The Politics of Space in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art

How Aboriginal Art is received, perceived and read in intercultural context

Master's Thesis, 2011

70 Pages, Grade: 1.2


Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Abbreviations



1. Introduction
Aboriginal Art as chance for bridging the divide to cross-cultural
communication in cultural incidents and institutions

2. Mapping country and landscape - Aboriginal visual arts as
a body of information for Aboriginal cultures
2.1. The nature and scope of Australian Aboriginal Cultures
2.1.1. Understanding Aboriginal cultures relation to the physical and spiritual world
2.1.2. Mapping the scope of Aboriginal Australia cultures from an artistic point of view
2.2. Aboriginal Art and its contribution to the wider communities understanding of Indigenous connections to land and culture

2.2.1. Understanding Aboriginal Art - From Rock Engravings to Papunya icons of art

2.2.2. Aboriginal Art and its reflection and connection to land, culture and identity

3. Transition to modernity?
Australia’s bicentennial history of colonialism
3.1. Loss of Land and its effect on culture and diversity
3.1.1. ‘Terra Nullius - Land belonging to no-one’
3.1.2. Stolen life, stolen country - Effect on the diversity of Aboriginal Cultures
3.1.3. Indigenous Activism and the late recognition of historical injustices
3.2. European context of modernism and its relation to postcolonial theory towards cultural change
3.2.1. Postcolonial Theory - Western obsession with and insistence on difference
3.2.2. We and the Other - and the urge of ‘Decolonizing the Mind’

4. Cross Cultural Politics of perception, reception, and readings in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art and its specific conceptual space
4.1. Cross-cultural interaction with and incorporating of Contemporary Aboriginal art in a changing world
4.1.1. Definition of and effects on Culture as ethnocentric, adaptive and changeable way of learning
4.1.2. Importance of cross-cultural communication in connection to value and perspective on Aboriginal Art
4.1.3. Incorporating of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in a changing world: Perception, reception and reading Perception as art Reception of Aboriginal Art Reading Aboriginal Art in context of cultural diversity
4.2. Politics of Space: Distancing Aboriginal art from its western historical imposition towards a broad applicability whilst preserving Indigenous paradigms
4.2.1. The Politics of Space - Questioning developments in visual representations Space in social context of displaying Australian Aboriginal Art Conceptual Space and the postcolonial oppression through architecture Curatorial space in context of Contemporary Aboriginal Art
4.3. Cultural incidents and institutions in which cross-cultural engage- ment with Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art occurs
4.3.1. Cultural incidents as a vehicle for cross-cultural dialogue Crafts and tourism- The two clients of Indigenous artists Art Centres - A particular Australian institution for Aboriginal Art
4.3.2. Magical flowering of Aboriginal Art in cultural institutions Museums - A long way home for Aboriginal Art Art Galleries - A place for cross-cultural encounters

5. Change and dynamic in Contemporary Urban Australian Aboriginal Art and its existence in two apparently colliding worlds
5.1. From Non-Identity to New Identity - Practices of artistic fieldwork and representation
5.2. Urban Aboriginal Artists - Intentions of a new generation

6. Conclusion and suggestions for further work



List of Figures

1 Australia’s bicentennial history of colonialism. Display of an artwork on the coastal walkway south of Sydney

2 1879 monument to James Cook / Hyde Park Sydney

3 Black Power Movements wall at the train station in Redfern/Sydney

4 Announcement of Sorry-Letters by the Hon Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister to Australia

5 Aboriginal design on ATM machines at a Melbourne bank

6 Examples of visual representation of cultural institutions in Australia

7 Space as curatorial aspect sets the frameworks for interaction

8 Overview on key sectors of Aboriginal arts industry (Wright, Felicity and Morphy, Frances, 2000)

9 Var. artists Yirkalla Bark Petition 1963 - Appendix (McCulloch, S. 2009)

10 Examples of various cultural incidents and institutions - Appendix 2

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Aboriginal culture

When speaking of Aboriginal culture in this thesis, the term always embraces both Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander culture. Anangu The traditional land owners of Ulu ru - Kata Tju ta National Park in Australia’s Western Desert, call themselves A nangu (pronounced arn-ahng- oo). Anangu art has traditionally taken the form of rock paintings, sand drawings and body painting. Traditional designs are dot paintings that tell the story of country around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Balanda / Whitefellas

‘Foreigner. Light skinned person or other outsider. Used in contrast to Aboriginal people; used to describe visitors but most particularly later immigrants to Australia.’1


The term Blak was developed by Destiny Deacon as part of a symbolic put potent strategy of reclaiming colonialist language to create means of self-definition and expression.


