There is nothing in the world quite like Australian Aboriginal art. Over the past four decades, Australian public and private collectors have come to appreciate the importance of this unique artform. A growing number of international collectors are building and touring significant collections, yet it remains one of the international artworld’s undiscovered treasures.
Created by the world’s oldest continuous culture, Aboriginal art is the only contemporary artform that directly links each and every one of us back to the beginnings of human history. Within these works are the echoes of times long forgotten by modern cultures, and ways of seeing that have become strange and mysterious to us.
Products of the current socio-political landscape, they are informed by over 40,000 years of living knowledge and experience, which makes them simultaneously ancient and contemporary. They encapsulate the profound depth of human endeavour across all time.
But despite their strangeness, they are also familiar. The pictorial devices employed by some Aboriginal artists may remind the viewer of the great art movements of the 20th century and an easy explanation would be that Aboriginal artists have copied or been influenced by western art. However, Aboriginal artists’ forebears have been using abstraction and conceptualism to map their worldviews for millennia.
Where narrative has been stripped from much international contemporary art, it lies at the heart of Aboriginal art. The works of the bush artists are predominantly informed by the stories of the ancestor spirits and Country. More recent artistic developments have seen history and personal narrative paintings becoming more important. As the world rapidly and irreversibly changes around them, the old people are recording their traditional bush lives, beliefs, and interactions with white explorers and pastoralists. These extraordinary works offer us a glimpse of a way of life that is dying with the old people. Traditional rituals are still practiced and languages spoken, but the technological advances of the 21st century are changing life in the bush forever.
Aboriginal art is as diverse as the land and the people. Stylistically it varies from region to region, and from artist to artist. While there is an emphasis on communal ownership of knowledge, artists are generally free to develop their own styles for expressing traditional stories (‘Tjukurrpa’) provided they respect the traditional Law.
What defines almost all Aboriginal art, however, is that the artists’ identity is intimately grounded in their connection to ‘Country’ – the land of their birthright as determined by traditional Law. To be on their traditional land and practising Law is to be whole and at peace. To be separated from their Country is, at best, to be a foreigner in someone else’s Country; or at worst, to suffer severe spiritual and psychic rupture.
The best Aboriginal art allows viewers to consider their own aesthetic, political and philosophical theories within the framework of the world’s oldest knowledge base. The results of such contemplation can be revelational and inspiring. Above all, contemporary Aboriginal art is a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit.