In Australia, Modern Aboriginal Art is a Hot Commodity

April 24, 2003

MELBOURNE, Australia, April 23 - Australia's Aborigines may
have created one of the world's oldest art forms and have
certainly created one of the newest. Travelers in the
remote outback of central and northwestern Australia can
see cave paintings and rock carvings that date back at
least 30,000 years. Then they can drive back to the big
coastal cities and buy paintings by direct descendants of
those ancient artists, who use modern paints and canvases
but still refer to symbols and images that may predate the
oldest cave paintings in Europe.

"We can see a very clear connection between rock art and
contemporary art," said Hettie Perkins, an Aboriginal woman
who is the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. "The
same communities that made rock art are making the art we
see today."

Thirty years ago Aboriginal work was hardly recognized as
art. Painted tree bark and ritual stone and wood objects,
spears and clubs tended to be lumped together with stuffed
koalas and wallabies in the ethnographic sections of
Australian museums; Aboriginal art was never displayed in
the same spaces as work by white artists.

Less than 20 years ago "you could barely give it away,"
said Tim Klingender, director of Sotheby's Aboriginal art
department in Sydney. "People just didn't take art made by
Aboriginal painters seriously."

"But at our sales in July," he said, "we'll have people
from all over the world bidding hundreds of thousands of
dollars for art you could have bought for hundreds in the
1970's. We're estimating a total sale value of more than $3

Essentially Australian Aboriginal art is religious art or
has its origins in religion. Whether on rocks, in the sand,
in clay patterns, on human bodies, on tree bark or now on
canvas, the art is largely about sacred ancestor figures
and their travels, totemic plants and animals and creation
stories dating to a distant past that has become known as
the Dream Time. In a society that has no written language,
this art is part hymn book, part map, part biography and
part illustration in the Western sense.

So an artist like Kathleen Petyarre, 60, who saw her first
white man when she was 10, will produce a painting that to
an outsider looks like an elegant abstract composition of
dots, streaks and broken lines. She explains: "The lines at
the top are where the green pea grows in the sand ridges.
And that patch is a water hole, and this line is the tracks
the thorny devil makes when he goes to visit his
ancestors." (The green pea is her totem plant; the thorny
devil, a small, brightly colored desert lizard, is her
totem animal.) Asked if she made a preparatory drawing, she
said: "No, I paint straight on the canvas. It's all in my

The vivid, portable Aboriginal art made in Australia today
dates back only to 1971, when a young teacher named
Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya, a remote government
settlement for nomadic tribal people in the desert about
160 miles west of the central Australian town of Alice

Like all Aboriginal tribes, the people of the region had
senior men and women who were artists, charged with
creating decorated stone and wooden objects and painting
the bodies of participants in sacred dances. Mr. Bardon
brought them modern acrylics, encouraged them to paint
their ancient stories on portable - and salable - wooden
boards, and set up the first artists' cooperative to
produce and market the results. Canvas painting came soon

Mr. Bardon did not teach anyone how to paint, but he
changed the medium and was a tireless promoter and
marketer. His idea that artists should form cooperatives to
make and sell their own art has been copied by communities
across Australia and is the main platform for production
and sale of Aboriginal art today.

Aboriginal artists all over Australia now practice canvas
painting, and distinct styles have evolved. The artworks of
the central and western desert, which includes Papunya, use
the modern palette, purples, pinks, fluorescent greens and
yellows, and are often made up of thousands of dots of
color. The artists of Arnhem Land in the tropical, coastal
north make art on bark and canvas, using blacks, yellows
and browns to depict ancestors and totemic animals.

The painters of the Kimberley region in the far northwest
literally use earth colors, black, red, brown and white
clays, ochres and sand. These austere, calm paintings can
resemble aerial maps of the desert and have struck a
special chord with collectors and museums. The current
record price for an Aboriginal painting - $490,000 - was
paid for a work by the Kimberley artist Rover Thomas, a
former cowboy.

All these schools are to be represented at the Sotheby's
sale in Melbourne in July. The most extraordinary painting
offered, estimated to sell for around $300,000, will be an
enormous western desert painting, "Ngurrara Canvas No. 1."
Some 26 feet wide by 23 feet deep, it was painted in 1996
by 19 men and women working on a canvas spread out in a
remote part of the Great Western Desert in the state of
Western Australia. The painting was made to show Australian
government ministers and officials the ancestral lands and
sacred places claimed by a group of tribes from the region.

"This is a historical Australian document," Mr. Klingender,
of Sotheby's, said. "It really should be bought by the
government for the nation, although it would be ironic if
they did because the land claim hasn't been recognized

This is a painting based on traditional themes, but
Aboriginal art is also changing. Young Aboriginal artists
are making photographs, installations and conceptual art
and are depicting modern urban life as well as the Dream

Samantha Hobson, 21, from the Lockhart River settlement on
Queensland's northeast coast, has produced a series called
"Bust 'Im Up," about drunken brawling in the small
community of about 800 people. Her art is splashed with
scarlet smears of what could be fresh blood, the crimson of
clotted blood and tangles of black, like torn-out hair.

For a picture in the National Gallery of Victoria in
Melbourne, she has written this caption: "Seems like every
big night, Thursday, Friday night, specially at the canteen
and parties, man and woman fight."

It is not pretty or mystical. "But it tells you about how
some Aboriginal people have to live today," said Margo
Neale, an Aboriginal woman who is a gallery curator and an
editor of the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and

The one group of Australian citizens rarely seen in
galleries and salesrooms selling this exciting and
expensive art are Aborigines themselves, who are too poor
to buy the products of their own culture.

It was not until 1967 that these original inhabitants of
Australia were even given the citizenship of a country they
settled as long as 60,000 years ago. Today the 410,000
people who claim Aboriginal ethnicity have the lowest
average income of any Australians, the lowest life
expectancy and the poorest health. That their art survives
at all, let alone thrives and is admired around the world,
may be a true Dream Time miracle.