• Ngurrapalangu

    Ngurrapalangu 1989

    Uta Uta Tjangala Pintupi

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    Notes
    In Untitled (Ngurrapalangunya) 1989 Uta Uta Tjangala represents Ngurrapalangunya, a hill and claypan site to the west of Kintore that was his own conception place. In the Dreaming, a Tjangala man camped at this place, carrying sacred sticks in his hair.

  • Fire story at Caledon Bay

    Fire story at Caledon Bay 1962

    Munggurrawuy Yunupingu Gumatj

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    Notes

    This work represents the wangarr (ancestral) fire, which occurred during an important Yirritja ceremony held at Ngalarrwuy in Gumatj country. This came about as fire ¬– brought to the Madarrpa clan country by Bäru, the ancestral crocodile – spread further to other sites. The fire spread rapidly, scorching the sacred objects and burning many of the participants. The fire is represented by the diamond design. Black signifies ashes; yellow, the glow of the fire; and dots the sparks.

  • Imperial Leather

    Imperial Leather 1994

    Julie Gough Tasmanian Aboriginal

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    Notes

    In her work Imperial leather, Indigenous Australian artist Julie Gough makes an uncompromising statement about the symbolic power of the flag in the European colonisation of her people's country.

    Gough examines the oppressive and discriminating policies that have afflicted people since British Invasion. Here, 41 waxen trophy heads hang like soaps on ropes or nooses. They refer to whitening through assimilation. The Union Jack suggests white invasion and control of Aboriginal people. Australia is still enmeshed in dialogues of invasion, control and the silencing of the original owners.


Identity

Sacred country

Indigenous Australian art represents the world’s oldest living art tradition. It shows the artists’ deep and indelible sense of place, which is inseparable from their identity. The artist is the land he or she paints: a painting is on one level a self-portrait.

Indigenous Australia is comprised of many different peoples speaking a mix of dialects and languages. Its dynamic forms of artistic expression make it impossible to generalise from one cultural group, art style, community or region to another.

Despite this complex diversity, Aboriginal people from as many as 250 distinct language groups share a fundamental belief in what has been translated as the ‘Dreaming’, meaning eternal law and the foundations of being. It also refers to a creation period when ancestral beings or Dreamings travelled across and became the land infusing it with their sacred essence. They created its natural features, plants and animals, as well as the different Indigenous groups, giving them their languages, specific tracts of land, ceremonies, sacred law and designs.

  • Western desert

    Western Desert artists such as Lorna Napurrula Fencer reveal the power of the land through kuruwarri, the signs and marks of spirit ancestors who created and became the land.1

    In Seeds and seed cake Dreaming 1996, Napurrurla depicts body paint designs for women’s yawalyu ceremonies associated with fertility and regeneration. The presence of water in the desert promotes the growth of ngurlu (seeds), which are gathered by women, ground and mixed into a paste then cooked in the coals to make seedcake damper.

    In Untitled (Ngurrapalangunya) 1989, Uta Uta Tjangala represents Ngurrapalangunya, a hill and claypan site to the west of Kintore that was his own conception place. In the Dreaming, a Tjangala man camped at this place, carrying sacred sticks in his hair.2

  • Yolngu

    Yolngu artists from North East Arnhem Land paint the land from the inside – as if from its bones – using organic materials as metaphors for the land and their identity. Their bark paintings narrate wangarr (ancestral) stories that are encoded in inherited signs and symbols.3

    Fire story at Caledon Bay 1962 by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu represents the wangarr (ancestral) fire, which occurred during an important Yirritja ceremony held at Ngalarrwuy in Gumatj country. The fire is represented by the diamond design. Black signifies ashes; yellow, the glow of the fire; and dots the sparks.

  • Terra nullius

    When Governor Phillip landed with the First Fleet at Botany Bay in 1788, he raised the Union Jack, referenced in Julie Gough’s Imperial Leather 1994. He thereby proclaimed the great south land as a penal colony for the British Empire. What ensued from Phillip’s land claim was the widespread theft of Aboriginal land, according to the now discredited doctrine of terra nullius (unoccupied land).

    This trauma of dispossession and its ramifications — widespread loss of language, culture and tradition through government-sanctioned policies of cultural silencing — changed the nature of life on the colonial frontier and the role of art within it.4 Yet Indigenous devotion to culture and country persisted and affinity with country as the source of spiritual identity remains the focus of Indigenous art.

Endnotes

  • 1 Judith Ryan Indigenous Australian Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, NGV, Melbourne, 2002 p. 6

    2 Judith Ryan Indigenous Australian Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, NGV Melbourne, 2002. p. 71

  • 3 Judith Ryan Indigenous Australian Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, NGV, Melbourne, 2002, p.6

  • 4 Judith Ryan, ‘Tradition and Transformation: Ochre Art Forms of Arnhem Land’, Land Marks, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004.