People have been living in Australia for a very long time, with some early archaeological sites dated upwards of 50,000 years or more. For tens of thousands of years before the advent of British settlement in 1788, they had the land to themselves.
Our art comes from the Arrernte people (also known as the Arunta) of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. Traditionally the Arrernte are not one single people, but rather many different groups, each with their own traditional identity and heritage.
The Arrernte speak different dialects of their own Arrernte language. These different dialects are profoundly important to the identities of the different Arrernte groups who speak them, because they are seen as part of a sense of belonging to a specific place and people.
Like other Aboriginal Australian cultures, the traditional Arrernte way of life was based on hunting and gathering rather than agriculture or raising livestock. They were nomadic, but each group had its own well-defined traditional territory.
As they moved across the landscape, hunting game and harvesting wild plants, the Arrernte would often revisit favorable campsites time and again. These camp sites were often associated with figures from Arrernte sacred tradition.
At these sites Arrernte artists expressed their creativity by capturing sacred images and visions in rock art. The Arrernte did not have a written language, instead communicating the stories of their rich and vibrant tradition through their art.
Despite the disruptions caused by the coming of white settlers in the 19th century, the Arrernte persevered and kept their traditions alive. Alice Springs, on traditional Arrernte land, has become the hub of Central Australia and a meeting-place for Aboriginal Australian artists. New generations of Arrernte artists are drawing on the accumulated wisdom and power of the traditions of their people and sharing them with the world.
THE HISTORY OF ABORIGINAL ART
Aboriginal Australian traditions speak of people living in the land since the very beginning of time. Believers in Aboriginal Australian traditions speak of powerful spirit ancestors who created them out of the Dreamtime, a mystical time-before-time which still inspires many Aboriginal artists today. Dreamtime stories have been passed down for generations and each work of art has traditional songs and dance association with them.
For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians had the continent and the island of Tasmania to themselves. They spread out across the land, forming hundreds of tribes with different languages. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, Aboriginal Australian peoples migrated in search of fresh game and plant foods. Without permanent settlements or writing of any kind, they developed vibrant, distinctive visual art, including rock paintings and decorated wooden implements.
The coming of white settlers, beginning in 1788, marked a painful time of disruption in Aboriginal societies across the continent. New diseases killed many Aboriginal people, and massacres, land loss, exploitation, and the removal of children from their parents all took their toll.
However, Aboriginal traditions persisted in many parts of the continent, particularly in remote areas where the imprint of white settlement and Western culture was less intense. Here, the sacred traditions persisted, like embers from which a campfire might be rekindled.
In recent decades, Aboriginal culture has been making a comeback, and a renaissance in Aboriginal Australian art is underway. New generations of Aboriginal Australian artists are drawing on the legacy of the world’s oldest living art traditions, and serving as cultural ambassadors for their people to the world.