Is the universal, religious concept of Aboriginal culture and ‘crucial to the understanding of Aboriginal art.’2 Its mythological significance is based on its spiritual dimensions and thus (re)-connects Aboriginal people with ideas about the nature of the world. The Dreaming differs as much as there are different Aboriginal cultures in Australia but has one thing in common: it is a lifelong connection and an accumulation of wisdom and spiritual power.


Invitation for people to share understanding, philosophies and law, and how Yolnu transformed their knowledge through generation to generation. Sharing everyday’s knowledge of Aboriginal Yolnu Culture.


The Traditional Owners of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park mainly speak Yankunytjatjara (pronounced as yan-kun-ja-jarra) and / or Pitjantjatjara (pronounced as pit-jan-jah-jarra).

Totemic ancestors

‘(…)are equally eternal, recreating themselves in spirit

form in the bodies of animals and human beings who retain the mystical animal qualities inherent in the ancestors.(…). They travelled about the country and ultimately journeyed away beyond the confines of the territory known to the particular tribe, or went down into the ground, or became transformed into a rock, tree, or some other natural feature.’3


Although translating Indigenous expressions often means losing

the content, tucker is wide known as term for bushfood and referred to as ‘money for tucker.’


The term Yiribana means ‘this way’ in the language of the Eora

people, the original inhabitants of the Sydney region. It is name to one of the largest spaces devoted to the permanent exhibition of Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, that was opened in 1994.


Are most sacred spirit figure to the language groups Worrora,

Wunumbal, and Ngyarinyin of the Kimberley region in Western Australia. This ancestral beings control the elements and maintain fertility in humans and other natural species


Politics of Space´s idea is to present a body of work that address some of the key questions that have held my attention over several years in relation to the nature and peculiar concerns of contemporary non-Western art, especially on how Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art is perceived, received and read in significant parts of the public where cross-cultural exchange occurs. Significant areas of research in relation to Contemporary Indigenous Art are not only certain institutions within the art world such as art centres, art galleries and museums but also public areas like universities, government bureaus and particularly touristic institutions, as a vast majority of non-indigenous people experience non-Western art in this context only.

This paper would not exist in its broad variety without the immeasurable support of family, friends and academic colleagues in both Germany and Australia. Special thanks to my supervisor Dr. Ulrich Leifeld, expert in cross-cultural communication at the University of Duisberg in Germany for his patience, suggestions in structuring and organizing my thesis and sharing his expert knowledge in cross-cultural research areas. Special thanks also to my supervisor Dr. Daniel Mellor, Contemporary Urban Aboriginal Artist and lecturer at the College of Arts of the University of Sydney in Australia for “opening up that space” in my mind to enabling me to dive into a neutral space for observing and grasping an idea about his Aboriginal cultural heritage, for all the good laughs we shared while opening up my European structured mind in innumerous meetings in Sydney and especially for all his inspirations that widened my world during my research time in Australia.

I would also like to acknowledge my deepest respect to all Australian Aboriginal people and assure that this thesis is written in awareness of Aboriginals people deep connection to country, to past and present and to spirituality emerging from Dreamtime. All references and illustrations used in context of this paper are considered to be non- affront to Aboriginals people beliefs, values and tradition and aim to assist in de- colonizing the mind, though I myself, descending from solely European background, would never appropriate the belief of being an omniscient observer to the richness of traditional Aboriginal knowledge. People almost invariably ask how I happened to become interested in the art of Australian Aboriginal people and all I can say is that the spark was kindled during one of my several stays in Australia by the wish of treating each other properly to make this world a better place.

