Traditional and Contemporary Indigenous Art and Design

Traditional and Contemporary Indigenous Art and Design


            Indigenous people are the original inhabitants of a place. In Australia, the indigenous people identify with either of these two groups: Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders, with these groups further sub-divided into local communities. These groups are diverse in their own way, evident in their land areas, cultures, languages and traditional beliefs and customs. The Torres Strait Islanders are the original inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands at the northern part of Queensland. The Aboriginal people on the other hand were the original inhabitants of mainland Australia and some of the adjacent islands (Australia’s Culture Portal, 2007). The culture of these indigenous people is passed down from one generation to the next and is expressed through art, architecture, music, religion, family and sports. Each different indigenous community (part of the two larger groups) has its own dialect. Though hundreds of dialects existed, most are now extinct.

Australian indigenous people mostly passed down their traditions orally. In the present day, Australian indigenous cultures have overlapped with each other as well as with those of the latter British inhabitants. Indigenous Australians account for about 2.7 percent of Australia’s population (Paul, 1996). Because there are diverse communities that make up the Australian Indigenous people, their cultures and traditions may also vary. As mentioned earlier, one of the ways the indigenous people of Australia expressed their culture was through art. Moreover, because of their diversity, a people’s art will vary and will change over time. Art and design can be defined as the process and result of deliberate arrangement of elements in a way the appeals to the senses and emotions. Art is a product of human experience, emotion and thought. Like most people of the world, the indigenous Australians had their own forms of art through which they expressed themselves.


            Though art encompasses different forms of human expression such as paintings, music, literature and sculpture, we will be focusing on visual art and design in this paper. Indigenous Australian art and design goes back thousands of years. Even so, the tradition is still practiced today with modern artists using modern materials for their artworks. Of particular note is the Aboriginal art, which is the most recognizable form of Australian art. Through various art practices, the Aboriginal people have expressed and continued to express themselves. One of these practices is body painting. Body painting is one of the earliest forms of Indigenous art and is still an important part of many cultural ceremonies. Members of communities where this is practiced are painted on the face and body using ochre ground to paste in stripes and circles (Cooinda Gallery, 2009). The symbols used have a variety of meanings such as fire, man, rain, smoke and so on. However, a combination of these symbols could be used to tell intricate stories and pass on important messages. Modern indigenous artists go as far as telling two stories: one for the public, which does not have a deep knowledge and understanding of the symbols, and another for members of the community who are aware of the meaning of the symbols.

Though rock art is not so much in practice today, it remains a major form of art among the traditions of the indigenous Aboriginal people. Rock paintings date to as far as 4,000 years ago. The forms of rock artwork included prints, stencils, drawings and engravings. Most of this rock art is found in shallow rock shelters that were large enough to shelter a small group of people from the elements. One such shelter is found in northeastern Victoria (Aboriginal Art Online, 2000). Although the real reasons for the people’s engagement in rock art is not known, such reasons are part of a ritual and recording of events are feasible. Some of the symbols used in rock art were kangaroo and emu tracks, stick figures, stripes, bars and handprints. In addition, x-ray art was employed. This is where the internal organs of humans and animals were depicted inside a skeletal outline. This form of art is common to the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory.

Another form of visual art and design among the Aboriginal people is bark painting. Body painting is thought to have inspired many of the designs currently found in bark painting. Bark painting is particular to an artist and his clan and cannot be represented by other artists. They are made on pieces of bark taken from particular tress. Bark painting is a fairly new phenomenon and is regarded as modern fine art, becoming internationally accessible art lovers and collectors. As mentioned most of the designs and symbols employed are similar to those of body paintings and include arrow signs depicting footprints, diagonal lines depicting rainfall, wavy lines depicting water, and so on. Surprisingly, landscape art is not a Western concept. Aboriginal people used symbols to indicate a sacred site, the location of a waterhole as well as to tell a traditional dreaming story. A Dreaming or Dreamtime story refers to the period before living memory when Spirits came from under the earth and the sky to create the landforms and living things that exist today. In short, the world was created during the Dreamtime. Since ancient times, art has been used by the Aboriginal people to illustrate the Dreamtime story (Aboriginal Art Online, 2000).

In addition to the types of art mentioned above, the Aboriginal people also engaged in stone arrangements, rock engravings, sculpture and weaving. Australia homes the largest collection of rock engravings in the world. The Aboriginal people engaged in this activity thousands of years ago as evident in their illustrations of animals that are now extinct. One of these types of art can be found in Murujuga in Western Australia. Symbols in indigenous art vary from community to community, though some symbols are common across all communities. Though most of the symbols are passed down the generations and are still in use today, the media for the artwork has evolved from traditional rock, sand and body to canvas. The meaning behind the symbols however, remains the same.


            Most of the artwork of Australian indigenous culture involves symbols and colours that depicted various meanings to the members of the community. Colours were however used limitedly as they were not readily available. The colours used were natural shades of earth colours such as brown, red and yellow, which were made from clay, wood ash, animal blood and ochre. Also known as iconography, the art symbols and their meanings varied and continue to do so, from one artist to another. Most of the symbols used in traditional and modern indigenous art and design are dots and lines (Australia Souvenir Gift Shop, 2010). Moreover, symbols could have multiple meanings, added to their different meanings in different communities. To begin with, landscape art always had a bird’s eye view, with the impression of looking down on the country from a height. Because of this, difference in height cannot be illustrated. For instance, a hill would not be represented by a shape with an ascent followed by a descent but rather using many circles painted closely together.

A river in both contemporary and traditional indigenous art is represented by two lines, which can also mean fire or smoke or blood. Waterholes, an important element of survival in the Aboriginal culture are represented using a circle or many circles that form a spiral shape. This symbol is also used to illustrate a campsite, fire, a hole or fruit. The symbol representing a waterhole is however connected to lines, which show the people the path to follow if they want to get to the waterhole. A star is illustrated by a circle surrounded by many smaller circles, while wavy lines show a snake, lightning or water flow. A symbol of a circle surrounded by U shapes depicts people sitting around a fire or a place where people can meet for religious ceremonies and other special occasions. Additionally, the sex of the people sitting around the campfire is depicted by the use of additional signs drawn near the U shapes, such as a basket to indicate that the people are women and a spear to indicate that the people are men (Cooinda Gallery, 2009).

Spirit people are shown in paintings as white beings. Animal tracks of particular animals such as a kangaroo, lizard, goanna and emu indicate the presence of these animals. Animal art is also illustrated through a form of art known as x-ray painting or cross-hatching, where an animal’s internal organs are shown inside its skeletal framework. Cross-hatching is quite common in Northern Aboriginal art and features rich dot backgrounds. Dotted motifs are a common feature in contemporary Aboriginal art. However, they are also used by many non-Aboriginal people. Dots, like most symbols, have several meanings. Some of these are representation of stars, burnt ground and sparks. Dotting has increasingly been used over the years for something else: to hide the meaning of some symbols that were not meant to be exposed to those who were not meant to interpret the message, such as the uninitiated.

Many more symbols were and are still used by the Australian Indigenous communities in their paintings and artwork to mean one thing or another. Symbols for hunting boomerangs, spears, diggings sticks, clouds, insects, footpaths, children and so on were used in the artwork. Moreover, if the symbols were grouped together, then they meant something totally different or related to an individual symbol. Today, not only are they found in the artwork left by the historical indigenous people, but in modern artwork as well. The meanings of the symbols remain significant to these communities and to all those who enjoy works of art.


            The basic concept of the art symbols and design might be quite simplistic but it is important to note that, not only did the Aboriginal people communicate effectively among each other; they also created and left some of the oldest works of art in the world. Through the colours and symbols, they tell the story of creation and tell of their journeys and discoveries. The representation elements used in the artwork also illustrate their family and kinship relations, and by the use of dots, obstruct the meaning of certain symbols to those who are not yet ready to understand (Aboriginal Art Online, 2000).

The role of these symbols in teaching about the Dreamtime is invaluable. These teachings about the origin of life, birth, love, gathering, hunting, warfare, marriage and death were what equipped the indigenous people with useful tools for living. The rituals and ceremonies that accompanied these works of art, for instance in the case of body art, give tremendous value to this traditional form of expression.  In addition, the artwork gave special importance to resources that are still of utmost important today. These include the land that is given to them to till, waterholes, rivers and hills, and shows that the indigenous people were wise and knowledgeable.


            The preservation of traditional indigenous art is of major importance. Some forms of art are under threat. Rock art for instance, is prone to natural erosion and can easily be destroyed if not protected. Rock art is also prone to vandalism and neglect because of its remote locations. It is important to ensure that permanent written and photographic records of these sites are protected for posterity of the sites and for the future generations. Contemporary indigenous art also needs protection. The Aboriginal art industry gives employment to many indigenous people. What’s more, Aboriginal art is the expression of association and identity with the land and traditional beliefs and systems, which must be protected by all of us. The symbols are a representation of art, culture and life and must be treated with utmost respect. Without these symbols, there would be no artwork, no expression of self, no communication and no recording of events. It is only through preservation of these works of art that the experience of life can be shared with others.




Campsite, Hill,
Digging Hole,
Digging stick
Person sitting
Snake, Smoke,
Water flow
Rain, Ants
Clouds, Rainbow
Path, Track
Body paint
Coolamon (carrying dish)

Foot prints Spear thrower






















 Fire sticks



Meeting Place








[1]Aboriginal Art Online. (2000). Traditional Aboriginal Art Symbols, Aboriginal Art Online,

Australia’s Culture Portal. (2007). Australian Indigenous Art, Australia’s Culture Portal,

[3]Australia Souvenir Gift Shop. (2010). From the Heart of Sydney.

[2]Cooinda Gallery. (2009). Aboriginal Art.

Gondwananet. (2008).  Aboriginal Body Painting,


Paul, M. (1996). Architectural Theory Review, Aboriginal Signs and Architectural Meaning, 1(2): 79 – 100.


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