In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australian Aboriginal Art

  • Introduction
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedia, Guides, Companions, Online Resources
  • Anthologies, Essay Collections, and Collective Texts
  • Art Historical Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Regional Art Histories
  • Papunya Tula
  • Thematic Investigations: Aesthetics, Medium-Specific Studies, Dreaming Stories, Politics and Spirituality
  • Collections and Exhibitions outside Australia

Art History Australian Aboriginal Art
Greg Lehman, Susan Lowish, Ian McLean
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0147


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.

Dictionaries, Encyclopedia, Guides, Companions, Online Resources

The publication of dictionaries and other such texts specific to Indigenous art only began in the 21st century—though there are earlier, more general encyclopedias on cultural, historical, and political contexts of Indigenous art such as Horton’s 1994 Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. The go-to text is Kleinert and Neale 2000. McCulloch, et al. 2006 and McCulloch and McCulloch Childs 2008 provide summary accounts of many artists and the many art centers at their dates of publication, and an overview of the Indigenous art movements. The three dictionaries on artist biographies, Johnson 1994, Johnson 2007, and Birnberg and Kreczmanski 2004, are dominated by Western Desert artists, which is an indication of this region’s leading role in the industry—with Johnson 2007 being the most ambitious. Electronic resources are emerging as useful sources for information, including Aboriginal Art Directory, Aboriginal Art & Culture: An American Eye, and Cooeeart Marketplace. Others, such as Design and Art Australia Online and Australian art e-journals, also contain significant accounts of Indigenous art in their Australian content.

  • Aboriginal Art & Culture: An American Eye.

    A blog of reviews and reflections by the American collector and enthusiast of Indigenous Australian art, Will Owen, published from September 2005 to mid-November 2015. Like Jeremy Eccles’ Aboriginal Art Directory, Owen’s blog is an invaluable resource and archive. It has links to sixteen other blogs on Indigenous art, and its nearly 1,000 posts are catalogued into ten categories: anthropology, art, books, communities, culture, film, general, in Australia, music, politics.

  • Aboriginal Art Directory.

    An invaluable site for anyone who wants to keep informed about ongoing exhibitions and issues in the industry. Promotional but lively tone with attitude; its author Jeremy Eccles has amassed an archive of the industry.

  • Birnberg, Margo, and Janusz B. Kreczmanski. Aboriginal Artists Dictionary of Biographies: Western Desert, Central Desert and Kimberley Region. 1st ed. Marleston, Australia: J. B. Publishing, 2004.

    This illustrated dictionary of over 1,000 artists is a useful first port of call for researchers. It contains information about the artist’s family relationships and several examples of their work.

  • Cooeeart Marketplace.

    Primarily designed for investors in the Aboriginal art market, this easy-to-use online resource tracks the secondary market value of the 200 top-selling Indigenous artists for each year since 2000. Compiled by Adrian Newstead, it also includes artist profiles and other useful analysis of the market by an experienced Indigenous art dealer.

  • Johnson, Vivien. Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: A Biographical Dictionary. Roseville East, Australia: Craftsman House, 1994.

    Unlike the general approach of Horton’s Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994), this annotated biographical dictionary focuses on individual artists. Containing 500 entries, it includes a good range of information on communities, major exhibitions, and subjects.

  • Johnson, Vivien. Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists. Alice Springs, Australia: IAD Press, 2007.

    Arranged chronologically from the founding of the art movement in 1971, the author—who knows many of the artists and their families intimately—provides biographical essays and illustrations on the lives and accomplishments of over 200 artists.

  • Kleinert, Sylvia, and Margo Neale, eds. The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Encyclopedic in its coverage and drawing on a broad range of expertise, it remains the most comprehensive and important work of its kind. In two parts, it consists of interpretative essays on a diverse range of topics and an alphabetically arranged reference section. Despite now being dated, it is a monument to the state of knowledge about Indigenous Australian art at the end of the 20th century.

  • McCulloch, Alan, Susan McCulloch, and Emily McCulloch Childs. The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art. Fitzroy, Australia: AUS Art Editions, 2006.

    This fourth edition of the encyclopedia departs significantly from earlier editions published in 1968, 1984, and 1994, in that it includes a substantial section of 186 pages on “Australian Aboriginal Art and Artists,” which catalogue artists, art centers, and other aspects of the Aboriginal art industry, as well as an overview of the art movement.

  • McCulloch, Susan, and Emily McCulloch Childs. McCulloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Complete Guide. New ed. Fitzroy: McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, 2008.

    First published in 1999, updated in 2001, and completely revised and expanded in this new edition, this is unashamedly a collector’s guide. Lavishly illustrated, this book provides an introductory overview that focuses on the regional and stylistic differences of the art. Between this and earlier editions, the growth in art production from the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, and Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands and Queensland is clearly evident, as is the stronger emphasis on art centers at the expense of commercial galleries.

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