Australian Aboriginal Art: Understanding Its History and Styles

Aboriginal artists painting in sand Aboriginal artist, Central Desert Australia. Image via Alamy.

Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest living artforms known to man, dating back 80,000 years. Archaeologists have since discovered rock art made with ochres, a natural clay earth pigment, that depicted narratives through symbols and icons since there was no written language at the time. These discoveries, coupled with the emergence of contemporary Aboriginal art, have since led to not only a revival, but respect and understanding of the culture.

Collectors of indigenous art find a deep connection to Aboriginal art, as each piece tells a powerful story. The decorative, diverse works range from rock art and engravings to paintings and string art. The most expensive piece of indigenous art sold for $2.4 million in 2007.

While the remoteness of rural Aboriginal artists and their communities has made authentic forms of art hard to come by, the beauty and significance of each work has ignited demand in recent years.

A Brief History of Australian Aboriginal Art

Australian aboriginal art

Left: Mowarra Ganambarr 1994 Milipa natural earth pigments on bark. Sold for AUD 250 via Theodore Bruce (March 2017). Right: William BARAK – Wurundjeri people – Corroboree via Wikimedia Commons.

Over 80,000 years ago, Aboriginal people, unbeknownst to them, started the oldest form of artistic expression in the world. The initial findings were of ochres used to paint on rock, bark, ceremonial articles, dirt, sand, and even their bodies. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first paintings were discovered, most of which depicted desert landscapes. In 1937, a famous watercolor painter named Albert Namatjira was featured in the first-ever exhibition of Aboriginal art in Adelaide.

From there, the genre continued to gain momentum. In 1971, a teacher by the name of Geoffrey Bardon, who worked with Aboriginal children in a small community northwest of Alice Springs, observed Aboriginal men recording stories in the sand. He encouraged them to paint these legends on canvas and boards, and thus the genre was born. The idea of painting on Western mediums was a new endeavor for Aboriginal artists, and each needed permission to depict particular stories, especially those that weren’t passed down through their own families. Each work of art depicts a unique story based on the artist’s personal journey, with some focused on their upbringing, encounters with war, daily habits, and other unique points of view.

Most of these works of art centered around a period known as Dreamtime, often referred to as Jukurrpa or Tingari in the Western desert region. Dreamtime is the heart of Aboriginal culture, and refers to the period in which they believed the world was created. These painted facets of Dreamtime vary greatly depending upon their unique interpretations from different areas.

By the 1980s, as more Aboriginal artists came onto the scene, an array of colors began to surface in works. Certain artists relied heavily on specific colors, and often those palettes helped place them within a specific community. For example, while soft, earth-tone colors appear more in the artwork of the Papunya Tula region, other Western Desert communities use strong, vibrant pigments instead.

Types of Aboriginal Art

Australian aboriginal art

Gloria Ngaria, Bush Plum 2001, Triptych. Sold for AUD 380 via Leonard Joel (November 2017).

While landscape painting is popular subject matter in contemporary Aboriginal art, there are many other motifs and subjects that are commonly depicted in contemporary works. Through the use of symbols and icons, artists have told stories with a variety of media including painting, weaving, engraving, and more, and their canvases have included everything from tableware and weaponry to boomerangs.

Ancient Aboriginal Art Practices

Rock Art

Rock art is the oldest form of indigenous art and comes in the form of painting, engraving, carving, and stenciling. The earliest dated rock painting is a charcoal drawing on a fragment in southwestern Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia, and it dates back 28,000 years. Similar paintings appear in caves in regions all over Australia, and they often depict animals including kangaroos, dingoes, turtles, and other species.

There are many methods used for rock carving and engraving. The artists cut into sandstone, a soft sedimentary rock, and then used pegged holes to outline the image. The most famous example of rock art was found at Murujuga, an island in the western region of Australia, and contains a large collection of petroglyphs, which are images created by removing part of the rock’s surface. Many of these images depict animals that have since become extinct.

Aboriginal rock art also includes hand-stenciling. Artists would mix ochre, water, and animal fat in their mouths and blow the mixture across their hand, which would be rested on the rock’s surface. The higher the stencil appeared on a rock, the more important that person was considered.

Bradshaw Art

Bradshaw paintings are some of the oldest figurative works of art in the world, predominantly found in the Kimberley region of Northwest Australia. This type of art refers to symmetrical figures depicted with detailed accessories representing opulence and style. There are various types of figures named by archaeologist Grahame Walsh.

  • Tassel figures are the earliest and most detailed, and feature tassels hanging from figures’ arms and waists
  • Sash figures are constructed more robustly with three-pointed sashes or bags hanging from figures’ belts
  • Elegant action figures are often characterized by running, kneeling, or hunting spirits bearing spears and boomerangs
  • Clothes peg figures were shown in a stationary pose with a red painted pigment

Bradshaw art is one of the more controversial forms of Aboriginal art, as there are conflicting accounts of how the craft originated. Many believe these figures were created before their arrival and copied by the indigenous people that inhabited the land after. Others, like famous Bradshaw painter Kevin Wainer, believe it’s an authentic Aboriginal art form.

X-Ray Art

X-ray art established its origins in rock art. It is a traditional, naturalistic style used by the people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The name comes from the way in which animals and humans are painted showing anatomical features with a detailed presentation of bone structures and internal organs that lends itself to a three-dimensional effect. X-ray paintings depict the artists’ relationship with animals, the land, and its inhabitants.


