Aboriginal Australian Modern Art


Aboriginal Australians in Ceremony

During the post modern era there was an increase in globalization and information sharing, this caused religious beliefs outside the Judeo-Christian view point to find their way into the art world. This includes the beliefs of Aboriginal Australian artwork that originated in Australia many years ago. This Aboriginal society developed virtually without outside interference until the arrival of English convict ships in 1788. The Aboriginal Australians were a hunter-gatherer culture of people who demonstrated their traditions and beliefs through music, song, dance, and graphic expression – all of these contained rich symbolic meaning. Before the 1970’s Aboriginal artwork was limited to the idea of painted or burned decoration on “bark paintings”. The “bark” is strips of eucalyptus bark that have been flattened, dried, and smoothed prior to decorating with brown, yellow, black, white, and occasionally red natural pigments.  Traditionally these were only made for ceremonies and then destroyed during or shortly after the ritual. However, by the 1940’s these beautiful pieces of artwork became popular with collectors and have become widely produced for sale. In 1971 something very important to the understanding of Aboriginal art happened, Geoffrey Bardon a school teacher in Central Australia formed a close bond with the local Aboriginal residents. By Bardon developing a strong bond with the Aboriginal residents he was able to participate in ritual events, which were usually prohibited to non-Aboriginals; participating in these ceremonies he was able to see the incredible body paintings and ceremonial “ground paintings”. This influenced Bardon to get his students involved in a school mural wall painting to display the Aboriginal heritage of their country. Several local leaders became involved in the mural wall painting and they were called the ‘Painting Men’. This gave the outside world a first look at Aboriginal art other than bark painting.  This virtual exhibit will reflect the theme of Aboriginal Australian artwork that was created after 1975. The artworks in this exhibit are contemporary traditional pieces, acrylic on canvas or on art board, and were painted by rural dwelling Aboriginals.


Women’s Medicine

Willie Gudabi and Moima Willie are a married couple that work together to create vivid and beautiful pieces of Aboriginal art. Willie is known as the main artist of the work that they create, but many of the pieces are influenced by his wife and involve the many aspects of women’s ritual. Willie was born in Nutwood Downs Station in Australia circa 1917 and died in 1996. Willie was very involved in his Aboriginal community and his artwork reflects how important his culture was to him. Moima was born in at the Roper River mission in Australia circa 1935. Willie was the spiritual keeper of maintaining young men’s initiation ceremonies; some of his paintings depict these initiation rituals. Such as Women’s Medicine which portrays, to the young men, a woman’s healing power. They created Women’s Medicine acrylic on canvas, during the early 1990’s in Nutwood Downs Station, Australia. I think that Women’s Medicine is a very stunning piece of artwork. It is difficult to understand, but the white flower like parts of the painting seem to be herbs. Maybe these flowers are what women use for healing powers and they use them to help keep their tribe healthy. My favorite part is the contrast of blue, white, and red throughout the painting.


Women’s Business

Another painting by Willie Gudabi and Moima WIllie the  that shows the women’s influence within a village is Women’s Business, which young men are informed of the women’s area of power. Women’s Business, acrylic on canvas, was painted in the early 1990’s in Nutwood Downs Station, Australia by Willie and Moima Gudabi. I really like the rich, vivid blues that are used in this painting. There seems to be a lot of symbolic meaning behind all the animals in the painting; it is hard to tell what they mean when illustrating a women’s area of power. I think it is a lovely painting that shows the strong symbolic nature of Aboriginal Australian artwork.


Wallaby Drinking at Waterhole

Now let’s take a look at another popular Aboriginal Australian artist named Jonathan Brown Kumunjara. He was born in Australia in 1960 and died in 1997. His later paintings are strongly influenced by the Maralinga Atomic tests done in the 1950’s that his father died from and have made much of where he grew up inaccessible.  He painted Wallaby Drinking at Waterhole in 1986, acrylic on canvas in Yalata, South Australia. The painting depicts the Hair Wallabies from Ooldea in South Australia. The row of uneven ovals at the bottom of the painting is the wallabies and the strands coming out of the top of the ovals represent their long, hairy tails. The significance of the story behind this painting is very secretive, but it is part of the young men’s initiation ritual. The two wiggly lines represent the paths taken to the ceremonial ground and the circles at the top represent the waterholes, which are connected by black lines to show paths taken from one to the other.  While local flora and fauna make up the background, the small white flowers are ‘Bush Pineapple’.  This is another very interesting painting that shows how important ceremonial traditions are to the Aboriginals. I am fascinated at how intricate even their paintings are at showing their culture and traditions. I also really enjoy the oranges and reds used in this painting.


Women’s Ceremony

Another Aboriginal artist named Ada Bird Petyarre who was born in a section of old Utopia Station in Central Australia, circa 1930 and died in June 2009. Ada created Women’s Ceremony in the late 1980’s, acrylic on canvas on board in Utopia, Central Australia. The ‘U’ shapes in the painting represent women and a totem for a tribal healer with women is shown in the center. Body paint and other designs are used with this ceremony to teach young women healing rituals. Ada Petyarre has said that the painted breasts, at the top of the painting, represent her younger sister, Gloria Petyarre. At first glance I didn’t like this painting very much, but after reading the symbolic meaning behind it I started to like it for what it represented rather than the look of it. I like that Aboriginal artist’s paint women in a good light and acknowledge the wisdom and power that they hold within a tribe. This painting holds a great story and it reminds me to not judge a book by its cover.


Ancestral Stories-1

Let’s look at the artist’s Willie Gudabi and Moima Willie again. They created Ancestral Stories-1 in the early 1990’s, acrylic on canvas in Nutwood Downs Station, Australia.  In Ancestral Stories-1 each square of the painting contains a part of a traditional law story and the pieces may or may not be related to the same law.  Human figures in the painting show that a ritual is in preparation or in progress. I really liked this painting and it is my favorite one I have seen created by this couple. I love all the bright colors that are used and how the different segments mesh to form a beautiful piece of art. This painting has really intrigued me to learn more about the history and culture of the Aboriginal Australians; I think that is exactly what they were trying to achieve with their viewers.


Ancestral Stories-2

As a follow up to Ancestral Storie-1 Willie and Moima created Ancestral Stories-2 in the early 1990’s, acrylic on canvas in Nutwood Downs Station, Australia. Mr. Gudabi has a passion for using paintings as a medium to express Aboriginal culture to the “outside world”. Ancestral Stories-2 depicts a mortuary ritual and the power of their ancestors. Mr. Gudabi was also responsible for mortuary ceremonies and with his closeness in understanding these rituals he was able to depict them within is artwork. The red within this piece reminds me of blood from death and that the bottom part of the painting is the earth where people are buried. One might not put death and the power of ancestors into one painting, but I see the comparison they were trying to make; that even though their ancestors have passed away they still hold power within their traditions and rituals.

Overall this was a great learning experience for me and I am very interested in the Aboriginal’s of Australia. I think it would be absolutely incredible to watch them go through the process of creating “bark paintings”. I am really happy that there are still societies alive and thriving today that still hold on to their indigenous culture and have made it many thousands of years, despite their setbacks. The Aboriginals of Australia are amazing and the stories and symbolic meaning behind their paintings are inspiring. I have always dreamed about visiting Australia and if I ever get the opportunity to visit now I have more than just the Great Barrier Reef to see.



Aboriginal Australians in Ceremony



MBANTUA- Fine Art Gallery and Cultural Museum. Ada Bird Petyarre. N.p, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. http://www.mbantua.com.au/ada-bird-petyarre/

National Gallery of Victoria. Willie Gudabi and Moima Willie. N.p, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/ngvschools/TraditionAndTransformation/artists/Willie-Gudabi-and-Moima-Willie/

One World Magazine. Aboriginal Australian Art. N.p, 1996. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. http://www.oneworldmagazine.org/gallery/abo/

Wikipedia. Geoffrey Bardon. N.p, 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Bardon


3 thoughts on “Aboriginal Australian Modern Art

  1. Do you know if no longer burning the ritualistic pieces of bark affect the culture or society in any way? This in an incredibly interesting blog. What made you come up with the idea? I find myself not being able to understand the paintings and how they match the description but the paintings are interesting to look at and try to decipher. Another question i had was about Jonathan Brown Kumunjara. You said that he was born in 1960 and that he dies in 1970. Is this a typo or was he really only 10 years old and creating well-known pieces of art? If he was that young and creating pieces of art, is that typical of an aboriginal child?

    • Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It was definitely a typo and I corrected it; he died in 1997. I got the idea for Aboriginal Australian artwork from the Post Modern Influences folder that our teacher posted in our class content. I too find the paintings very hard to decipher. I think they just use a lot of symbols that are native to their people and culture; any outsider looking in will find them hard to interpret. Thank you for your time in checking out my blog.

  2. This is a great theme and a really outstanding blog. Among the others I have seen yours is highly detailed and informative in multiple aspects and it is clear that you put the time in to understand what you are posting. The way you present your theme is also very well done. This exhibit is easy to follow and the pieces are very well organized and described. Through your personal responses to the works it is easy to see what you like about the works and that you understand the works. Your view of these works is very nice to hear and it provides some perspective concerning the works. I personally like these works and I really like the meaning and symbolism present in them. I, too, like the bright colors in some of them, but also like the ones that are only earth colors. I found a website that has a unique perspective in regards to aboriginal art: http://www.kateowengallery.com/page/10-Facts-About-Aboriginal-Art.aspx.

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