Some examples of Aboriginal art, especially cave paintings, go back thousands of years.
Contemporary Aboriginal artists use a considerable variety of materials and techniques in painting. Some of these materials are rooted strongly in tradition - such as the use of ochres in the Kimberley and, to a lesser extent, ochres on bark from Arnhem Land. Other artists have adopted modern media and work with acrylic paints on canvas, gouache or ochres on archival paper or other surfaces.
Apart from the
materials used, Aboriginal artists have shown considerable innovation in the
techniques they adopt for applying paint and creating designs - ranging from
the crushed end of a stick, as used for example by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in
some works to produce characteristic large smudged dots, to the fine brushes
used to produce the delicate rarrk
patterns of Arnhem Land art.
Ochre Pigments and Paint
the most important painting material used traditionally by Aboriginal people.
It is mined from particular sites and is a crumbly to hard rock heavily
coloured by iron oxide. The source material was traded extensively across
Australia in the past, with some material traveling many hundreds or even
thousands of kilometres from where it was mined to where it was used. It comes
in a variety of colours from pale yellow to dark reddish-brown.
Ochres give a rich warm colour to contemporary
artworks from the Western Desert, Kimberley and Arnhem Land. The surfaces it
was used on varied widely from rock, wood and bark to the skin of participants
in ceremonies. Red ochre was particularly important amongst desert peoples as
it symbolises the blood of ancestral beings.
In the west
Kimberley, the ancient gwion gwion images are painted in beautiful
mulberry red on rock overhangs and caves. The gwion gwion image is used
on this Web site as the logo on each page. Gwion gwion is the name of a
long-beaked bird which started as a spirit man - it pecks at the rock face to
catch insects, and sometimes draws blood, leaving the images behind on the
made by grinding the source rock to a powder and then mixing it with a fluid to
bind it together. Traditionally this fluid could be saliva or blood, while in
contemporary art an acrylic binder is more commonly used. The rich dark red in
some of Jack Britten's
paintings comes from the use of kangaroo blood mixed with
use of ochres included not only body and other painting (such as bark and
wooden sculptures), but also a role in mortuary ceremonies. For example, in
Arnhem Land and the Kimberley as a final stage in mortuary rites the bones of a
deceased person may be painted with ochres and then wrapped in paperbark and
placed in a rocksheleter or cave, or placed in a log coffin.
evidence so far found of mortuary practices by modern humans (and hence
evidence of a belief in an afterlife) is at Lake Mungo in western New South
Wales (see Australian
Prehistory page). At this site, one of the most significant
archaeological sites in Australia, a female cremation burial was identified in
1969 and provided evidence of the world's oldest known cremation rite - around
26 000 years old. A few hundred metres away, and some thousands of years older,
a man was buried (called Mungo 3). His bones had been covered in red ochre,
staining the burial pit pink. Since ochre does not occur near Lake Mungo, some
of this pigment must have been carried there.
In 1999 the
remains were examined again and dated using more recent techniques. Alan Thorne
and his colleagues obtained an estimate for the age of the skeleton of 62,000 ±
6000 years. This is far older than previously believed. The results have been
disputed by a number of archaeologists, and many believe that the limit of
modern human occupation of Australia is around 45 000 years. Regardless of the
exact age, the Mungo 3 burial (through the use of ochre paint) is evidence of
communication and ceremonial practices, and perhaps also of trade, amongst the
early human residents of eastern Australia.
plentiful across most of Australia and it occurs in many of the older
archaeological sites. Some pieces have flattened surfaces indicating use and
there is other evidence of pieces of ochre being ground up or pulverised. Most
have been carbon dated with ages between 10 000 and 40 000 years (the effective
limit of carbon dating), and one site had what appears to be an artists palette
of ochres - dated 18 000 years old. The use of ochre pigments is thus a very
long tradition in Australia.
Applying the Pigments
In contemporary Aboriginal art, artists select from the same broad variety of modern and traditional materials and techniques as non-indigenous artists. Traditionally, the main pigments used in addition to ochres were charcoal, fine white and coloured clay and mixtures of blood, feathers, fat and other organic material. In painting, charcoal and fine white clay were traditionally most commonly used.
These traditional materials were applied in several ways:
- blowing a fine spray from the moth to produce stencils (silhouettes)
- brushing the pigment using a fine stick, crushed stick or hair brush
- applying the paint using fingers and hands - for example in body painting.
Stencil images are found widely in rock art, usually of hands or arms, animal tracks, boomerangs, spear throwers or other tools such as stone axes. Stencil images are some of the oldest painted images known from the Australian continent. For example, in Arnhem Land stencils are common in the earliest rock art - there are numerous stencils of boomerangs, though these are no longer used in Arnhem Land except as clapsticks for music, and they include all the main types of boomerangs ever found in Australia. Stencilled images occur widely across Australia and some fine examples are found in the Carnarvon Range in central Queensland:
In Arnhem Land, surfaces such as bark and wood were also painted with great care using different brushes for different effects. The surface of say a bark sheet is first covered with a single layer, usually of red ochre. This layer traditionally had a binder of orchid sap or yolks of turtle eggs, though now the most frequently used material is polyvinylacetate glue. The main forms and lines in the design are outlined in black, yellow or white ochre using a brush made of a stick with fine grass or fibres attached.
The next step is to apply the distinctive cross-hatched pattern that creates the shimmering effect in Arnhem Land art. (see article on Yolngu painting). This is done with a special, fine brush made of a short stick with straight human hair tied tightly onto it. This gives the delicacy needed to produce the fine parallel lines of the rarrk patterning. The last step is to outline the figures and crosshatched areas in white ochre, again using a brush. The painting Macassan by Charlie Matjuwi is a good example of all these steps in application.
Pigments were also commonly applied by fingers or hands, especially during painting of skin for ceremonies. Body painting occurred extensively as part of ceremonies in central and northern Australia.
Clancy's comment: Many paintings are very detailed and beautiful.