric Arts, Manufactures, Works, Weapons, etc of the Aborigines of Australia (Adelaide, 1897).
  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen: The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, 1899/R 1969).
  • A. W. Howitt: The Native Tribes of South-east Australia (London, 1904).
  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen: The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (London, 1904/R 1969).
  • W. B. Spencer: Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (London, 1914).
  • M. Preston: ‘The Indigenous Art of Australia’, Art in Australia, 11 (1925), pp. 32–45.
  • N. Tindale: ‘Natives of Groote Eylandt and the West Coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria’, Records of the South Australian Museum, 3 (1925), pp. 61–134.
  • D. S. Davidson: Aboriginal Australian and Tasmanian Rock Carvings and Paintings, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 5 (Philadelphia, 1936).
  • F. D. McCarthy: Australian Aboriginal Decorative Art (Sydney, 1938/R 1962).
  • C. P. Mountford: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia (London, 1954, rev. Milan, 1964).
  • F. D. McCarthy: Australian Aboriginal Rock Art (Sydney, 1958, rev. 1979).
  • R. M. Berndt, ed.: Australian Aboriginal Art (Sydney, 1964/R 1968).
  • R. Edwards, ed.: The Preservation of Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage (Canberra, 1975).
  • L. Maynard: ‘Classification and Terminology in Australian Rock Art’, Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, ed. P. J. Ucko (Canberra, 1977), pp. 387–402.
  • R. Edwards and J. Stewart: Preserving of Indigenous Cultures: A New Role for Museums (Canberra, 1980).
  • J. Clegg: Notes towards Mathesis Art (Balmain, 1979, rev. 1981).
  • P. Loveday and P. Cooke, eds: Aboriginal Arts and Crafts and the Market (Darwin, 1983).
  • R. Layton: ‘The Cultural Context of Hunter–gatherer Rock Art’, Man, 20/3 (1985), pp. 434–53.
  • A. Rosenfeld: Rock Art Conservation in Australia (Canberra, 1985).
  • Australia—Art and Aboriginality 1987: Portsmouth Festival U.K. (exh. cat., ed. V. Johnson; Portsmouth, Apex Gal.; Sydney, Aboriginal A.; 1987).
  • H. Morphy: ‘Audiences for Art’, Australians from 1939, ed. A. Curthoys, A. W. Martin, and T. Rowse (Sydney, 1987), pp. 167–75.
  • H. Morphy: ‘The Original Australians and the Evolution of Anthropology’, Australia in Oxford, ed. H. Morphy and E. Edwards, Pitt Rivers Museum Monograph 4 (Oxford, 1988), pp. 48–61.
  • P. G. Jones: ‘Perceptions of Aboriginal Art: A History’, Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Gal.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90), pp. 143–79.
  • P. Sutton, P. Jones, and S. Hemming: ‘Survival, Regeneration, and Impact’, Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (exh. cat., ed. P. Sutton; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; U. Chicago, IL, Smart Gal.; Melbourne, Mus. Victoria; Adelaide, S. Austral. Mus.; 1988–90), pp. 180–212.
  • J. Altman: The Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Industry (Canberra, 1989).
  • H. Morphy: ‘On Representing Ancestral Beings’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy, One World Archaeology, 7 (London, 1989), pp. 144–60.
  • S. Britton and F. Wright, eds: ‘Aboriginal Arts in Australia’, Artlink (1990) [special issue, 11].
Specialist Studies
  • A. P. Elkin, R. M. Berndt, and C. H. Berndt: Art in Arnhem Land (Melbourne, 1950).
  • R. M. Berndt: Kunapipi: A Study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult (New York, 1951).
  • C. P. Mountford: Art, Myth, and Symbolism, 1 of Records of the American–Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land (Melbourne, 1956).
  • C. P. Mountford: The Tiwi: Their Art, Myth and Ceremony (London, 1958).
  • N. Munn: Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (Ithaca, NY, 1973, rev. Chicago, 1986).
  • V. J. Blundell: ‘The Wandjina Cave Paintings of North-west Australia’, Arctic Anthropology, 11 (1974), pp. 213–23.
  • G. Bardon: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Adelaide, 1979).
  • R. Edwards: Australian Aboriginal Art: The Art of the Alligator River Region of the Northern Territory (Canberra, 1979).
  • A. Rosenfeld, D. Horton, and J. Winter: Early Man in North Queensland: Art and Archaeology of the Laura Area (Canberra, 1981).
  • J. V. S. Megaw: ‘Western Desert Acrylic Painting: Artefact or Art?’, Art History, 5 (1982), pp. 205–18.
  • H. Morphy: ‘“Now You Understand”: An Analysis of the Way Yolngu Have Used Sacred Knowledge to Retain their Autonomy’, Aborigines, Land, and Landrights, ed. N. Peterson and M. Langton (Canberra, 1983), pp. 110–33.
  • M. Morwood: ‘The Prehistory of the Central Queensland Highlands’, Advances in World Archaeology, 3 (1984), pp. 325–80.
  • G. Chaloupka: ‘Chronological Sequence of Arnhem Land Plateau Rock Art’, Archaeological Research in Kakadu National Park, ed. R. Jones (Canberra, 1985), pp. 269–80.
  • N. Amadadio and others: Albert Namatjira: The Life and Work of an Australian Artist (Melbourne, 1986).
  • P. G. Jones and P. Sutton: Art and Land: Aboriginal Sculptures of the Lake Eyre Region (Adelaide, 1986).
  • Kuruwarri: Yuendemu Doors (Canberra, 1987) [works by Warlukurlangu artists].
  • H. Morphy: ‘From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power among the Yolngu’, Man, 24/1 (1989), pp. 21–40; also in Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, ed. J. Coote and A. Shelton, Oxford Studies in the Anthropology of Cultural Forms (Oxford, 1992/R 1994), pp. 181–208.
  • P. Taçon: ‘Art and the Essence of Being: Symbolic and Economic Aspects of Fish among the People of Western Arnhem Land’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy (London, 1989), pp. 236–50.
  • L. Taylor: ‘Seeing the “Inside”: Kunwinjku Paintings and the Symbol of the Divided Body’, Animals into Art, ed. H. Morphy (London, 1989), pp. 371–89.
  • H. Morphy: Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (Chicago and London, 1991).