Aboriginal Australians, the Oldest Living Culture on Earth

Aboriginal Australians have the oldest living culture on Earth.  Aboriginal Indigenous Art and Culture is rich and diverse the history of aboriginal art comes alive in artwork of various forms

Evolution of Aboriginal Art

It is believed that Aboriginal Australians have the oldest living culture on Earth. The oldest forms of artistic Aboriginal expression are rock carvings, body painting and ground design. Ancient rock carvings can be found throughout Australia some dating back at least 60,000 years. Aboriginal Art has evolved through the centuries and tells the stories and the traditions of the creation of their world and how the ancestor spirits came to Earth in human form and as they moved through the land they created the animals, landscapes, and flora. This is called The Dreaming or ‘Jukurrpa’.

The art of contemporary Indigenous Australians is very diverse, connecting the spiritual world with the past, present and the future and is derived from the creation stories. These stories are told through ceremony, song, body painting and art. The dot paintings of the Western Desert Art movement though seen by many as a new development are a progression from the body painting and sand paintings of the early indigenous Australians, this art form is made up of lines, dots, symbols, and designs, which are now incorporated into their paintings.

Country is very important to Indigenous Australians, their connection to country is everything; it is their family, their ancestors, and their history through the stories. At the end of The Dreaming the ancestor sprits did not leave but remained in the sacred sites, this connects the people to the land for eternity. Art has always been an important part of Aboriginal life as it reinforces the people to their land, their relationship to it and their culture. The paintings often refer to specific sacred sites and the journeys to these sites, this is called ‘Tingari’, the Tingari ancestors travelled over vast areas of the Western Desert performing rituals and creating sacred sites.

Rock Art

Aboriginal Australians have the oldest living culture on Earth. This rich and diverse history comes alive in artwork of various forms. The oldest forms of Aboriginal artistic expression are rock carvings, body painting and ground design.

Australia has some of the oldest rock art in the world.  The first humans arrived in Australia approximately 65,000 years ago, Australian aboriginal rock art has been dated to around 30,000 years ago and tools that have been found that were used to make the rock art have been dated close to 50,000 years ago.

Rock Art consists of paintings, drawings, engravings, stencils, bas-relief carvings and figures made of beeswax in rock shelters and caves.  There are two types Petrographs and Pictographs

Petroglyphs are created by removing rock through pecking, hammering or abrading in order to leave a negative impression.

Pictographs are made by applying pigments to the rock. Using natural elements such as charcoal, clay, chalk and ochre (which can be anything from pale yellow to dark reddish brown). Paintings use wet pigments made from minerals, which are applied by finger or with brushes made from chewed sticks or hair.

Rock art uses imagery to tell the stories from the ceremonies and traditions of the Australian Indigenous people.    The global significance of the rock art needs to be more broadly recognised, respected, and celebrated.  

Bark Paintings

The ancient artistic tradition of rock painting lives on in the Bark Paintings of Arnhem Land.  The first paintings on bark were made in the early 1900s (just 100 years ago). They were commissioned by missionaries and anthropologists, and the imagery was based on painted body designs and rock art.

Bark for Indigenous Australian bark painting is cut from the trunk of the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta).  The rough, outer bark is stripped off and the thinned inner bark dried and flattened by placing the bark onto a fire, to cure and reduce moisture content.  The paintings are made with traditional mineral pigments such as charcoal, oxides, chalk and ochres.

Sand Paintings

Aboriginal people outlined designs with circles and dots in the sand thousands of years ago. The style was transferred to  canvas when Aboriginal art became popular in Western culture at the Papunya Tula School of Painters.

Sand paintings tells stories about the dreamtime and creation, marking country and recording history they are a symbolic and innovative form of Aboriginal Art, connected to the world, and yet transient until it eventually dissolves back into the earth.

Aboriginal Art

Symbols And Iconography

Powerful Symbols
When applied to any surface – whether on the body of a person taking part in a ceremony or on a shield – these symbols have the power to imbue the object or person with religious significance and power.
Ceremonial Symbols
For these reasons, body decoration using ancestral designs is an important part of many ceremonies.  In central Australia, inherited designs are painted onto the face and body using ochres ground to a paste with water and applied in stripes or circles. The modern paintings of the Central and Western Desert Aboriginal artists incorporate many of these designs.
Through the use of designs inherited from ancestors, contemporary artists continue their connections to country and the Dreaming.
Some Traditional Symbols in Aboriginal Art

Some of the meaningful, powerful symbols used in contemporary Aboriginal art and traditional ceremony and religious art are:

  • Locations and events from Tingari Dreaming stories and songs.
  • Bush medicines
  • Bush plum
  • Body paint or Awelye
  • Water dreaming
  • Seven sisters

The Pupunya Tula Art Movement

The Papunya Tula Art Movement, founded by the teacher Geoffrey Bardon, has played an important role in encouraging community participation in artworks that weave a shared story.

The Kinberleys

The Kimberleys

Aboriginal Art of the fascinating Kimberley region reflects the deep creativity and spirituality of some of Australia’s most beautiful wilderness landscapes, including some of the world’s oldest rock art.

Hermannsburg School

The Hermannsburg School, founded by the master painter Albert Namatjira, has established much of the talent we see today among successful Aboriginal painters and artists.

Contemporary Artwork

Urban Indigenous Art

With the rise of urban living, Urban Indigenous Art has grown to tell the ever-evolving story of Aboriginal people, as well as a powerful voice to decolonise how we live in Australia today.

The term ‘urban’ art mainly refers to artists working in major capital cities and within the general Australian contemporary art scene, as opposed to those in Aboriginal communities, who may be seen working in a more ‘traditional’ framework. Much urban art deals with social and cultural issues and makes important political statements focussing on, for example, the stolen generation, land rights, and reconciliation. There also tends to be a probing nature to the art: a questioning of identity or a challenge to colonial accounts of Australian history. ‘Urban’ art is often provocative, confronting, humorous and playful. Those artists under the umbrella of ‘urban’ art are both self-taught and professionally trained, and use multiple forms of media.

Dreamtime Stories

Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories


Water Dreaming

Seven Sisters Dreaming

Bush Plum/Yam

Medicine Leaf


Budgerigar Dreaming

Rainbow Serpent

Witchdoctor and Windmill Dreaming

Australian Art Gallery

Contact Australian and Oceanic Art Gallery for our showcase of Aboriginal Art.

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