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We are proud of our identity and our special relationship with our lands, our islands and the seas. This pride is reflected in our traditional and contemporary art, music and dance. Our artforms are recognised worldwide as among Australia’s most distinctive cultural contributions.


Our music takes many forms and is more than entertainment to us. Music plays a major role in traditional Aboriginal societies and is intimately linked with a person's ancestry and country. It is traditionally connected with important events such as the bringing of rain, healing, wounding enemies and the winning of battles. It is used in sacred and secret ceremonies and to pass stories and knowledge between generations.

More contemporary music continues to be an important tool for the transmission of knowledge and has been used by activists to highlight the social and historical injustices faced by us.

Many of our communities have been sustained by songs like ‘Nemeralla Pines’, ‘Yorta Yorta Man’ and others that protested against the conditions faced by Aboriginal people.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have found success in popular music, including country music and, more recently, hip hop. In a different field, Maroochy Barambah and Deborah Cheetham have become celebrated performers of Western classical music, following in the footsteps of the famous singer, Harold Blair.

The sheer variety of our music demonstrates how readily we absorb cultural influences, making them our own. Torres Strait Islanders have always been skilled absorbers and adaptors of the musical traditions of other people, from hymns and choruses in the 1870s, to Hawaiian-Pan-Pacific songs. Until the 1990s, most of the music heard in the islands was locally composed.


men sitting in a group, one man playing the didjeridu

Recording the didjeridu with songmen at Wadeye, July 1999. L–R: John Nummar, Charles Kungiung, Maurice Ngulkur, Les Kundjil, Allan Marett and Ambrose Miarlum. Photo © Graeme K Ward.

While it has been adopted by us and accepted by the rest of the world as belonging to us, the word ‘didjeridu’ is not actually Aboriginal. It’s a word that was invented only fairly recently, first appearing as ‘diridgery doo’ in 1919 in the Huon Times.

The didj has many other names depending on which language group you ask. Other names for the instrument across the north of Australia include:

Yolngu = yidaki, Djinang = rirtakki, Wagiman = ngaranin, Pintupi = paampu, Burarra = ngorla, Ngarluma = kurmur, Nyul Nyul = ngaribi, Warray = bamboo, Mayali = martba, Kunwinjku = mako.

Theatre and dance

Dance is a vital part of Aboriginal culture, both as a part of ceremonies and as entertainment. All communities have their own distinct style of expression and dances are passed through the generations.

Some dances derive from the Dreaming while others reflect a more contemporary history. The Aeroplane Dance, for example, tells the story of a World War II bomber that came down near Borroloola in the Northern Territory. Dancers mimic the flight of the aeroplane while performing the traditional stamping dance.

We have also taken up contemporary theatrical styles. The Bangarra Dance Theatre is a leading modern Australian dance company which has forged an international reputation for artistic innovation. The source of Bangarra’s inspiration is Indigenous culture and each member in the group draws on their own heritage. Other contemporary theatrical performances touring nationally include Bran Nue Dae, Corrugation Road and Ngapartji Ngapartji.

Our dances have been influenced by other cultures. The Chooky Dancers from Arnhem Land have become a worldwide phenomenon with their ‘Zorba the Greek Yolngu Style’. Torres Strait Islanders have been influenced by South Sea Island music and dance, adopting this style and making it their own.

Visual art

We have always been artists. Art is intrinsic to our culture and traditions such as painting in rock shelters and on our bodies for ceremony endure today. Carpenter’s Gap rock paintings in the Kimberley have been dated to 40,000 years ago and central Australia’s concentric circle art is thought to be the oldest continuing art tradition in the world. We also paint on tools, shields and musical instruments.

We make art for sale in both traditional and contemporary styles, and the styles are as diverse as the artists’ cultures and histories. We paint huge canvasses, create intricate body-art, and apply ochre designs onto flat bark. Our art hangs in museums and galleries around the world. We also create other kinds of artforms: decorated ceramics, fibre sculptures, batik and print-making, linocuts, shell necklace-making and basketry, photography and film, and bronze sculpture. We have even revived older practices like possum-skin cloak decoration.

We sell our work through community organisations and galleries. The Deadly Awards, the Red Ochre Awards, and the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award all celebrate our art and culture.