1. Introduction

Aboriginal Art as chance for bridging the divide to cross-cultural communication The starting point for my research was a sense of bewilderment, born in a Sydney bookstore while glancing through its shelves on Indigenous Australian art in 2003. Outside it was a hot day, and I tried to find some information on Aboriginal culture apart from the guys with didgeridoos at Circular Quay station, inviting me to listen to the real Australians and taking this experience back home by buying a CD with authentic Aboriginal music. In the bookstore, it took me a while to find literature on Aboriginal cultures and I finally found a book on Contemporary Aboriginal art hidden in the very far corner of the shop. I had to pass by countless novels on romantic adventures in the red continent. The paintings displayed in the book were vivacious in colours and pleased my eyes with its very aesthetic way of expressing creativity. I bought it, ready to discover the red continents black heart, and wandered off to visit some commercial art galleries at Sydney’s harbor front. Comparing the actual displayed artworks in the galleries to the purchased art book, here I couldn’t get any more detailed information on the paintings background; some of them didn’t even display the artists name or paintings were titled ‘unknown’. Somehow the situation gave impression as if it is more behind this art than just pretty pictures. Marvelled, confused and curious to discover, I was ready to challenge my western perspectives. Discovering what Aboriginal Australian cultures identifies beyond my tourist impressions and the literature I found that hot day in Sydney, I started a journey not only to research on perception, reception and readings in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, but also to uncover my individual boundaries and to get the better of my own cultural awareness.

Supporting this cross-cultural challenge, my thesis, researched at the Sydney College of Arts under the supervision of Dr. Danie Mellor, aims to explore the possibilities for cross-cultural relationships between colonial histories offered through interactions with art in contexts, in which cross-cultural exchange occurs. This is in an effort to survey the space that Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art has been given to within Australia and suggest possibilities for this discourse in the visual. The theoretical context for this project is then relevant literature in the fields of post-colonial studies.

Firstly, this paper will explore the nature and scope of Aboriginal cultures and investigate visual arts role in shaping the symbolism in Aboriginal cultures past and present. Subsequent I open up Australia’s bicentennial history of colonialism and its effects on cultural diversity. The concerns of Otherness will be addressed here as well as arguing for the necessity of decolonizing the mind in the West. Using Edward Said conceptions of power, and their translations into critically white, postcolonial studies, I argue for the necessity of bridging the divide between western and non-western perspectives by overcoming postcolonial prejudices and decolonizing the mind of Western discourses regarding the sameness of the Other.

How shared and incommensurable histories are negotiated through space, place, belonging and the visual, will refer as stepping stone for the understanding of art as mediator to cross-cultural communication. Situated in fields of incidents and institutions, I argue for an understanding of the moments of absence that Contemporary Aboriginal art offers white viewers, and the possibilities of such.

I then look more specifically at the possibilities available in interrupting postcolonial perspectives through engagements with art, specifically by observing current developments in visual representations today. The idea of cross-cultural communication and its practical realizations in specific cultural institutions claims the main focus of this study. I subsequently will be using, categorized by its intensity of cross-cultural engagement, possibilities, from tourist shops to art centre, from art galleries to museums in Australia, as a case study for understanding what cultural space do different institution grant to indigenous art. Finally, I will delve into the fieldwork and practices of contemporary Urban Australian Aboriginal art in two apparently colliding worlds.

The significance of this project is in its reflection of the appropriated, still existent western superiority, based on post-colonial principles, in the Australian context to the practice of visual arts. Using a theoretical framework that moves between the global perspective of post-colonial studies and a local critical perspective I will be applying this theoretical framework to my visual analysis of space for Contemporary Aboriginal artworks, as well as to qualitative research conducted in above mentioned institutions. In context of this thesis this visual analysis is of particular importance to define how architecture and atmosphere changed the exhibited art and its surrounding space and how this resulted in a specific transfer of message for Australian Aboriginal Art in cultural incidents and institutions.

