Aboriginal Art History

Australian Aboriginal art history is very interesting.

Aboriginal people have been living in Australia at least 60,000 years and the oldest rock paintings are up to 60,000 years old. That’s not the oldest art in the world, but it’s the world's oldest continuous tradition of art.

Rock Painting - Aboriginal Art History
As long as indigenous people have been living in Australia, they have been creating different types of art like rock paintings, bark paintings, sand drawings and body art as well as decorations on weapons, tools and musical instruments. The oldest art examples we see today are the rock paintings. That’s not because Aboriginal people in the old days would only paint rocks. It’s because rock is more durable than other materials and those paintings have therefore been preserved until today. Even on the rocks, most of the paintings have been preserved inside caves, where they have been protected from weather, while the paintings on outside rock surfaces have often been washed away. There is an enormous variation in the styles of Aboriginal rock art, depending on their age and location. Both the abstract dot paintings and naturalistic art, including X-ray style has been found in rock art of various ages.

aboriginal art history
 Aboriginal art history by Nigel Paine via Flickr.com

Traditional Methods in Aboriginal Art History
Whether they were painting rocks, bark, tools, weapons or anything else, traditionally Aboriginal people all over Australia used ochre to make paint. Ochre is a name given to different iron oxide minerals that were used as pigments. Having been weathered from iron deposits, these oxides all have reddish colour. It’s the same mineral that makes Australian outback soils and many famous rocks like Uluru red.

Ochre Colours - Aboriginal Art History
Depending on the exact conditions under which those minerals formed, their colour can be anything from yellow to orange, red, purple and dark brown. That gave a whole range of different colours to mix and play with. Black pigment was made from charcoal, and white from calcite, ash or different clay minerals. Mixing black or white with other colours made them darker or brighter and further increased the amount of variations. White and black were mixed to make grey.

Preparing Ochre Paint - Aboriginal Art History
Preparing ochre paints was a time-consuming work. First the rocks containing iron oxide minerals had to be found and collected. Then the rock had to be powdered by grinding, and then that powder had to be mixed with some sort of fluid – a so-called binder - to become paint. Nowadays you can buy binders, but in the old days Aboriginal people used animal fat, plant sap, reptile egg yolks, bush honey, kangaroo blood and others. Water or saliva isn’t good enough, they do get the paint on the rock or a piece of bark, but they won’t hold it there for thousands of years.

Modern Methods: Canvas and Acrylic Paints
Modern Aboriginal art still uses the old styles and symbols, but when it comes to the methods, it is a mixture of the traditional Aboriginal and the modern culture. The big turn happened in the 1970s when a European artist Geoffrey Barton helped Papunya People in central Northern Territory to develop their dot painting by painting it on canvas with acrylic paints. It developed into the famous Papunya Tukla School with about 150 artists. Several other modern styles have developed like the watercolour paintings of Albert Namatjira, and the Hermannsburg School. Aboriginal people from many different parts of Australia, particularly central, northern and South Australia, Arnhem Land and Tiwi Islands have now taken up acrylic painting.

Modern Methods: Acrylic Colours
Doing it in the modern way has many advantages. Using acrylic colours and canvas saves them tons of time, and they can still choose to use the traditional yellowish-reddish-brownish colours if they want. And maybe most importantly - as opposed to bark and rock paintings, canvas paintings are easy to sell.

Modern Methods: Canvas
Using canvas to paint on has given Aboriginal People an opportunity to get their art out there, and modern Aboriginal art, particularly the famous dot painting has taken off and started selling on big scale even internationally. This gives the Aboriginal artists an opportunity to get their culture more recognised internationally, and earn an income from it while doing something they love to do. Apart from canvas paintings, they paint on pottery, and various tools and instruments like boomerangs, didgeridoos and clapping sticks - some of the most popular souvenirs to buy in Australia.

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