Our flags

The Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from central Australia and was first flown on National Aboriginal Day in July 1971 in Adelaide and given legal recognition in July 1995 as a flag of Australia. The red at the bottom represents the earth and our relationship to it. The black above represents all the Aboriginal people including our ancestors. The yellow sun is, of course, the source of life.

The Torres Strait Islander flag was designed by Bernard Namok from Thursday Island. It was first flown in 1992 and was given legal recognition in July 1995 as a flag of Australia. It has horizontal bands, two of green for the land and one of blue for the sea. The bands are separated by black lines representing the people. The white dari/dhoeri is a traditional headdress and represents our Torres Strait Islander culture while the five-pointed white star represents the five island groups: eastern, western, central, and the areas surrounding Port Kennedy and inhabited islands the northern peninsula.

Film and television

Our artists have readily adapted to new media, and TV and cinema has become a successful new vehicle for storytelling and the transmission of knowledge. In 1985 the Warlpiri people established the first Aboriginal television station in Australia. Still running today, the Walpiri Media Association is best known for its 2001 documentary series ‘Bush Mechanics’.

Australian film and television has produced an array of celebrated artists including actors, writers, directors and producers that have been recognised at festivals both locally and overseas. Importantly, it is a medium that allows us to tell our stories to non-Indigenous audiences. Some films provide unflinching, contemporary insider visions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives that many Australians would otherwise not see, while documentaries convey little-known events in our history and our struggle for social justice.


Like our film-makers and artists, our writers have embraced and now excel in a non-traditional artform. We began writing soon after the colonisers introduced this form of communication to the country. By the 1830s and 1940s the Palawa people of Tasmania, among others, were creating subversive versions of the Bible, as well as writing sermons, community newspapers and letters to colonial authorities. For example, people from Lake Condah and Coranderrk in Victoria wrote letters to the government complaining of conditions on the missions.

Contemporary Indigenous writers include Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Terri Janke, Vivienne Cleven, Jared Thomas, Samuel Wagan Watson, Philip McLaren, Tony Birch and John Clarke. Two of our authors, Kim Scott (Benang and That Deadman Dance) and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria), have won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious writing prize.

We also have our own publishing houses. North Queensland’s Black Ink Press produces a range of children’s books, some of which have been used in the accelerated literacy program in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Others include Magabala Books in Broome, the Institute of Aboriginal Development (IAD) in Alice Springs, Batchelor Press in Katherine and Aboriginal Studies Press (part of AIATSIS) in Canberra.


a man performing a dance

Albert David of the Mabo Dance Company. Photo Colin Murty Photo © Newspix / News Ltd / 3rd Party Managed Reproduction & Supply Rights.

Gail Mabo is the artistic director of the Mabo Dance Company. She began her dance career in 1979 with Townsville’s ‘New Blood Dance Troupe’ before being accepted into the National Aboriginal and Islander Dance Academy (NAISDA) in Sydney. The academy provided Mabo with the protocols and traditional dance techniques for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural dance practices.


Reko Rennie is a Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi man, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1974.

Through his art, Reko explores what it means to be an urban Aboriginal in contemporary Australian society. Rennie received no formal artistic training but as a teenager discovered graffiti, which would become an all-consuming passion. He quickly began producing original art on the streets of Melbourne. Subsequently Rennie has matured into an interrogative and highly innovative artist.

His art and installations continually explore issues of identity, race, law and justice, land rights, stolen generations and other issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in contemporary society.

Drawing inspiration from his Aboriginal heritage, Rennie recreates traditional images in a contemporary context using spraypaint and stencils. His work often features the characteristic flora and fauna imagery that represent his community.

Rennie was shortlisted for the 2012 Archibald Prize for his portrait of curator Hetti Perkins.



the logo for the Indigenous art code

Indigeneous Art Code logo. Photo © Indigenous Art Code (

The Indigenous Art Code is a system to preserve and promote ethical trading in Indigenous art. The Code supports the rights of Indigenous Artists to negotiate fair terms for their work and gives buyers greater certainty about an artwork’s origin. Dealers who are Code signatories have agreed to comply with the Code’s ethical standards in their dealings with Indigenous Artists and with art buyers. They may display the Code logo and apply Code certificates to artworks to demonstrate this commitment.

While the Code is voluntary it has been developed by the industry and has a robust legal framework to enforce ethical standards.

