Colourful and intricate, Aboriginal art is fascinating to many visitors to Broome, and includes many traditional techniques that are still used today. Aboriginal culture is estimated date back up to 80,000 years, when Aborigines settled in Australia for the first time, and rock art has been discovered dating back as far as 20,000 years. Digging in primal campsites, archaeologists have found remains such as tools dating back up to 60,000 years. In the earliest days, ochres were used made of minerals, with symbols and icons used in order to pass on stories or information. Because the Aborigines have no written language, this was their form of communication, making the preservation of Aboriginal art so important.
Many pieces of Aboriginal art have been interpreted to understand these early symbols. Some of the art found was instructive, with details of how to live off the land or teaching survival skills. There are also important stories to be found in among these symbols. Many of them were aimed at children, telling moral stories about right and wrong, and teaching them about consequences. Lots of these symbols were found in Western Australia, so if you find accommodation in Broome, you can explore art galleries with some of the earliest examples of Aboriginal art. In some of these art works, you’ll see the same symbols over and over. It’s worth taking a tour with a knowledgeable guide, as they can show you some of the symbols and the meaning behind them. See if you can spot the arch-shaped symbol for person, the dotted pattern for rain, or the leaf-shaped symbol for bush tucker.
Any Aboriginal artworks that you see on canvases or boards will have been made within the last 80 years or so. Before then, all Aboriginal art was created on rocks, ceremonial artefacts, body paint, and drawn in dirt.
It wasn’t until the 1930s or so when Aboriginal art moved away from ochres and painting on rocks to paintings on canvas. This moved away from traditional methods, to modern techniques such as watercolours. The first Aboriginal artist, and perhaps the most famous, was Albert Namatjira, who had his first exhibition in Adelaide in 1937. Illustrating desert landscapes with deep colours and incredible detail, he produced a large body of work in his lifetime.
This inspired many other Aboriginal artists, and up until the 1970s, most of them worked either with ochres or watercolours.
Interest in Aboriginal art
In the mid-1940s, Australians started to become interested in Aboriginal art, and it was collected by admirers. The Ernabella Mission in North-Western Australia opened its own arts and crafts centre, encouraging Aboriginal people to use their skills.
When a schoolteacher visited Papunya, near Alice Springs, in 1971, he noticed that Aboriginal men would draw symbols as they told stories, making shapes in the sand or dirt. To avoid them getting lost to nature, Geoffrey Bardon asked the men to draw them onto canvas to preserve these tales, and this is where the modern form of Aboriginal art began. Of course, it took some encouragement for the indigenous people to try different techniques, but it soon became an exciting and original art form.
The stories told in Aboriginal art are unique to each skin group, and passed down through families. The artist can only paint a story that has been passed down through their own lineage. If you stay in Broome accommodation and visit Aboriginal art galleries, you’ll see these colourful paintings and can find out the stories behind them. You’ll often hear about the concept of dreamtime, which Aborigines believe links them to their ancestors, providing the base of their entire identity. These facets of the dreaming are apparent in each work of art, showing the richness of their culture and importance of ancestry.
Unique to Aboriginal art is the dot patterns which make up the paintings. Believed to have been a way of hiding their knowledge and obscuring messages from white men, it conceals the secret messages underneath.
Each region has its own style of Aboriginal art. Because older works were created from ochres, they vary according to what was available at the time. The earliest works have a limited pallet of colours, but over time, more tones were added. Many desert communities can be identified because of their use of strong primary colours, while other communities use more muted styles, and even within regions there can be many variations. However, some communities have a strong artistic identity, making it easy to tell where a certain painting has come from.
Aerial views are often used in Aboriginal arts, showing the location of bush tuckers and water sources, and taking inspiration from the layout of the land. This has since become a popular artform, using aspects of dreamtime and other traditional forms.
In 2007, the first piece of Aboriginal art to fetch over $1 million was sold; Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. This was followed by a series from Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri which sold for $2.4 million, showing that Aboriginal art was being taken seriously by collectors.
As one of the longest surviving cultures on Earth, Aborigines have many tales to tell, and their survival in hostile environments has inspired many works of art. Seen in museums and art galleries across the world, it has become a significant cultural movement. In many remote communities, it has become a source of income, and many urban Aborigines also create works of art. They are one of the biggest contributors of art across Australia.
The popularity of Aboriginal art has also helped the Aboriginal culture in many ways. It has taught westerners more about the indigenous population, and helped to counter negative stereotypes. The money made from Aboriginal art has helped many poorer communities, and is helping to bridge the gap between different groups. Many aspects of Aboriginal life, such as the importance of the teachings of elders, are better known thanks to Aboriginal art. Lastly, it has helped Aborigines to gain respect and greater confidence, using art to express themselves.
If you want to find out more about Aboriginal art, book a stay at Broome-Time accommodation. With an art gallery with lots of amazing examples, it’s a great place to see Aboriginal art. Simply call (08) 9194 1700 to book a stay.