The proposed outcome of this project is that in exploring the invitations for cross-cultural engagement offered in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, and examining this in practice in cultural institutions in Australia, the importance of visual culture in negotiating acknowledgement will be re-thought and this focus may suggest possibilities for initiating a platform for cross-cultural dialogue in a world - western and indigenous - with apparent opposites. This platform for cross-cultural exchange often occurs under difficult circumstances as the space where Aboriginal Australian Art is displayed, often tells a different story.

2. Mapping country and landscape - Aboriginal visual arts as a body of information for Aboriginal cultures

Past, Present, and Future are inseparable linked with art in Aboriginal Australia. One might ask, what is Aboriginal Art, to be considered of major importance across Indigenous cultures in Australia as a in itself dynamic but always present determinant in a constantly changing world? When it comes to the definition of Art, ‘perhaps most non-specialists would say that art consists of beautiful pictures and statues.’4 Aboriginal people do see visual art as a body of information for Aboriginal cultures, a complex social phenomenon, which is not easily perceived or understood, especially in the postcolonial world.

Aboriginal art proclaims Aboriginal identity and is a medium for cultural renewal as art is closely related to ‘land and the particular journeys of the Dreamtime beings.’5 Subsequently this chapter will aim to approach the nature and scope of Australian Aboriginal cultures in all its variety from a neutral point of view to create broader awareness of the inside and outside ‘world’ Aboriginal visual art carries in itself.

2.1. The nature and scope of Australian Aboriginal cultures

2.1.1. Understanding Aboriginal cultures relation to the physical and spiritual world

Australian Aboriginal cultures continue to be the genesis of Aboriginal people beliefs, values and artistic expressions, ‘preserved and transmitted by a rich (…) tradition’6 up to present times. The core of Aboriginal cultures is placed in its connection to the Dreaming, the Indigenous Law and Aboriginal spiritual beliefs in totemic ancestors. This connection gives Aboriginal people meaning of identity, relationship and worldview.

Indigenous Law, better known as the Dreaming, is the universal, religious concept of Aboriginal culture and ‘crucial to the understanding of Aboriginal art.’7 Its mythological significance is based on its spiritual dimensions and thus (re)-connects Aboriginal people with ‘ideas about the nature of the world.’8 It is important to note, that the literal translation to the word dream in terms of vision or opposite of reality does not match the definition of Dreaming in Aboriginal cultures context at all. Moreover, Dreaming, for example called Jukurrpa in Warlpiri language spoken in the desert, is Aboriginal people bond to the ancestral past. It is ever-present in their day to day life and ‘refers to Aboriginal cosmology, encompassing the creator and ancestral beings, the laws of religious and social behaviours, the land, the spiritual forces which sustain life and the narratives which concern these.’9 Its dimensions are liberated from ‘the linear time (…) and the temporal sequence of historical events. (…) and gains its sense of time because it was there in the beginning, underlies the present and is a determinant of the future.’10 Dreaming dimension reveals itself in the fact, that ‘all ceremonies, paintings and songs are representations of the ancestral past.’11

This ancestral past is created by ancestral beings, who, incarnated as complex, sometimes self-replicated forms, shaped the world. They fought in forms of ‘animal, human or inanimate form’, left behind sources of spiritual power on nowadays sacred sites, appeared in link to the seasonal cycle and the process of change in the landscape. Ancestral beings such as Mimi spirits of Western Arnhem Land, Wandjinas of the Kimberley’s or the Rainbow serpent are common in much of Aboriginal Australia. For several supernatural beings, often manifested as a snake, are the sources of country and ‘laying down the laws of social and religious behaviour’12, thus also the spirit conception. Their institution of rules guides Aboriginal people life, and the relationship between ancestral being, humans and the Dreaming differs as much as there are different Aboriginal cultures in Australia. But it has one thing in common; it is a lifelong connection and an accumulation of wisdom and spiritual power.