The Code has a close working relationship with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) which has the power to investigate complaints involving breaches of the law. The Code also investigates complaints involving non-Code members.


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'Mimi', by Warwick Thornton. Photo © Blackfella Films.

'Mimi' is a short film by Warwick Thornton, an award-winning Aboriginal filmmaker from Alice Springs, that pokes fun of both white and Aboriginal stereotypes and the commodification of Indigenous art. Thornton’s first feature film, Samson and Delilah, won the Caméra d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

According to the Kunwinjku people of western Arnhem Land, mimi spirits were the original spirit beings, who taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive in the bush. They also taught aspects of ceremony. Mimi spirits are believed to inhabit the rocky escarpments around Gunbalanya but because they are extremely timid, they are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently depicted in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures, often shown with a range of hunting tools such as spears, spear throwers, dilly bag and fire stick.

Source: Injalak Stone Country Arts and Crafts,


'There's nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine'. A satirical song from the film Bran Nue Dae, directed by Rachel Perkins and based on the 1990 musical by Jimmy Chi. Courtesy Roadshow Films.

Jimmy Chi is an Aboriginal musican, songwriter and playwright from Broome in Western Australia. In 1991 he was awarded the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Drama Award for his musical Bran Nue Dae.

Bran Nue Dae is the story of a young Indigenous boy who runs away from school in the city and journeys home to Djaridjin. It is a celebration of Indigenous identity, based partly on Chi’s life.

The National Film and Sound Archive has a clip of actor Stephen Albert and Jimmy Chi, talking about childhood, education and identity, intercut with one of the musical numbers from the original production


the logo for the Indigenous art code

Victorian Indigenous Art Awards finalist Megan Cadd with her artwork 'One Dress, So Much History at 45 Downstairs', 2011. Photo Ben Swinnerton, © Newspix / News Ltd / 3rd Party Managed Reproduction & Supply Rights.


We are renowned for our humour. Anyone who saw the film Ten Canoes will agree. Our oral culture gives us great skills in telling stories and jokes. The TV series Bush Mechanics revealed the good humour and ingenuity of a group of young men from the remote Warlpiri community of Yuendumu, whose inventive use of available resources keeps their vehicles moving.

Sean Choolburra from Townsville won the Raw Comedy 2002 state final. Sean also plays the didgeridoo, sings, dances, acts and writes songs. Leah Purcell, from Murgon in south-west Queensland, received no formal acting training but co-wrote and performed the play Box the Pony, which was her creative idea, as well as acting on film and stage and writing the book Black Chicks Talking. In the West, Mary G (Mark Bin Bakar) has become a comedy phenomenon. His ‘Queen of the Kimberley’ has become a voice for Indigenous women with some audiences still struggling to believe Mary G is actually a man. Mark works to create business opportunities for Aboriginal artists and musicians and to help the cultural, health and educational development of communities.

Former dancer and now comedian, Sean Choolburra. Photo © Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, Commonwealth of Australia.


Collaborations between Indigenous creators and non-Indigenous counterparts are becoming common and in this way some amazing stories can be shared with a large audience. To avoid problems, issues relating to copyright and royalty payments need to be decided early. One solution is for the Indigenous creator to retain copyright (story as told to [name of] non-Indigenous author), or it can be shared between the two creators. The likely income and the share of royalties should be explained in advance too. Royalties from publications will be very different from the mining royalties a community might receive.

Editors working on Aboriginal texts and images should understand that the material derives from an Indigenous consciousness. It’s tied to family, land (knowledge of past and present), language group, traditional wellbeing, contemporary spirituality, and the links that bind all of these to country. Aboriginal people may speak as if country is a living and breathing entity, with emotions and consciousness.

Creators’ quirky phrases and outlooks should be retained as they add to the richness that is their life and creation. Certain words can be loaded with symbolism and deeply embedded in culture, and editors need to understand this.

Editors should check material relating to law and culture with the appropriate community people, letting them know how the material will be used and where the books might be sold. They should also resolve how the family want to deal with the naming of deceased people (text or images). Where necessary, a warning should be placed at the beginning of the publication.

A valuable tool for readers editors might want to include is an orthography, where written or printed symbols represent the sounds of a language.

Source: Rachel Bin Salleh.