Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The 'Cultural Design' of Western Desert Art

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The 'Cultural Design' of Western Desert Art

Article excerpt


When Europeans invaded Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, the continent was populated by more than two hundred Indigenous Australian nations who had inhabited the continent for tens of thousands of years. Their lives were regulated by cultural practices that provided them not only with elaborate survival skills in a very demanding environment; their (oral) cultural knowledge was also manifested in a variety of artistic forms that served as mnemonic devices. In pre-European times, however, 'art' was merely produced in response to cultural needs.

What is now commonly known as classical Indigenous Australian art goes back to the 1970s, when the young art teacher Geoffrey Bardon accepted a posting at the government-run school in the Indigenous Northern Territory township of Papunya. Bardon encouraged community elders to join in painting traditional images on a mural on the school walls. As such designs had previously only been used for cultural needs,1 the issue of making a public painting caused much debate in the community, but the endeavour developed into the Western Desert Art whose artists produced the most prestigious artworks.2 From the 1990s onwards, artworks of this movement have been commonly characterized as 'dot paintings', owing to their unique painting technique.

Ever since non-'Westem' art has been produced for 'Western'3 art markets, scholars have attempted to accommodate Indigenous art within established 'Western' categories of art production. Classifications would include anthropological and ethnological parameters rather than artistic key markers. Currently, Indigenous art is classified as being produced by an Indigenous person in any artistic medium, in any style and technique. In (exhibition) practice, though, 'Western' art categories seem to contradict this classification. I will first point to key concepts of Indigenous Australian cultures that form the context of classical Indigenous art, then indicate forms of cross-cultural art perception, and finally discuss curatorial concepts of art exhibitions based on cross-culturally appropriate art classification.

The Law of Indigenous Australian Cultures

The oldest continuing cultures in human communities are the Indigenous Australian.4 In pre-European days, cultural knowledge was practised and memorized in oral forms. Mnemonic techniques included dances, songs, and artistic designs, all of which were regulated by Indigenous Law, which was inadequately termed the 'Dreaming' (or the 'Dreamtime') by the English invaders. Classical Indigenous artworks draw substantially on the concept of the Law. For non-Indigenous scholars, the concept of the Law is difficult to grasp in its complexity. In accordance with cross-culturally appropriate research protocols,51 give preference to the clarification offered by Indigenous voices.

Indigenous Law, established by Ancestor Beings in Creation Time, determines social and religious behaviour and defines land ownership as well as the relationship between the people and the land. The Indigenous Australian art curator Franchesca Cubillo explains:

The Dreaming [= the Law] is the eternal moment of creation, when the spiritual Ancestors moved across the land, creating the landforms, the plants, animals, people and the languages. Rules and regulations were also established by the Ancestors in the timeless moment and are maintained by Aboriginal people in the present. The land is looked after, animals respected, ceremonies performed and social obligations adhered to according to the precepts of these traditions. Aspects of the Dreaming are taught and reinforced from an early age.6

The Law explains the creation of the land and all beings, and determines Indigenous identity through land ownership. A widely cited definition of what land means to Indigenous people is given by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a renowned and long-serving Chairman of the Northern Land Council, a powerful Indigenous organization:

The land is my backbone. …

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