In connection to Dreaming the contested term Totemism is of particular importance to identify Aboriginal cultures. According to Elkin Totemism is ‘a view of nature and life, of the universe and man, which colours and influences the Aboriginals social groupings and mythologies, inspires their rituals and links them to the past. It unites them with nature´s activities and species bond of mutual life giving.’13 The linguistic variety - around two hundred14 separate languages existed in the late 18th century - and complexity of different totem terms reflects the principal importance of the kin system and diversity of Aboriginal cultures. As a system of living care, kinship as ‘the norms, roles, institutions and cognitive processes’15 remains central to Aboriginal peoples, although often in a modified form, in a variety of contexts and engagement. Reconnecting and looking after country in the contemporary world also bonds Indigenous people with ‘four interconnecting concepts: respect, complexity, creation and connection (…) that all come together in spiritual practices.’16

It is impossible to fairly address a broad cross-section of Aboriginal cultures relation to the physical and spiritual world in this short thesis, but suffice to say that any attempt to reduce Aboriginal concepts ‘to the more prosaic thought-forms of people of European descend is almost sure to fail. (…) This is particularly true of Indigenous law, which must be felt and experienced as part of one´s life, rather than documented and analysed.’17 For this particular reason, I will quote at length from an Indigenous Elder who considers it as incomprehensive to judge the nature of Indigenous culture from a perspective based on a non-indigenous background but who gives us entitlement to describe indigenous culture, as far as western perspective can place itself in unbiased perception for creating a new dimension of cross-cultural engagement of different perspectives in a western and non-western context. In Peter McConchie´s book ‘Elders - Wisdom from Australia´s Indigenous Leaders’ Ephraim Bani tells us about approaches to understand Aboriginal Australian cultures, its dynamic state of flux and his concerns about the western attempt of affecting Indigenous cultures. ‘The tools, food, materials and people correspond with the right environment, climate and geography. All cultures are constructed differently to respond to their environment. It is by natural law that human instinct is stimulated to adapt to its surroundings; it is humans who create culture, shape traditions and practice customs. The social practices are custom, in these customs are stories, songs and belief which are handed down orally from one generation to the next to become what we call tradition. No one can judge a particular culture. How can a person from a completely different cultural background judge a culture alien to their way of Living? Culture can be animated, assimilated, described and identified, but it cannot be evaluated except by people who have invented it.’18 Chapter 3.2 of this thesis deals with the specific challenges of decolonizing the mind; and frames the theoretical aspects of Otherness.

2.1.2. Mapping the scope of Aboriginal Australia cultures from an artistic point of view

Culture and Art are essentially interwoven in Aboriginal Australia. Mapping Aboriginal Australia´s different regions from an artistic point of view is mapping Aboriginal Australia’s cultures. Although already the attempt to draw a line for categories could be seen as another attempt to colonialism, a particular affinity to specific artistic expressions can be observed by revealing the distinctive character of design, style and symbols of the different regions. As a result, this overview proposes a framework to begin the process of review and does not claim to be an entirety.

Northern Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands are characterized by a diversity of art styles, influences and practices. ‘In Laura, in central Cape York Peninsula, and in the Carnarvon region are two of the great rock-art traditions of the world, where artists continued to paint until well after European colonization.’19 Cairns and the Yarrabah region are home to rainforest shields, two-cornered basketries and the stencil tradition on weapons and body parts. For example ‘the rainforest shields made by the Kukuyandji and other groups of the coastal region were one of the inspirations for Margaret Preston’s modernism’20, generally spoken she was a benefactor to Australian Aboriginal art, as quoted in chapter 4.3.2.

‘Arnhem Land is renowned for bark paintings, sculptures and weaving. In general, the paintings of the west tend towards the figurative, and as one moves east, geometric designs become more prominent. (…) the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Island produce vigorous sculptures in ironwood, while the art of the Wadeye (…) displays influences of the dessert people.’21 Characteristic to Arnhem Land is ‘rarrk’, the line work and cross-hatching designs which is predominantly created with ochre to identify clans. In the eastern Arnhem Land regions, the famous x-ray art, ‘so called because the internal organs are displayed in section as part of the external image - are mainly seen in areas around Gunbalunya and Kakadu.’22 In the western Arnhem Land regions, figurative paintings are ‘usually set against monochrome backgrounds.’23 Tiwi artists were amongst the first Aboriginals producing sculptures in traditional techniques of carving and painting from ironwood in a western fine art context. See chapter

