Where to buy: Direct from Aboriginal communities throughout mainland Australia
What’s it worth: Spiritual worth higher than material.
Bag a Bargain: Genuine article is quite expensive, bargain may have to be replicas.
The Aboriginal people are thought to have been the first humans to arrive in the continent of Australia more than 45,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers, and their survival was intrinsically linked to the land they lived. Because their society and culture developed in isolation until the catastrophic landing of the convict ships in 1788, they interpreted the world around them through a system of oral traditions, which incorporated music, dance and graphic representation.
The Aboriginal term ‘Dreaming’ is central to understanding native Australian culture. It has nothing to do with Western associations with sleep & the unconscious mind, but is used to explain man’s relationship with the world: its origins and the ancestors, heroes and spirits that created the order of nature. Dreamtime is not an event perceived to have occurred in the distant past, but an ongoing concept outside the boundaries of time.
‘Art’ in the Western sense didn’t used to be an independent entity in Aboriginal culture. Graphic representation is an element of traditional ceremonies. The images are not abstract, as they would initially appear to the casual viewer, but are patterned, symmetrical depictions of stories from the Dreaming. Their creation is intrinsically linked with everyday life, and until recently there were no ‘artists’ dedicated solely to creating decorative works.
It was thanks to a school teacher called Geoffrey Barden from Papunya that in the 1970s Aboriginal art came to be recognised and revered as an art form in its own right. Barden enjoyed a privileged relationship with the local Aborigine community and was invited to ritual events usually prohibited to non-Aborigines. In an effort to foster feelings of cultural identity in his Aboriginal students he assigned them a project: to design and paint a mural about the honey-ant, a creature with strong links to the region. Local Aboriginal leaders became involved in the project, and together they discovered a way to convey their culture and traditions to the world.
The newly discovered creative form spread rapidly throughout Australia, and groups of Aboriginal artists began to produce a whole range of works of art, including ground mosaics, rock art, body paintings, dot paintings, didgeridoos, boomerangs and sculptures to express themselves outside the context of formal ceremonies. The Australian government came to realise that this outpouring of expression was a valuable national resource, and contributed funds and materials to its development. Two distinct types of Aboriginal art emerged: ‘traditional’ and ‘urban’. Whilst the former continues to reflect motifs associated with the Dreaming, the latter is a new departure which draws upon themes from 20th century life.
How to spot a good buy
Aboriginal works of art and artifacts are evocative souvenirs of any trip to Australia. If you buy items directly from the communities which have shops or galleries attached to them, you can be assured that not only will you be getting authentic merchandise but also that you are supporting the preservation of Aboriginal culture. Sometimes the artists receive pitiful amounts for their works from art dealers, only for them to be resold to collectors or galleries at a significant mark-up. See Useful Links and Contacts for respectable outlets.
The popularity of Aboriginal art amongst the international art community means that prices are high, and tourists can often afford only small pieces or reproductions. Be aware that forgery is rife: you should receive a certificate of authenticity, even if the work of art is purported to be by a renowned artist.
Buy Australian Aboriginal paintings, prints and pottery online – direct from the artists and their communities! Art works are supplied in close cooperation with Aboriginal community art centres, whenever possible, following high ethical standards. Aboriginal Art Onlinealso offer information and photos to help understand the art works and Aboriginal culture. Buy art, books and CDs using the secure online payment system – and gain a better appreciation of Aboriginal Australia.
Website: Aboriginal Art Online
Craft Outlets Owned and Operated by Aboriginal Groups:
Maruku Arts & Crafts
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Tel: +61 8 8956 2153
Fax: +61 8 956 2410
Websites featuring Aboriginal Art:
Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre
Website of a Southern Arrernte Aboriginal tribal group, incorporating an Aboriginal art gallery and recordings of Red Centre Dreaming Performers.
By Jess Halliday
main image: Jack Britten, Toomoogooniji, PA092, 1999, Ochre, clay and charcoal on canvas, 120 x 90 cm featured on http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/