Aboriginal Australians is a western term for the people who are from the Australian mainland and many of its islands, such as Tasmania, Fraser Island, Hinchinbrook Island, the Tiwi Islands, and Groote Eylandt. Aboriginal Australians comprise many distinct peoples who have developed across Australia for over 50,000 years. These peoples have a broadly shared, though complex, genetic history, but it is only in the last two hundred years that they have been defined and started to self-identify as a single group. The definition of the term “Aboriginal” has changed over time and place, with the importance of family lineage, self-identification and community acceptance all being of varying importance.
There is no written language for Australian Aboriginal People so in order to convey their important cultural stories through the generations it is portrayed by symbols/icons through their artwork. Although Australian Aboriginals have been using ochres as body paint, on bark and rocks for tens of thousands of years it was not until the 1930’s that the first paintings were done. These were not done in ochre or in dot art but in water colour. Aboriginal Artists need permission to paint particular stories. They inherit the rights to these stories which are passed down through generations within certain skin groups. An Aboriginal artist cannot paint a story that does not belong to them through family.
Aboriginal art differs in character and style depending from which region the artist is from and what language is spoken. Most contemporary art can be recognised from the community where it was created. The use for ochre paints is marked in Arnhem Land and east Kimberley. Materials (colours) used for Aboriginal art was originally obtained from the local land. Ochre or iron clay pigments were used to produce colours such as white, yellow, red and black from charcoal. Other colours were soon added such as smokey greys, sage greens and saltbush mauves. During the mid 1980’s with more Aboriginal women artists, appeared on the scene and a wider range of modern colours were chosen and bright desert paintings started to arrive on the market. Choice of colour continues to be an identify of style in many communities; Papunya Tula, part of the western desert art movement is known for its use of soft earth colours whilst many other Western Desert Communities opt for strong primary colours. The styles vary dramatically even within regions and there is certainly no hard rule here as can be seen in many of Papunya’s artworks that don’t necessarily follow this thinking.
Of all the painting styles, dot paintings are now internationally recognised as unique and integral to Australian Aboriginal Art. The simple dot style as well as cross hatching maybe beautifully aesthetic to the eye but has a far more hidden meaning and deeper purpose; to disguise the sacred meanings behind the stories in the paintings.
The Aboriginal artists soon became concerned that the sacred-secret objects they painted were being seen not only by Westerners, but Aboriginal people from different regions that were not privy to their tribal stories. They did not want them to understand or learn the sacred, restricted parts of their stories so the artists decided to eliminate the sacred elements and abstracted the designs into dots to conceal their sacred meanings. Originally colours were restricted to variations of red, yellow, black and white produced from ochre, charcoal and pipe clay. Later acrylic mediums were introduced allowing for more vivid colourful paintings. These art works could show dots, cross hatching, maps of circles, spirals, lines and dashes which is the long established pictorial language of Western Desert Aboriginal People. Aboriginal artworks painted in acrylic are a beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary. The dot technique gives the painting an almost 3D effect and a sense of movement and rhythm. Many people comment that the paintings look alive and that they literally seem to jump out at you. The flat canvas comes to life with energy and vivacity just like the dreamings and rituals that inspired them.