Central Australia is home to the most widespread of all types of Aboriginal art, the famous ‘dot’ painting style. Australia’s red centre stretches across more than 400 kilometres from Alice Spring to communities such as Ernabella, Uluru, Hermannsburg, Papunya and Utopia. ‘The art of central Australia is as varied and striking as the rocks, plains, desert, waterholes, flora and fauna of the region itself.’24 The iconography of desert art has a wide range of designs and icons. ‘In the Warlpiri system multiple objects such as fruits, eggs, food are all presented by a circle’25 Traditional visual art of Central Australia includes sand and body painting. Nowadays Aboriginal art of the centre is famous for its batik-making fabric in the longest running Aboriginal art centre (Ernabella), its watercolour paintings (Hermannsburg), and the stylistically adventures paintings of some of the best known Aboriginal artist, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre from Utopia; and Albert Namatjira, a famous Aboriginal painter who visualized with his Hermannsburg based school of naturalistic landscape paintings in watercolours, a medium unknown to traditional Aboriginal art. Namatjira’s homage to both artworlds was questioned in both Aboriginal and White societies and his ‘achievements were dismissed as derivative by art commentators.’26 Because of its Otherness though, it inspired many spectators to a new form of creativity and the ‘Hermannsburg style continues to this day.’27

The Kimberley region in Western Australia is connected to a history of white domination and many instances of massacres and conflicts. Traditional art of the Kimberley is linked with rock art paintings of Wandjinas, ancestral beings who control the elements and maintain fertility in humans and other natural species. ‘A number of Kimberley artists including Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie related some of these events in memorable paintings.’28 Rover Thomas, one of Australia’s first Aboriginal representatives on the Venice Biennale, is well known for the brushy application of yellow and black natural earth pigments combined with a varying density of paint. Some of his paintings are displayed in a ceremony performed by the Gurrir Gurrir people. It remembers events surrounding Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin in northern Australia in 1974. ‘Aboriginal people see the disaster as a warning from ancient spirits that their culture must not be allowed to wither and die in the face of European colonization. This rare performance, for the first time performed in eastern Australia, marked the start of the 'Art and Soul' exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, 1 Oct 2010.’29 See chapter

2.2. Aboriginal Art and its contribution to the wider communities understanding of Indigenous connections to land and culture

Visual art as a particular body of information makes Aboriginal culture visible. It communicates very directly with its viewer and its multilayer’s reveal that as behind the fascinating surface of many artworks lays an equally rich vein of information. In context of this thesis the main focus will be drawn on art, as Aboriginal traditions such as dance, song, music and storytelling are the spiritual foundation of today’s visible permanent expression of Contemporary Aboriginal Art and continue as a strong and live part of contemporary Aboriginal culture, not only in cultural ceremonies but also as artistic expression and (re-)connection to land and culture.

2.2.1. Understanding Aboriginal Art - From Rock Engravings to Papunya icons of Art

Traditional knowledge and the right to produce paintings are owned in a widely dispersed variety and follow strict traditions. A ritual performance tell relations to kin, stories of hunting and fighting, and gives Aboriginals an understanding of themselves in the interplay of social, geographical and environmental forces. Strictly controlled designs on paintings are passed down in vibrant cultural expressions, e.g. through storytelling, from Generation to Generation ‘and can only be produced by those who are acknowledged to have the right to do so. (…) In Eastern Arnhem Land for example, land, paintings and other manifestations of the Dreaming are the property of clans connected primarily by descent, whereas in other regions the rights in paintings and land’30 are passed on differently. Being acknowledged to paint these designs means, being initiated to know the inside of this particular design. Howard Morphy argues in his book Ancestral Connections ‘that the concepts of djinawa, meaning ‘inside’ (secret- sacred, restricted), and warraᵑul, meaning ‘outside’ are crucial to understanding […]. Traditional Australian Aboriginal paintings contain both an inside narration, which is ancestrally powerful and sacred, and a mundane outside visualization. This implies that understanding Aboriginal art can be achieved in contexts, where beforehand knowledge exists.

