Aboriginal artistic practices are vibrant and ancient forms of expression, dating back more than 60,000 years. This makes them part of the oldest continuously surviving culture on Earth. Indigenous communities’ understanding and use of art is rich and complex; it can often be used as a way to pass down ancient knowledge, history and cultural practices. Other Indigenous artists use art as means for self-expression or political and cultural critique. We will introduce you to 10 Aboriginal artists who are trailblazers in the field of Indigenous art in Australia.
Each of these fantastic First Nations artists has their own unique style and approach to their work. Some focus on more traditional styles, such as dot painting, while others create intricate bark creations or highly conceptual contemporary pieces. All of their artwork tells a story about Aboriginal culture and heritage. If you’re interested in learning more about these fascinating art forms, be sure to check out more of the work of these great Indigenous painters.
- Richard Bell
Richard Bell is a renowned Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang artist who uses video, painting, installation and text-based work to explore the diverse, contemporary experiences of Indigenous people living in Australia. In 2003, he helped found proppaNOW, an Indigenous arts collective in Meanjin/ Brisbane. Bell’s art is highly political and confrontational in its approach.= He uses art as a medium to address the difficult debates that Indigenous people have, and particularly his own experiences as an Aboriginal artist operating within a western art market.
- Bronwyn Bancroft
Bronwyn Bancroft is an accomplished Bundjalung fashion designer and artist who achieved great international success in the 1980s, when she displayed her rich and intricate textiles in Paris. After transitioning into predominantly painting, she helped establish the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative in 1987. This cooperative has enabled many Indigenous artists to pursue a career in art, just as Bancroft did. Her vibrant paintings are inspired by her Bundjalung heritage, and often depict the lush, natural landscapes of her homeland in what is now known as the far north coast of NSW.
- Naata Nungurrayi
As an elder of her Pintupi community, Naata Nungurrayi is one of few people who have permission to paint the sacred women’s sites and ceremonies of the Kintore and Kiwirrkurra region. She is a leader of the Western Australia’s Kintore women’s artist movement due to the success of her energetic, natural-hued dot-painting. Nungurrayi comes from a well-renowned family of great Indigenous painters, which includes her sister Nancy Ross Nungurrayi, brother George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi and son Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa.
- John Mawurndjul
John Mawurndjul is a highly respected bark painter from West Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory. A Kuninjku Elder and artist, he is known for his intricate and detailed rarrk (cross-hatch) paintings that depict Indigenous knowledge and traditional Dreaming stories. His works have been displayed in galleries all over the world, from Germany, France, and Russia, to Japan and the United States.
- Dorothy Napangardi
Dorothy Napangardi is an acclaimed Warlpiri artist. She began painting as part of the Papunya School in the early 1970s, and her work has been exhibited throughout Australia, Europe and North America. Napangardi’s paintings focus on the Dreaming of her people, depicting the ancestral tracks of Indigenous groups across the land through intricate dotted lines.
- Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
This Anmatyerre man was one of the first First Nations artists to use acrylic paints to depict sacred stories in a traditional dotted style. He became a founding director of the Papunya Tula Artists school in 1972 and tragically passed away in Mparntwe/ Alice Springs on June 21, 2002; the same day that he was due to be awarded the Order of Australia for his services to art and the Indigenous community.
- Rover Thomas
Thomas used of locally mined ochres to create unique, modular works, which he painted on boards. Alongside contemporaries like Paddy Jaminji, George Mung Mung and Queenie McKenzie, he established the East Kimberly Art School in the mid-1970s
- Gloria Petyarre
One of the many talented Aboriginal artists from the Utopia homeland just north of Mparntwe/ Alice Springs, this Anmatyerre woman has been highly acclaimed for her paintings of bush medicine leaves. Petyarre’s signature pieces are large-scale, abstracted works made up of energetic curves that swirl around the canvas. She achieved critical acclaim in the western art world when her painting ‘Leaves’ won the prestigious 1999 Wynne Prize in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
- Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Anmatyerre Elder Emily Kame Kngwarreye only started painting at the age of 80, but she made up for lost time by producing an astonishing 8000 paintings in the remaining eight years of her life. Her work is considered foundational to contemporary Aboriginal art in Australia and is highly sought after internationally. Kngwarreye’s natural-hued works are celebrated for their blending of new and old techniques and their emotive expression.
- Albert Namatjira
Albert Namatjira was born on his own Arrernte Country in the MacDonnell Ranges of Central Australia. He is an Arrernte man who’s s Western-style watercolour landscape paintings of the Australian outback drew widespread acclaim among non-Indigenous Australians. Due to this, himself and his wife were the first Aboriginal people to be granted Australian citizenship in 1957, while the rest of the community remained unacknowledged by the Australian state. Sadly, he was exploited by western art dealers and both he and his family were largely excluded from the plentiful royalties of his international success.
Learn more about Indigenous Australian culture at Children’s Ground
If you enjoyed this list of great Indigenous painters and First Nations artists, we also have informative articles on renowned First Nations authors, iconic and influential Indigenous Australian films, and the best music to come out of the Indigenous Australian community.