Aboriginal art is centred on story telling, and the transmission of knowledge passed down over generations. From ancient rock art to contemporary dance, body painting to arts and crafts the stories behind the art works are connected to individuals through family lines. Artists are only permitted to paint Dreaming stories and subjects they are entitled to under traditional law.
In place of a written language, symbols are used to communicate land management, survival skills, cultural wisdom and spiritual values. Explore the different styles and techniques of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal communities both in art galleries and in national parks across NSW.
Ancient rock art
Aboriginal rock art – in the form of drawings, paintings and petroglyphs– can be found in national parks across the state. Take a self-guided hike through national parks or a tour with an Aboriginal guide to learn more about the important connections between the land, wildlife and people.
Visit Mutawintji National Park to see hand stencils, a Groonki mark, said to symbolise a spiritually significant site, and a painting of a Yarra stick. Interpretive signs explain the details. In Gundabooka National Park near Bourke, you can see Aboriginal rock paintings that not only depict animals, but dancers, hand stencils and hunting tools.
In the last century, Aboriginal art techniques and styles have been applied to canvas, and you can admire many of these beautiful artworks at public galleries and at indigenous-owned cultural centres, galleries and studios across the State. On the Central Coast, Bouddi Gallery represents artists from not-for-profit Aboriginal owned art centres in remote areas, with paintings on canvas and bark, carvings, ceramics, weavings and seed jewellery.
Along the mighty Murray River in Albury, in southwest NSW, is the evocative Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk. Local Aboriginal artists created the sculptures dotted along the 5km trail and the artworks are accompanied by videos via your smartphone on the Murray River’s significance to Aboriginal people.
See the works of some of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal artists at Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery including Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Emily Kame Kngwarre. At the Dunghutti Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery in Kempsey, you’ll find the artworks of weavers, sculptors and printmakers.
Learn the ancient signs and symbols of art with a clay modelling or screen printing class at the Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Corinda Beach, just north of Coffs Harbour. Or try your hand at bush weaving with Explore Byron Bay Aboriginal tours.
How to buy Aboriginal art ethically
Australian Aboriginal art is the longest continuing tradition in the world. Make sure you always buy art ethically to ensure the money goes back to the artist, which helps create a sustainable future for community-owned art enterprises and fosters a sense of pride. It is also shows respect for Australia’s First Nations people.
The first step in buying art is to find a responsible gallery or art dealer, preferably one that specialises in Aboriginal art. Check if they are a member of the Indigenous Art Code. If so, you know they have signed the Indigenous Art Commercial Code of Conduct.
Secondly, it’s time to speak up. Ethical galleries and dealers should be more than happy to answer your questions, from what share of the sales price goes back to the artist to how did the gallery acquire the work? Other key questions include: Who is the artist, where are they from, and under what conditions do they work? It’s about fairness and transparency.
Next, ensure the artwork is authentic. A Certificate of Authenticity should include the artist’s name, title of the work, date or year painted, language group or nation and perhaps an artist’s statement. The Indigenous Art Code advises that any piece of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art bought for more than $250 at an art centre should come with an authentication certificate. You can also buy directly from the artist. If you do so, be respectful, don’t barter for price and understand this may be their main source of income.
Most importantly, enjoy the experience, and realise that your purchase has helped ensure that sacred kinship ties and the passing of knowledge remain unbroken for generations to come.