The world´s longest continuous cultures embrace richness in different traditions expressed through a wide range of both cultural and contemporary forms. Since thousands of years, ochre was used by Aboriginal people to engrave symbols in traditional ways. Art expressed itself through semi-permanent drawing, engraving or painting onto bodies and such surfaces as rock, sand, trees, and bark. The most permanent sites for Aboriginal art are known in relation to rock art. Places depicted for rock painting were located both in shelters and in caves. Many sites were used for social gathering, education and entertainment during the wet season, others were strictly hidden places where ancient inscriptions and sacred ritual objects made from stone, wood, paint, woven fibre or feathers were kept save for ceremonies of initiated ones. Across Australia the maintenance of those sites is a complicated but important issue ‘to documenting sites for future reference and to keep culture alive and well.’31 In contrast to (semi-)permanent rock art, temporary drawings on ground or on body for ceremonial reasons are created for reaffirmations of relationships with each other, the world and cosmos and in some circumstances danced into the ground or destroyed after their initial use.

It is remarkable, that the starting point for contemporary fine art on canvas once was both ephemeral sand mosaics and the painted bodies of Aboriginal Dancers. ‘Painting was less a matter of expunging Whitefella images and colours than of adapting in a more unfettered way the imagery from the cultural compendium of sand mosaics, body painting, and the decoration of ritual objects.’32 Painting on canvas as a permanent medium for expressing art wasn’t traditional to Aboriginal culture. The introduction of boards and canvas occurred in different encounters of western and non- western people, as critical literature investigations of individual writers and works would reveal. The professional introduction of painting on canvas should be contributed to teacher Geoffrey Bardon. In the early 1970s only, the prime concept for Aboriginal artist paintings on permanent surfaces was established at Papunya. Bardon sought explanations of peoples sand mosaics and searched for ways of ‘educating the western world about Aboriginal art and culture through the collecting and showing of genuine traditional works.’33 He suggested Papunya-based artists such as Kaapa Tjampitinpa, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, to ‘reproduce this art form on boards using commercial paint. The result has been overpowering. Myths, legends, stories, conversations, invocations, medical lore, jokes, have all emerged from his particularly encouragement for Aboriginal artists ‘to paint traditional motifs using brightly coloured acrylic paints. (...)The colourful patterns were unable to be placed in either an ethnographic or contemporary Western art context’34 and gave a broader understanding of the role of Art in Aboriginal society. Bardon encouraged the painters to be true to their own culture and they ‘took his advice not to use any signs or colours that were W hitefella.’35 The early works of the Papunya Tula artists collective are often regarded as marking the entry point of Aboriginal culture to the world of art. Nowadays, the liveliness of Aboriginal Art is particularly expressed by Contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists. Their particular expression of belonging in stylistic and narrative methods will be reflected in chapter 5.

2.2.2. Aboriginal Art and its reflection and connection to land, culture and Identity

Of particular interest in Aboriginal arts is its focus on land in terms of reflection and connection to land. The term land differs broadly from the western contexts speaking of land as undifferentiated type of place or map in a topographical way in. ‘From an Aboriginal perspective the land itself is a sign system, where Dreamtime ancestors existed before the landscape took form; indeed, it is they who conceived of it and gave it meaning. When Aboriginal paintings do represent features of the landscape, they depict them not in their topographical relations to one another but in relation to their mythological significance.’36

Land is the genesis of understanding Aboriginal law, culture and relation to the physical and spiritual world. Indigenous Australian people see themselves as custodians of land, where each person shares responsibility for it with family and with clan. Their connection to land embodies the spirits of the place, they are born from and they will go back to. The spirit of each person is in the land, comes from it and returns to it. Connection to land is expressed in social, historical and geographical context. Therefore land in Aboriginal Australian context is forming culture and sovereignty, intertwined with country, season, place, relationship and thus life - Aboriginal people would refer to this as mother. ‘She’s mother to us all, we’re all here together now. We´ve got to look after her together. She was here before us, created by the ancestors, and she’ll be here after us. We’ve all got to learn to look after her.’ Sullivan’s testimony emphasizes Aboriginal Australian people’s connection to country in a spiritual, a temporal, reciprocal and responsible way. Spiritual as it inherits a connection to ancestors; a temporal as the sacred ties between person and country are an enduring solidarity; reciprocal as a mother of the earth cares for all and therefore all must show respect through care; and responsible, as people see themselves as part of the country rather than elevated from it. ‘Country is a place it is lived in and lived with’, not lived on in western contexts.


