Desert Art

Image details at the end of text Image details at the end of text

With a history of more than 40,000 years Australian Aboriginal art is the oldest art tradition in the world.

Traditionally, Aboriginal paintings were perishable, executed either on sand or on skin. Permanent paintings were also done on rocks and later on articles of use and – particularly in Northern Australia – on bark.

Natural earth pigments were used (ochres) as well as coal, so that the traditional paintings were done in warm earth tones of red, brown and yellow with white and black.

The main themes or motifs in desert art, depicted mostly from an aerial view, stem from the Tjukurrpa (story of creation) lore. Topographical maps also feature in their paintings, replicating the character of the landscape as created by the ancestral spirits.


The most frequent symbols of traditional desert art are circles (representing waterholes, camps or meeting places), U-shaped forms (for people sitting down – sometimes one can recognize whether men or women are involved by the markings on their utensils: boomerangs and spears or digging sticks and wooden bowls), straight line representing the paths of the ancestral spirits (so-called songlines), crisscrossing the whole of Australia and symbols for plants and animals, the latter usually depicted as footprints.
Since 1994 this iconography, and subsequently the Aboriginal artists’ work as well benefit from legal protection (for more information please refer to copyright).


In the early 1970’s in Papunya, about 240 km northwest of Alice Springs, right in the red heart of Australia, one of the most exciting art movements of the last century sprang to life.

Geoffrey Bardon, a young teacher in this desolate Papunya reserve, was impressed by the sand drawings Aboriginal children were doing and provided them with painting material. However the senior men were the ones who finally got involved in painting, since Aboriginal social structures stipulate exactly who is allowed to paint and what due to one´s birthright and initiation status. Geoffrey Bardon encouraged the men to paint in their own traditional language and not in the style of the white man. The result were a series of murals on the Papunya school wall, the principle one depicting a Honey Ant Dreaming.

This painting was the start of an exciting new art movement, that took off without any formal training for the artists.
In the following years, the men in Papunya painted the ambiguous symbols of their traditional art using wooden sticks to apply myriads of dots. They painted on masonite board and any other off-cut material, even floor tiles from building sites around the settlement with everything they could lay their hands on, including house paint, toothpaste and nugget. Today their medium is mainly acrylic paint on canvas and 'dot art' has become the signature style of Central Australia´s desert art. The dots represent the ever-changing vegetation or were used to camouflage secret knowledge that outsiders should not see. After all it was a novum that paintings now could be seen by the general public, whereas most of them were secret sacred and reserved for ceremonial purposes in the past.

The main themes in Papunya works were excerpts from the Tingari cycle, which describes the extensive travelling of the ancestors in mythological times and the transmission of tribal law.

The following years saw similar movements springing up in other regions, sometimes along songlines or in consequence of ceremonial gatherings and sometimes due to state support programs. The individual regions developed their own unique styles and techniques and differ frequently in their choice of color, with a definite trend in recent years for an artist to manifest his characteristic signature style rather than his origins.

Some art styles are very reminiscent of western modern and postmodern abstract painting although indigenous art developed far away from any such influence.

Lately more political and socio-cultural dimensions have burgeoned in their art.

Today Australian Contemporary Indigenous Art is one of the most thrilling art movements in the world and since dOCUMENTA (13) its collectibility is no longer a secret, even in Europe.

Photos (from left to right):Simon Hogan: Tjining, 2012 © ARTKELCH
Ilkurlka rock hole © Spinifex Arts Project

Joan Eva Nagomara © Warlayirti Artists