Australian Aboriginal Dot Art

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Aboriginal art has been overshadowed by the idea that it is primarily presented in dots. It has got to the point where people believe that certain Aboriginal people own the dot and artists both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal are hesitant to use consecutive dots within artwork. Explain how the above has evolved and where dot art has come from Dot paintings today are recognised globally as unique and integral to Australian Aboriginal art. On the surface the dot is simply a style of Aboriginal painting, like the use of cross-hatching or stencil art.

Exploring deeper into the history of the Aboriginal dot painting a world of camouflage, secrecy and ritual is discovered. The term ‘dot painting’ stems from what the Western eye sees when faced with contemporary Aboriginal acrylic paintings. This painting style arose from the Papunya art movement in the 1970s. Papunya Tula artists used a process which originally mirrored traditional spiritual ceremonies. In such rituals the soil would be cleared and smoothed over as a canvas (much like the dark, earthy boards used by the Papunya Tala) for the inscription of sacred designs, replicating movements of ancestral beings upon earth.

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These Dreaming designs were outlined with dancing circles and often surrounded with a mass of dots. Afterward the imprinted earth would be smoothed over, painted bodies rubbed away, masking the sacred-secrets which had taken place. This ritual was shifted from ground to canvas by the Papunya Tula who eventually added an array of naturally produced colours to the restricted palette of red, yellow, black and white produced from ochre, charcoal and pipe clay.

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Such pieces reveal a map of circles, spirals, lines, dashes and dots, the traditional visual language of the Western Desert Aboriginal People.

However these marks were permanent and due to arising interest made public, creating internal political uproar. Consequently representations of sacred objects were forbidden or concealed through the dotting technique. Now that the collecting of pieces of Aboriginal art has become so popular world-wide, a common, mistaken belief is that the Dot Painting Style of Central Australia is a recent development. This belief arises because it was in the 1960s that a Central Australian school teacher encouraged the old men of the tribe to record their art on European sheets of board, using acrylic paints.

This use of acrylic paints on flat board dates from that time. However, the art style itself, with geometric designs, is seen in the petroglyphs (rock engravings) dating back thousands of years. Ancient petroglyphs showing concentric circles (non-naturalistic art style), inland South Australia The use of dots was once Australia-wide, particularly seen on body decoration when people are painted for ceremonies, and paintings in the remote Kimberley region where dots are clearly seen on the body decoration of some of the earliest human figures, likely to be older than 20,000 years. See accompanying photo. ) Dot decoration on the body of an ancient human figure, Kimberley Aboriginal Art: Traditional to Contemporary The resurgence of Australian Indigenous art has become one of the ‘most brilliant and exciting new eras of modern art. ‘ It has grown with such amazing diversity and enthusiasm that art critic, Robert Hughes, has described it as ‘the last great art movement. ‘ For indigenous Australians art has been a part of their culture and tradition for thousands of years and is recognised as one of the oldest living art traditions.

Though, over the past 30 years it has progressed from being confined primarily to the tourist industry, to become a richly, evolving international art movement. Since the Renaissance of Aboriginal art during the early 1970’s, Aboriginal artists have been encouraged to find new, innovative ways of incorporating cultural traditions into their imagery. This encouragement first began through an art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, who became the catalyst for contemporary Aboriginal art.

Fascinated by the traditional sand designs created by Indigenous children in Papunya, Bardon encouraged the Aboriginal community to re-create their Dreamtime stories through paintings. He introduced them to acrylic paint and from there Aboriginal art gained a more permanent form and the style, popularly known as ‘dot art’, emerged as the most recognisable form of Aboriginal art. It was a new form of art which also allowed Aborigines to, for the first time, express to the rest of Australia and the world, the ancient traditions of their culture.

Many Aboriginal artists have chosen to continue practicing traditional art as a means of conserving the conventional method of creating, inherited from their tribal ancestors. Their content, which is explicitly aboriginal, is usually derived from their history and culture, as a continuation of the spiritual link they possess with their country. Research When The emergence of ‘dot’ paintings by Indigenous men from the western deserts of Central Australia in the early 1970s has been called the greatest art movement of the twentieth century.

Prior to this, most cultural material by Indigenous Australians was collected by anthropologists. Consequently, collections were found in university departments or natural history museums worldwide, not art galleries. Where That all changed at a place called Papunya. Papunya was a ‘sit-down’ place established in the early 1960s, 240 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (NT). The settlement brought together people from several western desert language groups: the Pintupi, Warlpiri, Arrernte (Aranda), Luritja, and the Anmatyerr, who were unaccustomed to living in close proximity to each other.