1 Gumbula, J.N. (2009): Makarr-Garma - Aboriginal collections from a Yolᵑu perspective, University of Sydney, Macleay Museum, p. 53.

2 Morphy, H. (1998): Aboriginal Art, Art & Ideas Series, Phaidon Press Ltd, United Kingdom, p. 67.

3 Reed, A.W.(2002): Aboriginal Myths, New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia, pp. 53-54.

4 Barnet, S. (2011): A Short Guide to Writing about Art, Pearson Tuft University, USA, p. 1.

5 Morphy, H. (1998): Aboriginal Art, Art & Ideas Series, Phaidon Press Ltd, United Kingdom, p. 149.

6 Allen, L. A. (1976): Time before Morning - Art and Myth of the Australian Aborigines, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, USA, p. 1.

7 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p. 67.

8 Ibid., p. 67.

9 Caruana W. ( 2003): Aboriginal Art - new edition, Thames & Hudson, UK, p. 236.

10 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p. 68.

11 Ibid., p. 91

12 Caruana W. (2003), op. cit., p. 10.

13 Elkin, A.P.(1938, p.133) in Rose D., James D., Meredith S., Sullivan P., Steadman B.(2003): Western NSW: Connectivity in the Living World, in: Indigenous Kinship with the Natural World in New South Wales, Sydney, New Wales National Park and Wildlife, pp. 59.

14 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p. 67.

15 Dousset L. (2002): “Australian Aboriginal kinship and social organization - Part 4”, in Kinship: an introduction, AusAnthrop research, resources and documentation:, (Accessed 05/11/2010)

16 Rose D., James D., Meredith S., Sullivan P., Steadman B.(2003): ”Western NSW: Connectivity in the Living World”, in: Indigenous Kinship with the Natural World in New South Wales, Sydney, New Wales National Park and Wildlife, pp. 57-68.

17 Reed, A.W.(2002): Aboriginal Myths, New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia, pp. 53-54.

18 Bani, E. in McConchie, P. (2003): Elders - Wisdom from Australia´s Indigenous Leaders, Cambridge University Press, Aboriginal Paperback, Australia, p. 87.

19 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p. 344.

20 Ibid., p. 348.

21 Caruana W. (2003), op. cit., p. 21.

22 McCulloch, S. (2009): Contemporary Aboriginal Art, National Library of Australia, p. 195.

23 Caruana W. (2003), op. cit., p. 26.

24 McCulloch, S. (2009), op. cit., p. 37.

25 Munn N. (1973): Warlbiri Iconography: Graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a Central Australian society, University Press of Chicago, p. 67.

26 Caruana W. (2003), op. cit., p. 111.

27 Benjamin, R. (2009): The Fetish for Papunya Boards in Icons of the desert - Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, USA, p.29.

28 McCulloch, S. (2009), op. cit., p. 155.

29 Australia-104203464.html, (Accessed 3/10/2010)

30 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p.149.

31 Gordon W. (2009): Preserving Indigenous rock art on ABC Far North Qld,, (Accessed 27/08/2010).

32 Benjamin, R. (2009), op. cit., p.33.

33 McCulloch, S. (2009), op. cit., pp. 17-18.

34 Ibid., p. 17

35 Bardon, G.: “Papunya Tula - Art of the Western Desert”, in Benjamin, R. (2009), op. cit., p. 29.

36 Morphy, H. (1998), op. cit., p. 103.

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The Politics of Space in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art
How Aboriginal Art is received, perceived and read in intercultural context
University of Kaiserslautern
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Contemporary Art, Aboriginal, Australia, Cross-Cultural Communication, Space and Art, Zeitgenössische Kunst, Aborigines, Konzeptionelle Raumgebung, Aboriginal Art, Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Indigene Kunst, Kunst der Aborigines
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Daniela Gisela Limpert (Author), 2011, The Politics of Space in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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