What is Contemporary Aboriginal Art?

The Art Syndicate Staff Writer: Constanza Ontiveros Valdés


Nowadays, Contemporary Aboriginal Art is Australia´s most iconic and prestigious art form. Aboriginal artworks are displayed at the most important museums and galleries around the globe and they frequently achieve millionaire prices at art auctions. But, what are the origins and main traits of the so-called Contemporary Aboriginal Art?


Aboriginal art is one of the oldest art forms on the planet. Over time, mainly ephemeral art forms such as body, bark, and sand art were practiced by the indigenous cultures that flourished in this vast region creating a rich and diverse artistic tradition. However, the origins of what is referred to as Contemporary Aboriginal Art date back to 1971 when white art teacher Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya, a resettlement community near Alice Springs established in 1959, and started an art program with the children and elder men of the village. Soon after, some habitants started painting their ancestral symbols and traditions into the newly introduced flat canvases and created a cooperative called Papunya Tula Artists, Pty Ltd, which remains active to this date.


Contemporary Aboriginal Art from this first stage usually featured bold geometric designs in earth tones. Frequently, circles, dots, and wavy pattern lines were part of the designs created with acrylic over Masonite boards. Though seemingly abstract, the now called Western Desert Painting Style, was symbolically-charged and reflected the ritual practices, spiritual traditions, and often secret sacred stories. “Dream-time stories” were known only by the initiated members of each community and, for centuries, were an integral means by which knowledge was shared due to the absence of written languages within these cultures. Some seminal artists from this period were Johnny Warungkula Tjupurrula, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa. The three of them are now part of important art collections worldwide.


During the following decades, the artists and their paintings gained international recognition and were sought after by mainly foreigner art collectors. This inspired other tiny communities to start their art cooperatives that now spread from Fitzroy Crossing, in the Kimberley, to Maningreda and Ngukkur, in Arnhem Land, and Yuendumu and Warakurna, in the Western Desert.


All this led to the emergence of a highly dynamic art scene populated by distinctive styles, colors, materials and symbolic languages that vary according to each region, and that to this date, continues to be redefined and challenged by the younger generations. For instance, Warakurna Artists, established in 2005, is just one more example of the diversity of styles that the Aboriginal art scene has and it shows how new groups are still being formed. These artists added a figurative storytelling element to its repertoire including narratives and contemporary stories about life in their community.


Now, for many Westerners, Contemporary Aboriginal Art was and continues to be their first encounter with Aboriginal cultures, so, as could be expected, this type of art has been easily stereotyped and labeled under the same group considering only the ethnicity of their makers. Likewise, many forgeries populate the rapidly growing international market for this type of artwork, that saw a temporary decline in 2008, but that has recently seen once again a boom.


All in all, while it is definitely positive that the work by artists of indigenous descent is now highly recognized within the international museum and gallery circuit, and within art history´s narratives, there needs to be much more understanding of the diversity and rich heritage of these groups. Their art should be appreciated by its own terms and not by our standards or expectations of what it should be or look like.

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