Indigenous art, like many other aspects of Indigenous culture, was not understood by the British settlers. Art was an account of Indigenous everyday experiences but more importantly it was a visual expression of their beliefs. The inspiration for much of Indigenous art was from the Dreaming and the spirit world. By painting, carving, drawing and decorating, Indigenous people were renewing contact with the Dreaming and expressing their beliefs visually. Art was also used to communicate, to record history, to tell stories, to teach and to mark territory. By understanding Indigenous art, we can gain a broader understanding of what Indigenous culture was like before 1788.
Indigenous art does not just refer to paintings. Artists drew pictures in the sand and carved pictures and designs into timber and rock. They made sculptures, painted their bodies, made baskets, jewellery and ceremonial clothing. Indigenous art also includes the decorations found on tools and weapons. It is generally symbolic in form and does not attempt to show an exact likeness of things. Refer Image 1
Indigenous peoples have been painting the stories of the Dreaming on the walls of caves and rock shelters for at least 20 000 years. Most Indigenous painting has a symbolic significance. Artists painted what was spiritually relevant to them in a particular area of land. The paintings helped the Indigenous people to continue their relationship with the spirit-beings of that area.
Traditional artists used brushes made from sticks that had been chewed or hammered until the ends were frayed. Sometimes hair or feathers that had been tied to a stick were used as a brush and other times fingers were used to paint a surface. Charcoal or clay was also used as a pencil and sometimes paint was blown out of the mouth to produce a spray paint or stencilling effect.
A limited number of colours were used in traditional paintings. The basic colours were red, yellow, brown, white, black and grey. The colours came from different sources, depending on the area. Ochre, which is a mixture of iron, lime and clay, was used to supply red, yellow and brown. White came from lime, clay or gypsum rock. Black came from charcoal and grey was a mixture of ash and liquids. Beeswax, honey, egg yolk, emu fat, orchid juice and tree sap were also used as fixatives to help the paint stay on the object or surface. Sometimes different Indigenous groups used paint materials such as ochre to trade for other materials.
There were different styles of painting in traditional Indigenous society. There was cave art, rock shelter paintings, ground or sand paintings, bark paintings, body painting and the patterns and designs painted on objects such as shields and boomerangs. There were also the decorated grave poles of the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst Islands, off northern Australia. Refer Image 2
Indigenous painting styles and designs varied widely throughout Australia depending on the environment and the different cultural practices of each Indigenous group. In eastern and southern Australia there is extensive art painted and carved on rock surfaces. Tree carvings and patterns on 'bora' grounds (ceremonial sites) can be found in eastern Australia. In north and central Australia there are many examples of Indigenous art, including rock paintings, ancient figure paintings of the Mimis, x-ray art, decorative bark paintings and decorated ceremonial objects.
The Mimi form of Indigenous art can be found particularly in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. Cave walls have been painted with scenes of Mimis. Mimis are small, thin, spirit people who lived in the rock face. Each Mimi is engaged in an activity such as running, jumping, fighting and dancing. Indigenous artists have the responsibility for repainting the sacred paintings from time to time, to retain their spiritual power. Refer Image 3
X-ray painting was another form of rock painting common in north-west Arnhem Land, and is now one of the most readily recognised of traditional Indigenous art. X-ray art shows the outline and inner parts of an animal or fish. Features such as bones and internal organs are drawn and even small fish are shown inside the stomach of larger fish.
Symbolic art is not easily interpreted by non-Indigenous people. Symbolic patterns using lines, circles, spirals and zigzags tell stories of everyday events and of the Dreaming.
Art was created for certain ceremonies and sacred rituals. This art was usually created and then wiped out when no longer needed. Ground or sand paintings and body painting are examples of ceremonial art. Paint and other materials, such as feathers, were used to decorate people's bodies and the ground; these were then wiped away when the ceremony was over.
Modern Indigenous art
Indigenous painting has changed in modern times, but it still reflects the Indigenous people's strong religious beliefs and their continuing relationship with the land. Traditional methods have been combined with European elements to create a modern style of art that is very popular. Papunya paintings with symbols, waving lines, circles, patterns, and dots (used to camouflage secret objects) are one of the most recognised styles today.