Dot Painting or Aboriginal Dot Art originated in the desert using natural substances on the ground in the sand. Those pictures in the sand are not unlike the paintings we see today produced using acrylic paints. The acrylic paintings are usually done using acrylic paint and it is applied to canvas or art board with various diameter sticks dipped into paint and then applied one dot at a time. The Australian Aborigine of the western desert constructed their stories using ochre, sand, blood, coal from their fires and plant material placed together on the ground clump by clump for various ceremonial occasions.

If you look at the desert landscape from the height of any small bluff or hill what you see looking down are clumps of growth scattered about a red landscape. The spinifix grass, desert hardwood bush and occasional rocks or rock outcrops make up the myriad of dots that seem to cover the landscape. Because everything in the desert has meaning to the Australian Aborigine these seemingly unimportant arrays of pattern in the desert have special meaning to the Dot painters of the western desert. If you were to ever fly over the desert low enough to see what was on the ground you would see what he dot painting has replicated for you to see. These dots are a myriad of clumps of natural splendour which might go unnoticed had you not seen a dot painting and looked to see what it was about. The arrangement of the plants, rocks and water are all part of the spirit of creation and it is because of this placement that Aboriginal people have traversed the deserts safely without printed maps for thousands of years. The placement and arrangement of all of these natural things are in songs and these songs are often sung while the painting is being created.

Nearly every painting has a song and the songs often disclose important ceremonial facts about a particular region or area. These important ceremonial places are often in the paintings but because they are sacred to Aboriginal people they are camouflaged in some way, visible to the initiated person but invisible to others who do not know what to look for. Many paintings contain these special hidden meanings and the new owners of these paintings will never know what the whole story of their purchased painting is about. Only over time may some insight be gained from looking at the painting.

This is a point of pride among the Australian Aboriginal artists because they see the purchase of their art or for them the sale of their art, as a validation of their race and culture by others. This is because a value has been placed on the art. Since the Australian Aboriginal culture is depicted in all traditional paintings they are passing down their knowledge in the only way they are able, to those who have yet to understand it. The Aboriginal people do not have a written language so these painting of their stories and ceremonies are all they have to save this culture for future generations.

The colour and the placement of the dots are important to depicting the visible message and camouflaging the hidden message in Aboriginal dot art. Even the over painting of an area of the work has special significance and may convey different messages. Some people gifted with a since of tactile feeling are able to feel a special vibrancy emanating from their painting. Who Many of the significant early artists at Papunya were senior men who had vivid memories of their first contact with white people. Typically, they came out of the desert as adults during the 1950s drought and their connection to ritual law was strong.

The first artists’ collective, Papunya Tula Artists, was set up in 1972 by men from this settlement. Papunya Tula Artists was the inspiration and model for many other Indigenous artists’ collectives. In 2009 there are 42 desert Indigenous art communities represented by Desert. The artwork was seen as a way to keep the culture alive, and carry Indigenous stories to the world. The movement was seen as being about recollection and cultural memories linked to Dreaming’s’ or story types. Why the modern aboriginal “dot art” movement started? Geoffrey Bardon AM (1940–2003)

Geoffrey Bardon began working as an art teacher at Papunya Special School in 1971. Concerned that the school’s curriculum, appearance and ethos seemed out of step with Aboriginal culture, Bardon attempted unsuccessfully to involve his class in painting a series of murals on the school walls. Thereupon Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri and others created the Honey Ant Mural, which inspired many senior men to ask Bardon for painting materials and eventually begin painting in the Men’s Painting Room.

The Men’s Painting Room, Papunya – Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula can be seen in the middle ground painting a Kalinypa Water Dreaming. His two boomerangs are placed in front of the board as percussion instruments, ready to be used to accompany the verses of the Water Dreaming, sung at intervals during the painting process, June-August 1971 Photo: Michael Jensen Convinced of the groundbreaking importance of what he was witnessing, Bardon made comprehensive photographic, moving film and written records of the artists and the paintings that they produced while he was at Papunya.

From his primary research, Bardon wrote three books and made three films that initiated public interest in Western Desert art. In 1988 Bardon was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his unique contribution to the Western Desert art movement. The Honey Ant Mural, July 1971 Geoffrey Bardon and his Arerrnte assistant, Obed Raggett, had noticed people drawing designs in the sand at Papunya. Following this precedent, they drew circles and spirals on the blackboard in an unsuccessful attempt to encourage their class of adolescent boys to paint a series of murals on a whitewashed, cement-rendered wall of the Papunya Special School.

In late July 1971, after painting a series of smaller practice murals, seven painters collaborated in the painting of a monumental mural representing the Honey Ant Dreaming specific to the site of Papunya. Working under the direction of custodians Mick Wallangkarri Tjakamarra and Tom Onion Tjapangati, the artists included Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Don Ellis Tjapanangka.

