Aboriginal Artists

Jun 22, 2020

Image source from ABC

"I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present." These are the words often used now when people in Australia hold official meetings. The land I live on is Kaurna Country and as we meet virtually, I feel I can still acknowledge the First Nations People of this land. There are also some protocols in showing images or voicing the names of indigenous peoples who have passed. I mean no disrespect for the artists I will mention below, but acknowledge and appreciate the legacy they have left us.

Here in Australia in early June, we recognise Reconciliation Week and, a month later, we celebrate NAIDOC Week. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee with a focus on celebrating and recognising the history, culture and achievements of the First Nations People of Australia.

The focus of Reconciliation Week is best outlined on the Reconciliation.org.au website: “At its heart, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all Australians.” Somewhere I saw the slogan: “We shall never forget but together we can heal”. It seems a good time to reflect on shared histories, cultures and achievements. I want to take a brief look at some Aboriginal artists and the influence they have had on the way our history and culture have evolved. 

Artworks by First Nations People of Australia have become world-renowned. The initial thought is of dot paintings but I’d like to look at several different styles and artists. Growing up I travelled outback Australia and saw many examples of dot paintings created by local indigenous people. I was also shown rock paintings done thousands of years ago. My dad had a collection of indigenous artefacts he had been given during our travels. At home, we had a painting hanging in the lounge room that I always thought was done by Albert Namatjira.

Albert Namatjira

When Albert Namatjira was growing up on the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, a visiting artist from Melbourne taught him to paint landscapes. Born in 1902 in the MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia, Namatjira’s scenes of the outback became famous and in 1938 he had his first exhibition in Melbourne. If you google his name and look at images you’ll see that his style is very western or European, not at all like the dot paintings we associate with Aboriginal artists. This landscape style became known as the Hermannsburg School as many Aboriginal artists followed Namatjira’s techniques. The painting on my wall at home may well have been by one of these followers!

Namatjira became so famous his paintings brought him a great deal of money. He wanted to buy land then build a house. This was not permitted because he was Aboriginal. In 1957 he was granted full citizenship - a first for an indigenous person. This meant he could vote and buy land. However, it was 10 years before the rest of the First Nations People were classified as Australian citizens in 1967. This is not a part of our history that we can be proud of and rectifying these wrongs is still a work in progress. Namatjira felt this conflict and tension personally, trying to be accepted by his own people as well as the white European settlers. In 2010 a stage production was created in his memory: the ABC reported on this.

Makes me think about the people who influence us as artists. We see the styles and techniques that we like and try to emulate them. Viewing others’ artworks guides us in our own creations. The subject of artworks also has an impact on us. Namatjira’s paintings reminded me of the beautiful countryside we travelled through as a family. Encouraging our kids to analyse and consider artworks by famous artists can help them learn about places, people, and what messages or feelings are being portrayed. How were these places special to the artist? Were they in fact sacred sites?

It also reminds me of how becoming famous can have an impact on the course of history. The respect he gained through his work influenced the way non-Indigenous people saw the Aborigines. It still took too much time for real change to start to happen, but because of Namatjira things did start to improve.

Tommy McRae

An Aboriginal artist, from the early days of settlement, created drawings on paper that were similar to the original paintings done traditionally on rocks. These drawings depicted much of the way of life for the First Nations People and also the interactions with early settlers. Tommy McRae was an Aboriginal artist born in 1835 in the upper Murray region of Victoria. He created illustrations in notebooks of ceremonies, hunting, and fishing: the people, animals, and sparse trees drawn with no background. These notebooks were bought by passing travellers. There is a small collection of his work in the National Gallery of Australia.

Art can serve multiple purposes and for the First Nations People, drawings like those of McRae’s were intended to tell others in the community something of the experiences they’d had in particular places: a visual diary or history. His drawings were a way for non-Indigenous peoples to see another perspective and to gain an insight into the community life of the First Nations People.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Clifford Possum was an Aboriginal artist who bridged the gap between art of the First Nations People and contemporary Australian art. From the early 1970s, he became known for his dot and circle paintings with his pieces being amongst the most collected Aboriginal artworks in the world. This is a link to one in the National Gallery of Australia that I particularly like.

Creating your own examples of Aboriginal dot paintings

Aboriginal dot paintings and the use of symbols can have special meanings. This is a way to engage kids in an art lesson. The Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery has a chart that shows some of the symbols and their meaning. The Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery has a very good overview of how symbols are used in Aboriginal art, including video clips of Aboriginal artists sharing how they incorporate them into their work. Searching Artventure for ‘Indigenous’ or 'First Nations' can find a few examples of art lessons that kids can try.

Do a search online to see the huge array of artworks that have been produced by Aboriginal and Torrens Strait Islander artists. Use these resources and challenge your kids, your students, to create their own artwork that acknowledges the techniques and communication skills as well as the aesthetic value in the work of First Nations artists.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger