Australian Aboriginal Art: The Newest School of Contemporary Art is Also the Oldest

Drawing on a millennia-old tradition of myth and symbolism, Australian Aboriginal artists are creating powerful contemporary works.

“Art & Antiques” Magazine, March 2013


One of the newest schools of contemporary art is also the oldest. The swirling, dotted canvases and boards of Australian Aboriginal artists draw on over 60,000 years of history, myth and relationship to their land, but no Aboriginal people made artworks like these until the early 1970s. Today, artists from deep in the desert travel to New York and other major cities to show and sell their work. The art itself, once bought only locally and for little money, is now sought after by collectors outside Australia and selling for prices up to seven figures. And on the curatorial and critical side of things, museum shows are educating the public about the unique qualities of this ancient-yet-modern art.

Like a few other indigenous art movements in modern times—for example, Canadian Inuit art—contemporary Aboriginal art began at the instigation of white people. In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, an Australian art teacher who was working in the Western Desert, went to the remote settlement of Papunya, in the vicinity of Alice Springs, and gave the residents acrylic paint, brushes and Masonite boards. While Bardon had intended the art supplies for the use of children, older men at the settlement started using them and made paintings that translated imagery from traditional “ground paintings” (temporary compositions made on the earth with seeds, flowers, minerals and other natural found materials) onto the boards. An evanescent art form had been transformed and made permanent. An art cooperative called Papunya Tula was organized, and an enthusiasm for painting amounting to a cultural revival got under way. Bardon and other sympathetic outsiders encouraged the Aboriginals to paint not only as a means of expression but also to make some much-needed money.

While many other forms of Aboriginal art have come into being in the years since, the basic principles were laid down at Papunya Tula. Fundamentally, Aboriginal art is based on mythic-historic narratives called Dreamings in English, Tjukurpa in the Aboriginal language. A Dreaming describes the wanderings of a nomadic clan over a certain portion of the landscape and links the people with mythical ancestors that frequently take animal forms. The snake-like curves and dotted lines of the paintings are like paths through the seemingly trackless desert. While they may look to outsiders like decorative, busy abstract designs, they actually contain information and symbolism that Aboriginal viewers easily recognize. Too easily, in some cases. Early in the Papunya Tula movement, heated arguments broke out over accusations that the paintings revealed too much about secret religious knowledge to Aboriginal women and boys who were not initiates. As a result, the practice developed of subtly changing small elements in the designs to neutralize them, ritualistically speaking.

Early Papunya Tula boards, which originally sold for tiny sums sufficient to buy food and gas, are now far and away the most expensive works of Aboriginal art on the global market. The record was set in 2007 when the National Gallery of Australia paid $1.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction for a 1977 board painting called Warlugulong, by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, an artist who had died five years earlier. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an artist from the Northern Territory who died in 1996 and didn’t even start to paint until she was 80, also became a posthumous market star. A number of her works have sold at auction in the high six figures.

Most aboriginal artworks don’t command prices anywhere near those, and there is a great diversity of styles available on the market today, from various regions of Australia. Julie Harvey, an Australian-born dealer who operates Harvey Art Projects USA in Sun Valley, Idaho, is presenting the work of a cooperative in the South Australian desert called the Ninuku Arts Indigenous Organization. This past spring she brought a selection of paintings to New York, where they were shown at gallery nine5 in SoHo.

Many of the Ninuku artists are women, which Harvey finds stylistically significant. She dates a sea change in aboriginal art to the point in the early 1990s when it ceased to be a mainly male preserve. “When the women came in, that created a really dynamic change,” she says. “They have a very different way of painting to a man. Their approach is gestural and much looser, very exciting, and it really transformed the art. In the last decade we’ve seen the emergence of new art centers, especially in the center of Australia, and they use totally different palettes. Originally it was all ochres, black, white and red earth. Now we’re seeing bright pinks and more. This is one of the most exciting art movements to be a part of, because it’s evolving and changing while staying rooted inside this very solid culture.”

