University Of Tasmania

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Australian Aboriginal Art

posted on 2023-05-22, 08:04 authored by Greg LehmanGreg Lehman, Lowish, S, McLean, I

Outside Australia, “Australian art” is often taken to mean Indigenous art produced in remote regions of the continent, even though Indigenous Australians comprise only 3 percent of the population, and less than 10 percent of this 3 percent live in the remote communities where most of this art is produced. Inside Australia, which is where nearly all histories of Indigenous Australian art are written, the relationship between the categories of Indigenous and Australian art is more complex due to unresolved legacies of colonialism. The category of Indigenous Australian art includes the Melanesian culture of the Torres Strait Islands and the Aboriginal art of mainland Australia, Tasmania, and several other islands. Indigenous art encompasses everything from late Pleistocene rock art to moving image and digital technologies of the contemporary age. It is made in all regions of Australia, from the urban to the remote, and unlike non-Indigenous Australian art, it has great regional variation. Despite long continuous Indigenous cultural practices, there is no recognizable Indigenous art historiographical tradition and until recently art historians showed little interest in retrieving the oral histories of its various schools. This is because the paradigm of primitivism had locked Indigenous art out of the discipline’s underlying assumptions, leaving its study to archaeologists and anthropologists. As the art world critique of primitivism only began to take hold in the 1980s, Indigenous art history is a new field of study in the discipline. Interdisciplinary in its formation, it has drawn significantly from anthropologists, who remain leaders in the study of Indigenous art. Due to their fieldwork approach, anthropologists also led the way in developing methodologies that could account for Indigenous worldviews, which are becoming more prominent in art world discourse, with Indigenous artists, curators, and scholars making an increasingly significant contribution since the 1990s. However, connections with archaeology are poorly developed. While archaeological research into rock art is booming in Australia, it is focused on conventional analysis of dating in order to develop largely speculative historical narratives about the origins of various cultures. This lies outside the main current of Indigenous art history, which has a contemporary focus. Indigenous art history is yet to articulate a substantial historical narrative of its subject. Nevertheless, traditional art history genres such as biography, regional art histories, and issue-based thematic subjects are serving the field well. The place of Indigenous art in the Australian national tradition is an issue with which the discipline is currently grappling. Finally, curators have been important instigators in transforming what had largely been a subject of anthropology into art history. This is reflected in the bibliography, in which exhibition catalogues outnumber scholarly books by art historians.



Oxford Bibliographies




Aboriginal Leadership


Oxford University Press

Place of publication

United Kingdom

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Australia’s past