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Ancient art, modern masterpieces: understanding Indigenous art forms


Indigenous Australian art is one of the oldest styles of art there is, going back an incredible 80,000 years. Across Australia, archaeologists have discovered rock art sites that depict stories in images as there was no written language to otherwise tell these stories. The fascinating, incredible and massive history of Indigenous Australian art, alongside the excitement of emerging Indigenous artists in the past 50 years, has ushered in a new understanding of Indigenous culture.

Collectors of Indigenous dot painting, cross-hatching, bush medicine leaves and colour fields have a passionate love for the works, with each original piece telling an incredible story about Aboriginal people and their culture.

In this article, we will be looking at modern forms of Indigenous art; those that were borne out of the ancient and traditional methods of thousands of years gone by, to gain a further understanding of Indigenous Australian art and why it is so beloved in the Indigenous community, by Australia as a whole and on the international stage.

Here are the different forms of contemporary Indigenous art forms you will find in Australia…

  1. Bush medicine leaves

This contemporary style was made famous by Indigenous artist Gloria Petyarre, whose most recent artworks portray Bush Medicine Dreaming. This is a particular style that works as a tribute to bush medicine leaves, a potent plant that is collected by women and used for its medicinal powers. The artist utilises a range of flow and rhythm in their brush strokes to portray the leaves’ medicinal powers.

  1. Cross-hatching

Cross-hatching, often called “Rarrk”, is a form of painting that is typically found in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land region. This style of painting was originally painted on cured or dried bark, but modern artists generally use acrylic paint on canvases.

Cross-hatching is performed by painting close parallel lines, then covering the first set of parallel lines with a set that covers the original one. This style of painting becomes more advanced when the cross-hatching design has been integrated into the painting. This style has often been used to represent Australian animals that carry a cultural or spiritual significance.

  1. Colour field

The colour field style of painting is renowned for its large sections of flat colour rather than particular objects. Its style was first adopted by Kudditji Kngwarreye in 1993, however, the style was rejected by the Indigenous art community. Although he gave up the style and returned to dot painting, the community soon embraced the style and collected his vibrant works.

  1. Dot painting

Dot painting is probably Indigenous Australia’s most recognisable contemporary artform, having appeared as a concept in 1971. This being said, Indigenous Australians have been designing with dots and circles in the sand for thousands of years. The modern style utilises a canvas to portray these dots and circles.

When the style was first coming to prominence, there was a concern that non-Indigenous people and other groups would understand secret meanings. To fight this, artists utilised double-dotted imagery to hide secret meanings and designs in the artworks. This made it so the artworks could only be deciphered by their people, with artworks representing spiritual ceremonies and ritual artworks.

It is a harmony of old & new styles

Indigenous art, being one of the oldest art forms on Earth, has come a long way in its 80,000 year history. From the ancient rock and sand art uncovered by archaeologists, to contemporary, colourful styles of world famous artists, Indigenous art continues to excite the world for its style, history and cultural significance.

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