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Art, Craft and Culture - Aboriginal Tourism - Indigenous Australia
Australian Indigenous art is the oldest on-going tradition of art in the world, which has always been an integral part of Aboriginal society in Australia, pre-dating European colonisation and going back over 30,000 years. These artistic practices are based on the deep physical and spiritual connections to the land, that makes reference to the Dreamtime or Creation, encompassing the complex philosophy and belief of the Aboriginal people.

From the initial forms of artistic expressions found in sand drawings, rock carvings, wood carving and body painting, the practice and expression continue today, reflecting the rich diversity of Indigenous culture and the distinct differences between tribes, languages and regional geographic location and landscape.

Today the artists have embraced a wide variety of mediums, beyond the style of the acrylic dot-style on canvas to paper, print, fabric, wood, glassware, pottery and ceramics.

Our earliest record of Indigenous art are the rock paintings or engraving that adorn the walls of sheltered rocks and caves. Often painted in ochre, many of these images related to ancestral beings and sacred stories and can be found throughout the continent.

Visitors to Central Australia can see examples of these early artwork in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park at Uluru, and in the MacDonnell Ranges at Emily Gap (part of the Caterpillar Dreaming story), and N’Dhala Gorge (where there are some 6,000 rock carvings). Other locations include the Sacred Canyon in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia and Kakadu which contains one of the greatest concentrations of rock art sites in the world, with over 5,000 art site being recorded and an estimate of a further 10,000 other sites thought to exist1.

Styles of Rock Art

The term "rock art" is a phrase that is used in archaeology to describe markings made on rock, with "petroglyph" being defined as a carving or line drawing on rock (usually made by prehistoric people). The rock art in Australia continues an on-going tradition by one of the oldest continuous societies in the world, that has only changed in modern times with the appearance of Europeans. In fact there are instances of cave paintings depicting the arrival and interaction of the white man with images of sailing ships, men on horseback, and men with sticks (that are interpreted as guns).

Whilst there are few modern examples of rock art continuing today, many of the older Indigenous Australians, talk about their elders creating new rock paintings or touching up and adding to existing rock art.2

There are three broad styles of rock art to be found in Australia3:

  • engraved geometric figures
    including arcs, circles, concentric circles, animal tracks and dots, these engravings are found in Central Australia, the Kimberley, Tasmania, and certain regions of Victoria.
  • simple figurative style
    these painted or engraved silhouettes of both human and animal forms are found in Queensland.
  • complex figurative style
    these are detailed figures, often showing internal organs and bone structure such as that found in the cross-hatch or ‘x-ray art’4 which is common to Arnhem Land, Kakadu and the surrounding region.

Two other styles that can be loosely defined are ‘dot painting’, a style of art that emerged from the 70s and continues today, and ‘stencil art’ that is found with the use of the hand print motif. There is of course another style of Aboriginal art known as the ‘Bradshaws’ discovered in 1891 in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, by European pastoralist, Joseph Bradshaw.

The  beginning of widespread recognition of Aboriginal art in the west was during the 1970s with the ‘Central and Western Desert Art Movement’ and the artists of ‘Papunya Tula’. The Papunya Tula Art Movement began in 1971 when a school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged some of the men to paint a blank school wall. The murals sparked off tremendous interest in the community and soon many men started painting.5 These first paintings at Papunya were done in the ochre colours of the land, reds, browns, black and whites. The art resembled the traditional sand and rock art designs and became known as ‘sand paintings’ or ‘dot paintings’.6

The Central Australia desert region includes parts of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. This vast inland region is home to many Aboriginal artist who live and work in urban, rural and remote settings, speak their own languages and practice their cultural traditions that are passed down through many generations. This oral tradition of ‘story telling’ that is also depicted in artistic expression is a fundamental cornerstone of Aboriginal culture throughout Australia and was the key element for their survival over many thousands of years.

This tradition of ‘story telling’ continues today, reflected in the many art works being created by Aboriginal artists around Australia. Beyond those paintings produced to satisfy a tourist market, there are many artist producing works of immense beauty that goes beyond the visible. A closer look at their paintings reveals deeper intrinsic meanings that capture topological layers of history and mythology and in many cases a story that is only revealed to the uninitiated. With the many Aboriginal artists producing large bodies of abstract work, the many thousands of years of tradition has firmly stamped itself in the modern era.

There are many online resources and printed publication that discuss the topic of Aboriginal art and craft, its history, the complex living philosophy and its basis of Aboriginal law and culture, governing all aspects of traditional life. We will be providing reference and links to some of those resources throughout our section on Aboriginal Tourism.



1 Aboriginal Rock Art. Kakadu National Park.
2 Aboriginal heritage. Interactive Schooling. Retrieved June 21, 2012
3 Australian Indigenous Art. Australian Government Culture and Recreation Portal. Retrieved August 7, 2008,
4 X-ray style in Arnhem Land Rock Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved August 7, 2008, from
5 Founders of the Central and Western Desert Art Movement, Papunya Tula Artists.
6 Guide to Art and Craft in Central Australia. RedHOT Arts, Australia Council for the Arts, Arts NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts.
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