Aboriginal art bold patterns and striking colors lend comparisons to abstract expressionist or minimal art, but the imagery is more deeply narrative, depicting landscapes, still life, historical and mythic events, ceremonies, portraits, and even laws.
Contemporary Aboriginal art is a vital part of the world’s oldest continuous cultural tradition. It is also one of the most brilliant and exciting areas of modern art. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpting, ceremonial clothing and sand painting.
What appears to be a geometric maze turns into the path of ancestral beings establishing features of the landscape. Canvases resembling maps record memories of sacred ceremonies. Dazzling linear patterns conjure up leaves blown across a windswept desert, and herringbone hatching designates clan identities.
Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is generally regarded as beginning in 1971 with a painting movement that started at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, involving artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, and facilitated by Australian teacher and art worker Geoffrey Bardon.
The movement spawned widespread interest across rural and remote Aboriginal Australia in creating art, while contemporary indigenous art of a different nature also emerged in urban centres; together they have become central to Australian art. Indigenous art centres have fostered the emergence of the contemporary art movement, and as of 2010 were estimated to represent over 5000 artists, mostly in Australia’s north and west.
Australian Indigenous art movements and cooperatives have been central to the emergence of Indigenous Australian art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres. The cooperatives reflect the diversity of art across Indigenous Australia from the north west region where ochre is significantly used; to the tropical north where the use of cross-hatching prevails; to the Papunya style of art from the central desert cooperatives. Art is increasingly becoming a significant source of income and livelihood for some of these communities.