The Aboriginal dot painting style that typifies art works from the Central and Western Desert has become a medium for telling stories and enlivening culture. The source of Aboriginal dot painting comes from body painting for ceremony, from sand paintings and symbolic patterns carved on artefacts and rock galleries. Its original use may have been to create a ‘shimmer’ effect on a body design or the decoration of an artefact, enhancing the design itself by suggesting an energy field or powerful aura around the design.
In early developments at Papunya in the 1970s the dot painting technique became a useful vehicle for in-filling designs that had the added advantage that it could obscure certain information and associations that lay underneath the dotting. At a time when artists were negotiating what aspects of stories were secret/ sacred and what were in the public domain, the discrete use of dot painting gave some protection, where elements of stories that should not be seen by the uninitiated could remain concealed.
The dot painting style became the recognisable characteristic of desert Aboriginal art by the 1980s and the movement spread steadily to reach a range of the desert communities. Papunya, Kintore, Yuendumu, Mt Liebig, Haasts Bluff, Utopia, Balgo, Kiwirrkura and many smaller communities and outstations evolved variations in the way they went about painting and story-telling. The language groups that effected these developments include artists from Pintupi, Luritja, Arrente, Warlpiri, Alyawarr, Anmatyerr, and other Central Desert language groups.
Pintupi artists from the Western desert tended to first lay out their designs using ancient iconography and then build the fields of dots emanating from the design structure. Later artists started to include dotting that merged together into ‘dot and drag’ style, where linear works are created with the dots joined together in extended lines. Utopia artists evolved a very finely detailed and articulated method of dotting, creating subtle motifs and patterns that existed within a grander space created by the dotting.
Artists developed their own approaches to dot painting and some have since adapted the technique to become more like a dabbing process, with whole areas filled in by adjoining dots to create a dense field of colour. Sometimes this was dotted over again in contrasting colours.
The tradition of painting with a dotting technique has transformed the way Aboriginal groups have presented themselves and their culture to the outside world. The modern process is measured in just over forty years of art production, but the diversity and personal creations have ensured that the tradition continues to reinvigorate itself and its creators.
See examples of Aboriginal dot art paintings: