Traditional Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal people traditionally painted on rock, on the body and in the sand  to tell the stories of their ancestors and their creation stories.

Aboriginal Rock Art

Aboriginal rock paintings appear on cave walls all over Australia.  The best-known are in the Kimberley area of West Australia.  This is probably the oldest art form.  The Wandjina, the ultimate creator,  hunting scenes and the Bradshaw figures or Mimi Spirits are found on many cave walls going back over 40,000 years.  This art form tells us about the activities, the spiritual beliefs and the social activity of the people of the time.


Aboriginal Bark Paintings

Painted on the bark harvested from trees.  The bark is first soaked in water and then smoked to create a flat shape for painting.  Bark was also used to make everything from  baskets to canoes.  Most bark works come from Arnhemland and northern West Australia.


Aboriginal Dot Paintings

These paintings come from the centre and western desert areas where dots, using acrylic paint are used to create and depict plants, animals, waterholes and land forms.  Originally done in ochre's the Aboriginal desert artists moved onto acrylic paints when they were introduced to them by the missionaries. 

Aboriginal Aerial paintings

 Many paintings of country are viewed from above, "bird's-eye view".  Painted by the artist sitting on the ground, they have been created with an intimate knowledge of land and tell the Dreamtime creation stories of the plants, animals, earth cycles and landscape.


Aboriginal Carvings and sculpture

Weapons such as spears for fishing, hunting and fighting were created out of stone and wood.  Coolamuns, baskets for food gathering and small animal and bird figures  were also carved out of the local wood.  Necklaces and other adornments worn for ceremony were made out of feathers and seeds.  Bush string to bind things together was made out of fibres from plants.  These fibres were also used to weave baskets.



The traditional wind instruments from North East Arnhemland were created out of a tree branch that was hollowed out by termites,  They were cut down and shaped to a long hollow instrument used in ceremony by the men.



Symbols were drawn in the sand as maps showing the young initiates where to find waterholes, food and teach about hunting and how to recognize animal tracks.

Some very elaborate sand paintings were used for ceremony, they took days and days to create and once the ceremony was over were destroyed.



WANDJINA the creator spirits

The most powerful image of The Kimberley is the Wandjina rock art, found in the caves of north-west Western Australia.

The Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal people trace their ancestry directly back to the Wandjina spirit ancestors.


Wandjina are only found in the Kimberley region, nowhere else in Australia.


 Each image of the Wandjina, painted on the rock caves, is said to have formed at the end of their creation activity on earth after they had created the land forms, the plants, animals and humans.  At the end of their work they lay down in the cave and turned into a painting.

This Wandjina is deeply spiritual to the people of The Kimberley area and a lot of the caves are now protected, many have been and still are hidden to protect them.  These paintings are said to have been done from spiritual beings with no human intervention.  Their image may be copied on bark, paper or canvas for commercial purposes, but their power is greatly diminished when it takes on another medium and painted by a human.


Wandjina is a generic term and there are individual Wandjina's with individual names ie Jundart, Lightning Wandjina. 

All Wandjina, when painted, have similar features...they are always painted in full frontal, they have large "owl-like" eyes, long nose and no mouth.  Although stories vary from clan to clan, it is said that if the Wandjina had a mouth and he opened it the rains and floods would come.   Other's say having no mouth stops gossip and telling sacred stories.


When the indigenous people of The Kimberley were displaced during early European settlement,  the senior law men who were responsible for retouching the Wandjina in the caves weren't able to continue to do this important task.

It had always been important to keep the painting fresh as this in turn meant that their sacred lands would also remain fresh.


In 1996, senior lawman, Charlie Numbulmoore, returned to the caves to retouch the sacred Wandjina, after doing so he said these words

"I made you very good now, I don't know how I did it, very good.  You must be glad because I made your eyes look like new.  That eye, you, like this my eye, I made them new for you people.  My eye has life, and your eye has life too, because I made it new.  Don't try to bring rain, by wife might drown with rain.  The rain might drown her....."


There has always been some debate whether the Wandjina is the oldest cave painting, older than the Mimi Spirit, but there does seem to be evidence that the Mimi did predate the Wandjina.

The Wandjina has always been, and still remains, one of the most significant images of The Kimberley.



What is Tingari?

The Tingari relates to the journey's of the ancestors, men and women who were there at the beginning of creation, travelling across the land creating the hills, the mountains, plants, animals and humans.

Tingari is a sacred "Men's Business" ceremony.

When the young boys reach about eleven or twelve they to have leave their mothers and go with the senior men into the country to learn about the land and the life that it protects.  Once the young boys have passed their tests they are then initiated and take on the knowledge and the responsibility that goes with it.

Tingari has been a part of Pintupi law since conception, and the paintings of Tingari have been created since the early days of the Aboriginal art movement and are a part of Aboriginal history.


Originally drawn on the body for ceremony, now on canvas to educate those willing to learn.

Elements such as linked concentric circles and squares have become the icons of the Tingari depicition.

Whilst a lot of the Tingari paintings are in the traditional earth colours, artists such as Ronnie Tjampitjinpa have created their Tingari paintings using big bold shapes with vivid colours such as oranges, blues, greens and purples.

The circles and squares have become quite irregular in many of the Tingari paintings of today as artists add other dotted and filled-in areas. 

Regular shapes have been distorted, pulled in various directions on the canvas as the artists work on their painting, creating a brilliant piece of artwork while still maintaining the integrity of the sacred Tingari ceremony and protecting parts of the story that are restricted to all but the initiated.


Tingari Cycle by Ronnie Tjampitjin

Aboriginal Desert Artists

The desert is the currently home to some of the most important Aboriginal artists.  Whilst the majority of these artists use acrylic paint on canvas rather than the traditional ochres, they still paint sitting on the ground in the customary way creating works that reflect the traditions of a culture that still has relevance today.


The Aboriginal art market has become a worldwide phenomenon; each painting has a depth of knowledge that only someone who knows their subject so well is able to portray on canvas. 


In the late 1980’s early 1990’s people who purchased Aboriginal art often could be put into two groups, one who wanted to learn more about the culture of the indigenous people of this country and the other group who were straight-out art buyers

Now those groups have merged somewhat, the people that wanted to learn more about the culture of Aboriginal people became aware that they were also looking at amazing artworks.

Those who were only interested in the works as an art form are now also focusing on the stories behind the painting.  As one American buyer said to me with his first Aboriginal art purchase  “I’m not interested in the culture it’s just great art!” that particular art buyer became a passionate collector as he realized the combination of knowledge and artistic skills is what makes these paintings great.


The desert has many topographical features, apart from a huge area of desert sand there are grassy areas, mountain ranges, massive rock formations,  waterholes and springs that are all part of the sacred journeys and spiritual stories now depicted on canvas.


As well as the land formations the plants and animals are also a part of traditional life in the desert; they all are a part of life’s cycle and important for the continuation of the species.


The paintings that we see hanging on the gallery walls all have these features, they tell us about a land that has the oldest living culture, and the people of that culture who are now sharing their knowledge with us all.

Buying Aboriginal Art

Many people who are buying Aboriginal art for the first time are quite daunted by the prospect of how to go about their purchase.

If you are new to Aboriginal art is it always a good idea to learn as much as you can about these unique artworks before making your choice.

At Red Desert Dreamings we are always happy to tell you about the paintings that we have on offer,  give you as much information as you need to feel confident that your purchase is authentic, and the right one for you.

There are many different styles that represent the different areas where the artists come from. 

Generally speaking there are 3 main areas to consider;  The Desert where paintings are bright and bold and known for works showing a lot of dotting and iconography, these are generally painted in acrylic paint on canvas or linen, The Kimberley where ochres (natural pigments) are used to create images of the country in broad and bold designs on canvas and Arnhem Land or Top End art,  cross-hatching or raark work depicts the Dreamtime stories painted on canvas, paper or bark.

Every Aboriginal artist is telling us something about their culture, it is a very significant expression about their spiritual beliefs and the law that guides them all. 

All paintings from Red Desert Dreamings gallery have been sourced either direct from the artist or otherwise a community that supports that artist and their family.  All works come with a Certificate of Authenticity with details of the painting and the artist.  Where possible we source images of the artist painting their work that accompanies the documentation.


A fine example of art from The Desert by  Bill "Whiskey" Tjalptjarri


Top End art from Tiwi Is.

Kimberley art by Queenie McKenzie



Aboriginal sand paintings

Sand paintings were created for significant ceremonies. 

The ceremony could be to depict the journey of a spiritual ancestor from a distant place;  as in the journey of the Tingari creator spirits, or to honor the coming of a season with abundant food, it might also be a survival map to teach the young initiates where food or waterholes are found.

The area for each sand painting is always carefully prepared, the ground is cleared and the surface is spread with termite-nest gravel mixed with water to a paste, when dried this hardens to give a firm surface.  The senior lawmen then create the Dreamtime story showing, land, animals, plants and spiritual symbols;  created with sand, ochres, leaves, feathers and sticks.  The designs can be a series of round circles, wavy lines, mounds or any of the many symbols that represent their Dreamtime journey and the land that it represents.

The majority of these sand paintings are restricted to senior lawmen.

Sand paintings can cover a huge area and can be as large as one hectare, they are always destroyed at the end of the ceremony.

Paintings on canvas that depict these ceremonies can often be over-painted to hide some of the sacred information of the Dreamtime story.  There can also be a repetition of pattern and design, the sacred designs hidden and only known to the initiated senior lawmen.

Aboriginal Art from Yuendemu


..."look we've got these colours all around us everywhere..." Paddy Stewart, one of the senior Aboriginal desert artists from Yuendumu said, he pointed to the sky "look blue and there's red there, these are the colours of our world you know"

Yuendumu Art is known for it's colourful art and wild flamboyant style.   The art centre at Yuendumu, Warlukurlangu Art, is covered with these paintings of Dreamtime stories.  Yuendumu's painting movement started around the mid 80's.  Anthropologists, Francoise Dussart and Meredith Morris were researching women's body designs and the painting techniques.  They supplied artist materials to the women, a group of approx 30, who painted and then sold their works done on coolamons, boards and beads to raise money to buy a four-wheel drive for the community.

The National Gallery of Australia bought a painting of the night sky for $3,000 and the money the artists got from this helped them to establish the cooperative Warlukurlangu Artists Association in 1986 with 90 members.  It now represents many hundreds of artists.

Yuendumu is approx 300km northwest of Alice Springs.  It was established in 1946 and until the 1960's was under the government assimilation policy.  In 1978 it was handed back to it's community of around 800 people. 

The art centre is the hub of the community and although many of the artists paint off-site, the centre is where they all come to enjoy each others company;  paint, laugh and talk.  During the school holidays the children come to paint with the elders and learn about their Dreamtime stories, an important part of their culture.  Many world-famous artists have come from this area; Judy Napangardi Watson, Maggie Napangardi Watson, Paddy Tjungarrayi, Dolly Daniels, Peggy Napurrula, Bessie Simms, Liddy Napanangka.

View some of the Warlukurlangu artists' work....

Judy Napangardi Watson

Dorothy Napangardi Robinson

Lily Kelly Napangardi

Symbols of the Desert


Traditionally the symbols that we now see on many paintings were drawn in the sand as a map that marked a waterhole, animal tracks or where good bush tucker could be found. 

These symbols also pointed the way to important and sacred sites.  

In the past many of these images were only to be viewed by those who had passed their initiation....after they were drawn in the sand and their meanings learnt by the young initiates they were destroyed.  When they were first painted onto canvas and board creating a permanent medium it caused a lot of problems.  Whilst it was a permanent record for posterity, it also contravened a very important part of Aboriginal law, these sacred symbols were not to be generally viewed.

The Dreamtime stories painted by the Aboriginal artists of today still have all the spiritual significance that they always have.  The same strict lores still exist and only those initiated to these Dreamtime stories are allowed to reproduce them in paint on canvas.

Many who view these paintings have no idea of the importance of what they are looking at.  The contemporary Aboriginal art works of today have evolved quite dramatically...there are a lot of patterns and dots, bold splashes of colour, subtle transformation of symbols;  but the important or significant symbols are still there, they are still part of the Dreamtime story and must be included, but they have been either hidden within the patterns or painted over to hide them altogether.  Only those initiated understand what to look for within these works. 

As other Aboriginal artists started to paint on canvas the repetition of dots became common-place and a new trend started to emerge.  The original intention of masking the sacred elements lead the way to another approach and style of painting and the evolution of contemporary artworks that have made many of Australia's Aboriginal artists world famous.

These works by Kuddtji, an Aboriginal elder, whose paintings titled "My Country" show an amazing sense of colour, balance and knowledge of his country.

Jagamara exhibition opened at the Hilton

The Michael Nelson Jagamara exhibition is looking fantastic in the foyer of the Hilton  Hotel, many who came on opening night were obviously overwhelmed with the quality of the works on display.  It was great to hear so many positive comments and also follow on with sales of these energetic works.  One person said that he thought the works were painted by a young "street artist" and showed obvious amazement when told that they were produced by a senior indigenous lawman.  The exhibition continues with more works on display in the gallery on level 4.