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When Rebecca Hossack invited Rothschild Safaris to her gallery in London last year, we expected an afternoon filled with interesting people and beautiful things.

What we found instead, was an incredible education in Aboriginal Art. It was what everyone contemplating travel to Australia needs to know.

This is what we learned.

It is ancient

There is no older artistic expression than Aboriginal art on our planet. They have been carving, designing and painting, using soil and rock for at least 60,000 years.

And very new

Aboriginal painting in dots on canvas is a very recent development. It has only been around for the last four decades and it is fun to learn that the dots we recognize so instantly was in fact developed during the time of white settlement and were fully intended to hide the secret knowledge of the Aboriginal people from the intruders. Double dotting would obscure the meaning even more – while still being discernible to Aboriginals.

Traditionally, Aboriginal art was painted on rocks, walls, sand or the body itself. A very old form of Aboriginal art was painting on bark and a 28,000-year-old charcoal drawing was discovered on a rock in the Northern Territory.

Today there is quite a demand for monoprints using rock sediment or acrylic oils.

Homework is Required

It takes an effort to even begin to understand the art of the indigenous nations of Australia because it is a language depicting Dreamtime and a direct expression of the Aboriginal understanding of the cosmos. In a culture that has no written language, the art introduces symbolism and carries intricate iconography. As is true in the Western world, the narratives in Aboriginal art are used to highlight information or impart desirable morals.

In the telling of their story, every single creation adheres to a meticulous set of rules. It is one of the few art forms that can only be produced by someone of a very particular origin. A non-Indigenous artist could never represent Aboriginal art and every artist must honor his or her own tribe. Techniques are unique to an artist’s place of origin and culture.

It is disrespectful and not permitted to paint on behalf of another tribe. Not all tribes may even use the dotting technique to distort sacred information and keep secrets private. In Northern Australia, cross-hatching is most common and it is used to imbue a piece with great spirit and power.

Aboriginal artwork is intended to represent individual journeys and the history of a nation. And every artist must stick to their own stories and the techniques associated with their nation which they inherit through their family lineage. Historical and sacred stories may be told through art only if the artist has received permission to paint them.

To fully understand the importance of art in the culture one must consider that while there are around 500 different Aboriginal languages none of them is a written language… this all makes for a head-spinning number of stories that can be told through imagery.

In every nation recognized symbols impart meaning. Iconic symbols, relevant to multiple nations also exist. The art is engineered to impart its message through a multitude of layers, speaking to different audiences from the public and young children through to adults and finally, on the spiritual or ceremonial level.

Even in modern Aboriginal art the mythologies and cosmological frameworks remain the primary subjects of expression and the art continues to be based on ancient stories.

Buying Aboriginal Art

Educate Yourself

Learn about the meaning behind the art. Understand that every nation has a different culture and different stories, styles, and media.

Find your Personal Favorite

We love Damien Coulthard’s work (if you can find an artist to tell you the story of their work it will change the game entirely.) When you have an opportunity, visit an exhibition or major museum to spend time with all the different permutations of this art form. If you want to stay on top of the best new indigenous artist then keep an eye on the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in July, the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin from August through October and The Desert Mob in Alice Springs in September.

Buy Blue Chip

Guarantee authenticity and support Aboriginal art by only buying from members of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, the Australian Commercial Galleries Association or the Indigenous Art Code.

Investigate Commercial Galleries

In Sydney

The Kate Owen Gallery, Aboriginal-owned Boomalli, and Cooeeart.

In Melbourne

The Alcaston Gallery, the Aboriginal-owned Koorie Heritage TrustThe Emily MuseumVivien Anderson Gallery and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art.

In Alice Springs

The Mbantua GalleryTjanpi Desert Weavers, and the Many Hands Gallery.

In Darwin

The Mason Gallery and Outstation Gallery.

In Hobart

The Art Mob.

In Perth

The Japingka Aboriginal Art.

In Brisbane

The Fireworks GallerySuzanne O’Connell Gallery, and Mitchell Fine Art Gallery.

In Adelaide

The Aboriginal-owned Tandanya.

In Cairns

The Canopy Art Centre

In Port Douglas

The Australian & Oceanic Art Gallery.

A number of professional dealers also market and sell indigenous artwork online.

These include former Sotheby’s expert D’Lan Davidson and long-time art center dealer Martin Wardrop at Aboriginal Art Online.

In London

Rebecca Hossack

Take an art tour by plane

Forty-eight remote Aboriginal art centers are spread out across 390,000 square miles (one million square kilometers) of Australia under the umbrella organizations of Desart and the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists of Australia (ANKAA)

Arnhem Land, Darwin/Katherine, the Kimberley, and the Tiwi Islands

Key art centers include WarmunWaringarri, and Mowanjum in the Kimberley, Buku-Larrnggay at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Balgo in Western Australia, Maruku near Uluru and Tiwi Designs on Bathurst Island. The first art center in Australia using modern acrylics and canvas was Papunya Tula in the Western Desert. You can buy work at its gallery in Alice Springs.

Want to learn more?

Pick and choose from our booklists for Aboriginal Art enthusiasts:

On the History

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

 The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

Us Women, Our Ways, Our World

The Biggest Estate On Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage

Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari

True Girt – The Unauthorised History of Australia Volume 2 by David Hunt

The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History, Bain Attwood, Andrew Markus

Aboriginal Australians: Black Responses to White Dominance, 1888-2001, Richard Broome

On Art

Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum

Ngarra: the Texta drawings

The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Margo Neale, Sylvia Kleinert, Robyne Bancroft

Aboriginal Art: World of Art, Wally Caruana

Spirit Country: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art, Jennifer Isaacs

Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People, Scott Cane

Aboriginality: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings and Prints, Jennifer Isaacs

Images of power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley, Judith Ryan, Kim Akerman

The New McCulloch Encyclopedia of Australian Art

For children

Remembering Lionsville by Bronwyn Bancroft

My Place by Sally Morgan

The Toast Tree by Corina Martin

The Outback by Annaliese Porter

Moonglue by Daisy Utemorrah

How The Birds Got Their Colours by Pamela Lofts and Mary Albert

The Rainbow by Ros Moriarty

Images via Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay

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