Australian Aboriginal Art

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Australian Aboriginal Art

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Aboriginal Art Catalog

Like the native cultures of the Americas, the Aboriginal cultures of Australia are diverse, with a large number of tribal groups occupying different areas of the country.  Like the ceramics and textiles of the American Indians, the artwork of the various tribal groups of Australia varies greatly from region to region.  The two most recognizable forms of Aboriginal art  are the Desert style and the Arnhemland or X-ray style.  

Both styles have roots in prehistoric times.  Desert style images draw inspiration from ancient petroglyphs and designs created by arranging stones at sacred ritual sites.  Desert style artwork is highly abstract, consisting of arrangements of lines and dots combined with iconographic images representing men, women, animals, trails, villages, and many other elements of aboriginal life.  Desert style images often resemble maps or diagrams.  Like a map, the scenes depicted are often created with an overhead viewpoint, showing arrangements of figures in a ceremony or encampment, or layouts of trails representing migratory movements and tribal territories. 

Arnhemland style is figurative, portraying plants, animals, and mythological beings.  Many images are narrative, describing tribal customs or scenes from folklore.  The style is one of the oldest continuously developing styles of artwork in the world, with its origins in ancient rock paintings that date back more than 30,000 years.  These Ancient rock paintings were created using natural pigments derived from red, yellow, and white ochre.  



The earliest images were created using only red ochre, with silhouetted figures that are tall and thin.  The image shown here from the sacred mountain of Oenpelli dates to around 25000 B.C.

 Over the centuries rock artists began using more color.  Yellow and white were added, and figures became heavier and more realistic.  These same pigments are still in use today.  To create paint, chunks of stone are collected and ground into a fine powder which is then mixed with water to form a paste. White ochre, used to create the image's delicate line work, is mixed with water and white glue to improve the paint's durability and to minimize smearing.  The pigment is then applied using a thin reed with one end stripped of the bark to form a fine, straight brush.



 About 3000 to 5000 years B.C. artists began representing the internal organs of their subjects, and filling in sections of the image with groupings of diagonal lines. This style became know as the X-ray style, and is a dominant feature of contemporary work. 



 Around the end of the 19th century artist began transcribing works traditionally rendered on stone onto flattened and dried tree bark.  In the 1970s heavy duty rag paper was introduced, allowing contemporary artists to work in a medium that is more accessible, versatile, and transportable.  Backgrounds are created by using spatter techniques, sometimes applied by hand and sometimes by spraying pigment from the artist's mouth.  These abstract background mimic the texture of the rock or bark backgrounds of older works.  Once the background is applied, figures are blocked in with areas of lighter color.  The final step is the application of the delicate line work that defines the details of the figures portrayed.  The end result is powerful, beautiful, and infused with a sense of mystery resulting from thousands of years of culture and symbolism.

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Aboriginal Art Catalog  

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