The Honey Ant Mural, a bold expression of Aboriginal culture in a government settlement, occasioned great rejoicing at Papunya and inspired immense pride in the community. Geoffrey Bardon in front of the Honey Ant Mural, Papunya, August 1971 Photo: Robert Bardon © artists and their estates 2011, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Limited and Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd Pintupi people from the Western Desert

Pintupi is the name of a Western Desert language spoken by Aboriginal people who belong to a large stretch of country in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia and the western edge of the Northern Territory. When the Pintupi arrived in the government settlements east of their traditional lands between the 1930s and the 1950s, they adopted the term ‘Pintupi’ to distinguish themselves from the surrounding Aboriginal inhabitants as the ‘people from the west’.

They were among the last Aboriginal people in Australia to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, the last family arriving into the newly established community of Kiwirrkura in 1984. In Papunya, the Pintupi, bound to each other by their dominant loyalties of relatedness and kinship, were ostracised due to their lack of conversance with kartiya (non-Aboriginal) customs and their perceived lack of sophistication. Diversity within “dot art” – showing two different artists works. Uta Uta Tjangala – Traditional Artist

Uta Uta Tjangala, who is an exemplar of the historical cultural tradition, Uta Uta’s painting career and reputation is closely aligned to the artistic renaissance that began at Papunya in 1971. He was a founding member of the men’s painting group, inspired other Pintupi tribesmen, and becoming one of the most senior and influential painters amongst the group. Born in Western Australia in Drovers Hills, he made the epic journey to Haasts Bluff with his family during the severe drought of the mid to late 1950’s in the company of Charlie Tarawa.

Two years later, after returning to his homelands, he made the journey once more with Timmy Payungka, Pinta Pinta and their families. Uta Uta Tjangala (early years) Employed as a gardener at the Papunya school Uta Uta, then in his 40’s, became one of the original group drawing and painting on composition board with encouragement from art teacher Geoff Bardon. When supplying paints to Uta Uta and his gathering group of enthusiastic friends, Bardon suggested the men use their existing cultural symbols to depict their Dreamings and links to the land.

The Pintupi men, having been pushed from their traditional homelands by government policy and European development, painted under a bough shelter behind the camp ‘pouring into their work their acute longing for the places depicted … and chanting the song cycles that told the stories of the designs as they worked’ . These early works aroused strong protest within Aboriginal communities when first exhibited in Alice Springs in 1974 because of the disclosure of secret and sacred knowledge.

A period of experimentation followed, resulting in the development of a symbolic language of classic ideograms and the characteristic dot covered areas that veil sacred elements from the uninitiated. The large, tribally mixed population of Papunya intensified the interaction, but under the influence of artists like Uta Uta, the painting group was able to break through the political and cultural constraints toward a safer stylistic conformity, and prepare the way for personal and distinctive styles to emerge.

Uta Uta in particular, with his exciting and charismatic personality as well as his bold and dynamic style, played a vital role in these developments. Bardon recalled many years later, ‘everything that came from him was genuine’ . Uta Uta’s 1971 and 1972 paintings generally featured major story elements with only the barest dotted in-fill within the iconography and small sections of the background. The aesthetic balance and harmony of these works is derived through colour and weight rather than by a geometric division of the painted surface.

The rather crude dotting and line work of these early paintings on board embues them with an energy and power that is less apparent in his later more technically proficient works. His paintings are far stronger and more powerful when the clean unadorned background remains, unlike paintings by his contemporary Kaapa, whose early works became more aesthetically appealing as he began to in-fill the background. In developing a style that censored the more secret and sacred content in his painting, Uta Uta added more dot-work as the years went by.

He painted more Tingari sites completely surrounded by neat dots that became less and less detailed. Despite his advancing age during the late 1970’s he continued to paint as he spent increasing time at outstations west of Papunya and, at the beginning of the 1980’s, he completed what was to become one of the most important and revered works of the entire Western Desert art movement. Yumari 1981, possibly his largest and most significant painting, reveals the mythical Tingari ancestors traveling across vast stretches of country as they create sites and institute rituals.

Yumari is a rocky outcrop in his home country and the key ceremonial site of the area. Story elements and natural features blend seamlessly into a beautifully balanced geometry of concentric circles and connecting lines that enclose a central, abstracted figure. This body continues rather than interrupts the intense, minutely dotted background configurations, yet still holds the central focus. The work is characterised by the sinuous movement of converging regular and irregular shapes, accentuated by outlining white dots.

The predominant use of an earthy red alongside vivid yellow ochre, further emphasizes the assertive quality in this cohesive and powerful statement of Aboriginal tradition. The work was exhibited at the XVIII Bienal de Sao Paulo in 1983 and is now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. While painting Yumari, important discussions were taking place at Papunya concerning the move back to the Pintupi homelands at Kintore. Land rights legislation during the 1970’s returned ownership of the land to its traditional owners and Uta Uta was a strong advocate for resettlement.

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Australian Aboriginal Dot Art. (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from

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