Harvey emphasizes that old as its roots are, Aboriginal art is absolutely contemporary, and that is due as much to the nature of its metaphysics as it is to the fact that the artists are living in the contemporary globalized world. “The Dreamtime,” Harvey says, “is a silly white word for what this whole giant sacred living picture is. It’s a constant thing for an aboriginal artist. It’s not the past, it’s not the future—it’s the present. To them it’s not old. When the ancestors walked across the land and created, that moment has an energy that exists until now. If you listen you can hear the vibration of the land, they say. The Dreamtime is a constant, ongoing play, a scene that is always being enacted.”

John Addison of Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art in Santa Fe is another dealer who is spreading the word about Australian Aboriginal art among American collectors. He also shows Native American art, and he finds the juxtaposition of the two quite revealing in terms of what it means for contemporary art to be connected to ancient traditions. “Being in Santa Fe,” he explains, “I had developed a collector base of Native American art. My theory was to introduce the contemporary Aboriginal art because it has some of the same things going on—coming from the land and not having so much emphasis on the personality as in mainstream contemporary art.”

Addison recalls that when he had his first Aboriginal show, in 2010, 12 artists came from Australia, and they told him that “they’d been to London and Paris, but when they came to the Southwest they could feel the heartbeat of the land in the same way as back home.” They spent time talking about inspiration and process with Pueblo Indian artists Chiaroscuro represents. Despite this meeting of minds, though, Addison sees some major differences between the two groups of indigenous artists: “The Native American artists are dealing with issues of personal and cultural identity. Some live on reservations, others in cities or towns. They’re painting much more about their own personal experience. With the Aboriginals, it’s not so personal; it’s a timeless expression that goes through them. In Australia, by and large, they’re still sticking with forms that have been passed down, as opposed to Native American artists.”

Chiaroscuro, which just had its second group show of Aboriginal art, is focusing on presenting bark paintings from Arnhem Land in far Northern Australia. These artists use natural pigments and achieve a more subdued, contemplative look than the Ninuku artists do. Addison explains why he chose to develop this market rather than trying to stock early acrylic board paintings: “A lot of that work from the ’70s is very expensive, and there’s not a lot of it. It was the beginning of a movement. I wanted to present what is going on now—as a contemporary art gallery, my clients are looking for works on which the paint has just dried. What we have, produced in last couple of years, we get directly from the art centers. I wire the money back to Australia, and it goes to the artists.” The prices for the bark paintings, he says, range from $5,000 to $30,000, with $20,000 being the average.

Addison says that his clients tend not to take an ethnographic or anthropological attitude toward Aboriginal artworks. “We did a lot of educating,” he says, “but in the end the pieces were still judged by the gut reaction one gets standing in front of them, by the aesthetics. When I go to install them in someone’s home here in Santa Fe, it’s interesting to see how they fit into the larger collection. A home might be full of Victorian furniture, and then you see the Aboriginal art on the wall. You go into these old adobe mansions, and the people are minimalists and collecting white-on white-paintings. The Aboriginal art is often hanging next to contemporary artists of all ilks.”

The education process is being helped along by museum shows in the U.S. Currently, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., is presenting “Crossing Cultures,” an exhibition, on view through March 10, of over 100 works donated to the museum from a major American private collection, that of Will Owen and Harvey Wagner. While it covers the 1970s through today, the collection focuses on newer Aboriginal art. In addition to a wide variety of paintings, there are sculptures—some of them quite non-traditional in form—and photographs. Aboriginal photographer Destiny Deacon’s edgy images depict Aboriginal people within the context of the Australian urban experience, a completely different take on contemporary Aboriginal experience than a Dreaming image on bark. According to Stephen Gilchrist, curator of Indigenous Australian art at the Hood, “The objects included in this exhibition reference and reinvigorate traditional iconographies, speak to the history and legacy of colonization, and meaningfully contribute to the growing international discourse on contemporary Indigenous art.”

Whether or not it engages directly with the globalized world, whether or not it takes on political content, Aboriginal art is relevant to the present. “Indigenous Australians have the longest tradition of continuous artistic production on the planet,” says Harvey. “But it’s only in the last 40 years that we’ve had a market for this work to make it possible for all the world to see it. Although it’s based on ancient traditions, it’s not primitive, it’s not ethnographic. It’s so contemporary; it operates on so many levels—that’s what makes it so exciting.”