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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Albert David of the Mabo Dance Company. Photo Colin Murty Photo © Newspix / News Ltd / 3rd Party Managed Reproduction & Supply Rights.
Indigeneous Art Code logo. Photo © Indigenous Art Code (www.indigenousartcode.org).
Working with Indigenous Authors.
'Mimi', by Warwick Thornton. Photo © Blackfella Films.
'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.
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.