It could very well be the oldest continuously practiced art form on earth. Australian Aboriginal art originated at least 40,000 years ago when indigenous tribes roamed the vast southern continent, painting and etching aesthetic patterns using dots, stripes and circles onto rock and bark surfaces. Most artwork recounts the Dreamtime, a mythical time where spirits moved across the earth creating forests, waterholes and mountains.
Despite a period of cultural oppression in Australia in the late 18th century, the ancient art traditions of the Aborigines have continued well into the 21st century. It was 1971 when Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher working with Aborigines, requested that a group of elders in Papunya, outside of Alice Springs, paint their Dreamtime stories onto the school’s blank walls. This sparked a whole new art movement of dot and circle paintings known as Papunya Tula. Commanding high prices, Papunya Tula’s influence quickly spread across the continent’s Top End, providing valuable income to otherwise impoverished communities. Two decades later, the works of Aboriginal artists can be seen at galleries from Sydney to Stockholm.
Today, collectors of Aboriginal art can visit artists in their ancestral homeland, where they work in community art centres. Trips to most Aboriginal settlements require permits, which can be arranged through tour operators.
Darwin art galleries
Familiarise yourself with Aboriginal art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (www.magnt.nt.gov.au). The museum hosts permanent displays of both ancient and contemporary art from across the Northern Territory, as well as temporary exhibitions such as the 29th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, the most prestigious indigenous art prize in Australia.
If you want to take home a piece of indigenous art, Aboriginal Fine Arts (aaia.com.au) stocks authentic works from Arnhem Land and Central Australia, including those by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, two of the country’s most renowned Aboriginal artists. The cavernous Framed – The Darwin Gallery (framed.com.au) carries Aboriginal artists from all over the country, with 10 exhibition spaces spanning 800 square metres. Mason Gallery (masongallery.com.au) specialises in works originating from the deserts of Central Australia, like those of Kathleen Petyarre, whose minimalist and intricate dot designs are among the most collected in Australia. Or drop by the colourful Parap Village Market (parapvillage.com.au; open on Saturday mornings), which has four local art galleries tucked in with a lively mixture of food stalls, fruit vendors and craft stalls.
Tiwi Islands tour
A 30-minute flight north of Darwin, the stunning Tiwi Islands are home to one of the most unique Aboriginal cultures in Australia. Comprising Melville and Bathurst Islands, the Tiwis were separated from mainland Australia during the last Ice Age and consequently developed a distinct culture and language of their own. The 2500-strong population of Tiwi Islanders are renowned for their gorgeous fabrics that boast swirls, stripes and totem animals such as turtles, dragonflies and birds which used to play an important role in the Tiwis’ life by warning them of impending cyclones, storms and funerals.
Get an insight into the Tiwi’s complex culture and art with Darwin-based Aussie Adventure (aussieadventures.com.au) one-day tour to Bathurst Island, the smaller of the two islands. The tour includes a visit to Nguiu, the island’s largest community, and the local art museum and art centre – it even gives you a chance to buy collectibles directly from the artists. Departing from Darwin, the tour costs AU$498 per person, including flights, lunch and permits.
Palya Art tours
Australia’s Top End is dotted with dozens of art centres. Monitored and marketed by local Aboriginal committees, they are both a cultural base for artists and visiting collectors. Representing 23 such centres, Palya Art Tours (palya.com.au) takes groups of up to seven people to farflung communities and art centres across the Kimberley in Western Australia and the vast Central Deserts in the Northern Territory. Notable centres include Warmun in the Kimberley, whose artists use ochre and natural pigments collected from the rust-red mountains nearby in their works. Artists at Ikuntji, three hours’ drive west of Alice Springs, are acclaimed for their broad shapes in bold hues mixed with traditional motifs and totem animals; while those working at the Julalikari centre are all-female. Papunya Tula Artists, now based in Alice Springs, acts for 120 artists working in the recognisable “dot and circle” style.
Five-day tours departing from Darwin between April and October cost AU$8,800 per person, including all transfers, meals, flights and accommodation in hotels, cattle stations, missions or indigenous communities.
Lirrwi Yolngu Tourism Aboriginal Corporation
A vast swath of land skirting the western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land was the first place to be declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931. Among the region’s many credits are the origin of the didgeridoo and the world’s oldest axe.
Owned and run by Yolngu tribe members, the Lirrwi Yolngu Tourism Aboriginal Corporation (lirrwitourism.com.au) can arrange customised air charter tours to remote art centres in Arnhem Land, two hours north east of Darwin. Among them is the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, famous for their four-metre high Yirrkala Church Panels, a collaborative painting made in 1962 to protest mining in Arnhem Land and to assert Aboriginal land rights. Bula’bula Arts in Ramingining – the location for the acclaimed 2006 film Ten Canoes – showcases distinctive woven mats, bark paintings and works presented on hollow logs and didgeridoos. Ramingining was the home of the late David Malangi, a bark painter whose work was showcased on Australia’s now defunct one-dollar note.
Kakadu Rock Art
Visit prehistoric rock art at UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, where rock paintings and carvings illustrate the daily life of Aborigines over 40,000 years.
Kakadu’s most extraordinary rock art is Ubirr, where barramundi, catfish, turtles, possums and wallabies were regularly painted to pay respect to the animals and ensure future hunting success. You will also notice a haunting painting of a Tasmanian tiger that became extinct on the mainland more than 2,000 years ago and a depiction of what’s believed to be a buffalo hunter from the 1880s.
Kakadu is a three-hour drive south-east of Darwin and can be visited independently. Ubirr may be inaccessible during the wet season from December to March. Visit environment.gov.au/parks/Kakadu for more details. For insights into the history of rock art, consider the guided tours by Victor Cooper, a Minitja man from Kakadu and part-owner of Ayal Aboriginal Tours (ayalkakadu.com.au). Tours start from AU$220.