Australia’s indigenous art: ‘An economic colossus’

Aboriginal people have long found spiritual inspiration for their art. Phil Mercer explores how this tradition has become one of Australia’s most potent cultural and economic movements.

Aborigines remain by far Australia’s most disadvantaged group; they die younger, and suffer higher rates of poverty and unemployment than anyone else.

The search for reconciliation between black and white Australia is a constant theme for Raymond Walters Japanangka, a commercial painter based in the Northern Territory.

“I’m very passionate about building relationships between all cultures, and I want to look at exploring art in that way also,” he tells BBC Culture.

He comes from a rich artistic bloodline. His late uncle was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, one of the most collected and distinguished Aboriginal painters.  ‘Warlugulong’, his celebrated piece of acrylic on canvas that tells the tale of the power of a hallowed bushfire, was sold at auction for more than AUD$2 million in 2007. 

Like other Aboriginal artists, Raymond Walters Japanangka draws inspiration from those closest to him.

“The foundation for a lot of my art is based on my spiritual upbringing, and my connection with my grandfather and grandmother’s country and also my connection with our belief system and family. Acrylic paint and brushstrokes are just a way of expressing that,” he explains.

Ancestral spirits also inspire the brushstrokes of veteran Aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft as she depicts the divinity of the lands of her tribe, the Djanbun clan, in northern New South Wales.

A founding member of Boomalli, an Aboriginal artists’ collective in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, Bronwyn Bancroft surveys a gallery full of charcoal drawings, works in acrylic and art made from felt.

Her work is deeply personal and is “drenched with symbolism” as it explores an unbreakable connection to the earth. 

“We refer to them as the old people,” she says of her forebears.  “They protect and guide me.  My ancestors are my religion,” she says.

Like other indigenous painters, her paintings interpret traditional ‘Dreamtime’ stories of creation, and the struggles and triumphs of Australia’s first inhabitants. 

Home and away 

Indigenous art has become one of Australia’s most potent cultural movements, full of brilliant iconography and mesmerising landscapes.  It started to be marketed in the 1970s. A professor of art history at the University of Sydney, Roger Benjamin says the art “offers buyers some kind of ’spiritual connection’ to the land in the world’s most urbanised society [Australia].” 

Since then, surging demand from non-Aboriginal Australians, including wealthy collectors and investors, along with strong interest from overseas, has transformed a fledgling industry into a cultural phenomenon, appreciated by millions of people around Australia, and beyond.  The art has become one of Australia’s proudest exports, finding favour in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris.

“It has the kind of aura of sanctity about it,” says Roger Benjamin.  “Almost every private home that I would visit,” he says, speaking of friends and colleagues in Australia, “would have some kind of Aboriginal art in it, and quite often original pieces.”   

“A lot of the dot paintings and the bark paintings from the Top End (the northern part of the Northern Territory) are windows into a very complicated culture that is based on religion and belief.  So you also get a beautiful decoration for your wall but you also get some kind of connection to ancient ways of thinking that have disappeared from modern lifestyles,” Prof. Benjamin tells BBC Culture.

It has unparalleled richness and regional diversity; from the use of ochre and bark by the people of the tropical savannahs to the acrylics popular in Central Australia, where, during tribal ceremonies, art decorated the ground or the bodies of participants.

Bright colours in Bronwyn Bancroft’s work suggest a spirit of optimism, she says.  “It is emblematic of the survival of Aboriginal people. If we’ve helped some of our wider audiences in Australia to appreciate that then we have done a good job,” she adds.

Estimates vary, but the Aboriginal art industry is an economic powerhouse, and is worth around AUD$200 million each year, much going to impoverished communities.

The sector has been buffeted by the global financial crisis, although academics such as Roger Benjamin say the market is beginning to recover.  Sales to foreign tourists have been a significant driver of the industry, as is online trade, where dozens of indigenous communities dotted around the nation sell direct to the world.

In Sydney’s seaside resort of Manly, the Aboriginal Dreamtime Fine Art Gallery offers small original paintings by younger artists from AUD$20 alongside prize-winning works at $40,000.

The store is a delightful trove of colours, designs and styles from 18 Aboriginal community art cooperatives in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

“The popularity has grown immensely, especially in the last five to ten years.  People that I meet all the time just want more and more Aboriginal art.  Everyone wants a piece in their house,” says Edwin Safarian, the gallery’s director.

“Foreign tourists are a little overwhelmed by looking at the Aboriginal art.  They find it quite intense and a lot to take in.  We have people come in who are absolutely amazed by the quality of the art work,” he says. 

Connect the dots

The emergence of Aboriginal art as a modern cultural force is often traced to the dot paintings created by the desert people of Central Australia in the early 1970s.  The epicentre was Papunya, 240 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, which was established by the government to house Aborigines displaced from customary lands.  Encouraged by a local teacher to paint on a blank school wall, the Papunya Tula Artists would radically change the way Australia and the rest of the world considered indigenous art in all its forms.

Jon Altman from the Australian National University says the trail-blazers of Papunya soon found a wider audience.

“Late modernism was probably looking for some new forms of art, and the Western Desert art really resonated because it was a link to people’s connection to their ancestral lands, but at the same time appealed to a western aesthetic,” he says.

The godfathers of indigenous art at Papunya inspired generations of painters, including legions of younger urban artists whose work is often highly political, and makes strong statements about land rights, reconciliation and discrimination.

“Others who are dispossessed are making statements often about a lack of recognition, a lack of respect and a lack of compensation that they have received as marginalised indigenous peoples of Australia,” Prof. Altman says. 

Borne out of poverty and dislocation from tribal lands, Australia’s indigenous art gives non-Aborigines an invaluable window into a spellbinding culture where ancient spirits created the land, and where the Earth is revered as a living, breathing mass, full of secrets and wisdom.   Each picture is a small, yet important part of a mosaic that tells the history of Australia’s original inhabitants.

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