Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest cultures in the world, making the art they produce one of the oldest examples of cultural artistic expression in the world. The first of these that have been found by archaeologists include carvings in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and it is believed that these carvings are up to 60,000 years old. Although to some Aboriginal art might (mistakenly) seem simple on the surface, it is anything but. Aboriginal art is actually made up of a complex assortment of symbols, iconography and rules that artists must adhere to. In this article, we take a look at a few of the rules that apply to Aboriginal art to give you an idea of its complexity.

Aboriginal art basics

To start with, it should be pointed out from the outset that Aboriginal art can only be produced by Aboriginal people. In the eyes of Aboriginal tribes, only people with Aboriginal ancestry have the authority to create contemporary Indigenous art. The art that is produced will also be heavily influenced by the location of the tribe in Australia, as certain techniques are more common in some areas than others. These techniques are not always clear to non-indigenous people, and sometimes this is actually by design – traditionally, dots were used to hide meanings in art from non-indigenous people during white settlement, as it was believed that there was potential to steal knowledge from Indigenous culture. The dot paintings we see today still use this technique, and it is arguably the most recognisable style that is still regularly used. But, although these dots are highly recognisable, Aboriginal art certainly doesn’t need to include dots to be classed as Aboriginal art. Only certain tribes are permitted to use dots, as the dots are related to their particular tribe.

Approaches to Indigenous art

Aboriginal art, unlike many prevailing Western approaches to art, is not simply to demonstrate beautiful or interesting aesthetic images. Instead, the paintings in Aboriginal culture are always telling a story, so the art is often about an artist’s own life, the experiences of their tribe, or life-changing topics like the Stolen Generation. With this story painting in mind, it’s also very important to note that Aboriginal artists can’t actually paint whatever story they’d like – what they paint is generally from their own lineage, and if they decide to paint a story from another tribe’s lineage, they must ask for permission before they do so. This is request is necessary in order to demonstrate respect, but for the most part artists will paint things related to the stories and artistic techniques relevant to their own tribe. As for the meaning in this art, it can also vary wildly depending on where it came from – each tribe uses a specific set of symbols to represent different meanings, such as people, waterholes and tools like digging sticks.

Appreciating Aboriginal art more

As Aboriginal culture doesn’t have a written language, the art they produced can be considered the best way to absorb the different aspects of the culture and learn more about the people. The complexity and sheer variety of Aboriginal art and painting are quite impressive and allow the audience – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – to develop an understanding of particular tribes and the areas they live in within Australia.

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