Art of Aboriginal Australia

Selected works from Injalak

In April 2000, Oakhurst residents Jon Bock and Gloria Garland traveled to the town of Oenpelli in Australia’s Northern territory to collect contemporary Aboriginal art, and to see the ancient rock paintings that inspired it. Mr. Bock is a career artist and curator of Williams Gallery West in Oakhurst. Ms. Garland is a graphic artist, and is currently completing a degree in acupuncture and herbal medicine. To reach Oenpelli Bock and Garland drove more than a thousand miles across the Australian outback, and crossed the flood-swollen East Alligator River in a single engine Cessna mail plane.

Oenpelli is a frontier town on the western edge of the Aboriginal homeland known as Arnhem Land. This isolated region of northern Australia is bordered on the north and east by the sea, and on the west by the Arnhem Land escarpment, a range of steep volcanic hills that runs from the sea far into the interior, and separates Arnhem Land from Kakadu National Park. Together, Arnhem Land and Kakadu make up one of the richest unspoiled wilderness areas in Australia, home to hundreds of exotic species of birds, marsupials, poisonous snakes, and man eating saltwater crocodiles. Like the Indian reservations in the United States, Arnhem Land is a sovereign territory occupied by Aboriginal people, many of whom still live traditional lives. Permission for outsiders to enter Arnhem Land must be granted by written permit from a council of elders.

“Flying over the Arnhem Land escarpment is like living a scene from Jurassic Park.” says Bock, “ It is rugged country made up of deep ravines, hidden valleys, thick scrub, and awe inspiring rock formations. The climate is semi-tropical, and the year is divided into two major seasons, known simply as “the Wet” and “The Dry”. April is the beginning of The Dry, but the vegetation is still emerald green, and the landscape sparkled with reflections from pools and swollen streams. As we approached the small dirt runway at the edge of town we were mesmerized by the rugged beauty of the country. From the air we could see small flocks of black cockatoos among the eucalyptus trees, and crocodiles sunning themselves on exposed sand banks. Here and there smoke rose from fires set by the Aborigines to clear brush grown thick during The Wet. We were excited to be exploring a part of the world few Americans have ever seen, and by the prospect of experiencing the world’s oldest artistic tradition first hand.” 

Aboriginal rock art is considered to be one of the oldest continuous art tradition in the world, dating back more than 30,000 years. The themes, characters, and symbolic meanings found in ancient Australian rock art have survived to the current day, and are carried on in the artwork of modern Aboriginal artists.  Like the native cultures of the Americas, the Aboriginal cultures of Australia are diverse, with many languages and a large number of tribal groups occupying different areas of the country. Like the ceramics and textiles of the American Indians, artwork varies greatly from region to region. The two best-known forms of Aboriginal art are the Desert style and the Arnhem Land or X-ray style. Both styles have roots in prehistoric times.

Desert style draws inspiration from prehistoric rock art, and from ancient designs created by arranging stones found at sacred ritual sites. It is highly abstract, consisting of arrangements of lines and dots combined with abstract symbols representing men, women, animals, trails, villages, and other elements of Aboriginal life. Desert style images 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 representing trails, migratory paths, and tribal territories.

Arnhem Land style is figurative with a strong sense of design, portraying plants, animals, and mythological beings. Many images are narrative, illustrating rituals, customs, and scenes from folklore. This article focuses mainly on the Arnhem Land style, in particular the work of artists working at Injalak Arts and Crafts in Western Arnhem Land, the heart of the region where the style developed. The Injalak Art Center in Oenpelli is named after Injalak hill, an ancient Aboriginal sacred site that overlooks the town, and shelters some of the most impressive galleries of rock art in the world. Injalak Art Center is a well-known source for Aboriginal art in Australia, and is the focal point for artists working in the area.  

Early Aboriginal art was painted in caves, in rock shelters, and on cliff faces using natural red ochre pigment. The earliest images portray thin, rusty red figures engaged in battle or the hunt. Gradually, the themes portrayed grew to include scenes of everyday life, characters from ancestral myths and legends, and depictions of important tribal events.  As time passed, figures of humans and animals became larger and more realistic. Many paintings were used as guides for training young hunters how to kill and clean game. Around 8000 years ago these “illustrations” developed into a style know as the X-ray style in which the internal organs of the animal are included in the image.  For thousands of years Aboriginal artists painted in the same traditional locations. New paintings were often painted on top of older ones, resulting in impressive galleries filled with dense, overlapping montages of animals, figures, and cryptic symbols. Gradually, the style of painting evolved, and the images became more complex and more colorful. White, Yellow, and black pigments were introduced, and these same pigments are still in use today.

To create paint, raw ochre is collected as chunks of soft multi-colored stone. The stone is ground into powder, and then mixed with water and a small amount of white glue to make a paste. This paste can be further thinned with water to the consistency the artist desires. The paint is applied using two main techniques, a brush technique that uses a thin reed frayed at one end known as a “bush brush” to create the bold lines that makes up most of the detail of each piece, and a spatter technique in which the pigment is blown onto the surface of the work from the artist’s mouth. This technique has been used for millennia to spatter pigment over the artist’s outstretched hand, creating negative handprints found in many rock shelters in the area.


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