The Wandjina style of art is only found in the Kimberley region of Australia, dating back thousands of years ago. Wandjina is one of the most powerful Creation Spirits to the Mowanjum people of this area. It is associated with rain and the regeneration of land and all natural resources. Wandjina is painted on caves and rocks in the region, noticeable by its unique characteristics, which are meant to represent climatic features. In Wandjina imagery, large eyes are used to depict thunderstorms. Figures in Wandjina imagery often don elaborate headdresses, which represent different types of storms and the bodies of the figures are covered in dots to show rainfall.

String Art

Jewelry-making was also an important aspect of Aboriginal culture, often symbolizing a connection to the land. It was customary for both men and women to wear necklaces for various ceremonial practices. To make the necklaces, women would gather shells, feathers, grasses, seeds, dried fruit, and even snake vertebrae depending on what was readily available in the region. String or hair was used to hold the necklace together.


Weaving was an important fibrecraft that drew upon various organic materials such as those of animals and plants, bark, hair, string, and grasses to create a variety of objects. Weaving was used for everyday tools, baskets, nets for fishing, clothing, and ceremonial items. Since, the craft has expanded into modern times where Aboriginal artists use the skill to create rugs, fabrics, and more.

Modern Aboriginal Art Practices


Cross-hatching, often referred to as Rarrk, is a style of painting common in the Arnhem Land of Northern Australian. Originally painted on dried or cured bark, contemporary cross-hatching is achieved on canvases using acrylic paint. The technique is achieved by creating close parallel lines, then applying a second set of close parallel lines that crosses over the first. More advanced techniques appear as if the design has been woven into the painting. This technique was used in representing sea creatures, reptiles, and other animals and holds spiritual significance.

Dot Painting

Though the concept of dot painting first appeared relatively recently in 1971, Aboriginal people outlined designs with circles and dots in the sand thousands of years prior. The style was transferred to the canvas when Aboriginal art became popular in Western culture at the Papunya Tula School of Painters.

During this time, there was a general fear of non-indigenous people and other rival regions understanding secret knowledge, so double-dotted imagery was used to disguise sacred designs and meanings, ensuring they were only distinguishable to their people. Early paintings represented ritual objects and spiritual ceremonies. The artwork from Papunya Tula School of Painters was never meant to be sold, but was intended as a way for the artists to create a visual representation of their home country.

Bush Medicine Leaves

Bush medicine leaves

Left: Jeannie Petyarre (c. 1956) – Bush Medicine Leaves. Sold for AUD 600 via Lawsons (November 2016). Right: Gloria Petyarre acrylic on canvas, Bush Medicine leaves. Sold for AUD 2,000 via Pottle Auctions (June 2018).

This is a modern style of painting popularized by Australian Aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre, whose most recent paintings depict Bush Medicine Dreaming, a style in which artists pay homage to the bush medicine plant. This plant’s powerful leaves are collected by women and used for restorative, medicinal powers. By mimicking a flowing motion and undulating rhythm, artists employ a range of brush strokes to depict the plant’s different medicinal properties.

Color Field

Color field painting is characterized by large fields of flat color rather than that of figuration and relies on consistent form and process. Kudditji Kngwarreye was the first indigenous artist to adopt this style in 1993 where he was met with backlash from the Aboriginal art world. Ten years later, despite the fact that he was encouraged to revert back to dot painting, abstract art enthusiasts began embracing his work.

Valuing Aboriginal Art

Demand for Aboriginal art has increased dramatically in recent years, fueled by interest from art investors and collectors who realize its potential. The value of Aboriginal art varies depending on a few key factors:

  • Artist: Artwork created by renowned Aboriginal artists hold the most value and yield the highest return.
  • Artist age: Elders of a tribe are generally deemed more valuable than younger artists.
  • Geographic region: The geographic origin of a work is the most important factor when determining value of Aboriginal art. Familiarize yourself with different communities and regions where esteemed artists reside.
  • Documentation: If applicable, ask the seller to provide a certificate of authenticity, title of the painting, and biography of the artist. It is also best to obtain written documentation that traces the piece’s provenance back to its original owner.
  • Technique: Pay careful attention to the technique used to determine whether the piece is authentic. Is it consistent with the style of the artist or region?

Understanding Aboriginal Art Symbols

Symbols are used to convey stories across all styles of Aboriginal art. They’ve been used since the earliest rock art paintings and are still used in contemporary paintings and religious ceremonies today. Symbols vary from region to region, and each artist has his or her own way of portraying the symbols through variance in spacing, color, composition, and lines.

For collectors of Aboriginal art, it’s important to consult an information sheet issued by the artists to accurately understand the story behind the art. Most symbols appear very simple in structure. For example, in Papunya Central Desert, the word “person” is characterized by an upside down “U.” Though the symbols are simple in structure, they’re strung together to tell a complex story.

What makes indigenous art so compelling are the unique qualities of each individual artist and region. Though each artist and region offers similar styles and techniques, the symbols, stories, and meanings are exclusive to each culture. Collectors of contemporary Aboriginal art are better able to understand these stories through information provided by living artists, while those excavated from caves and rock formations are often left to interpretation of art historians and scholars.

Sources | Creative Spirits | Kunwinjiku Fine Art | Japingka Aboriginal Art | Kate Owen Gallery | Central Art | The Culture Trip | Artlandish