When Did We First See Aboriginal Dot Painting?

When Did We First See Aboriginal Dot Painting?

Minyma Tjukurrpa

I’m sometimes asked about exactly when people started to see dot painting. There’s a curiosity about whether we would have seen this type of patterning and dot work in artworks prior to the 1970’s.

I think the answer is no. We wouldn't have had access to seeing anything like it. For a start it would be a very rare thing to see an Aboriginal symbol or depiction shown anywhere.

There was some knowledge of the bark painting coming out of the Northern Territory. People knew of the bark painting styles, like the crosshatching and the x-ray designs from Arnhem Land. They were in museums and art galleries and people also knew Albert Namatjira landscapes of Central Australia.

There were also anthropologists collecting artefacts or very sacred items, perhaps a stone tjuringa that had designs on it. Those items may have had dot embellishments on them. However the chances of someone in the broader community seeing something like dot painting would have been very slim.

Mostly there were many various Aboriginal cultures across Australia whose identities were totally not understood or not seen by anyone outside their own community.

We started seeing dot painting in art galleries in Perth after the mid 1970s. The Central Desert art movement had begun to get going and there were collections of works being shown in the Art Gallery of Western Australia. I think the first time I ever saw a dot painting was around 1975 or 1976.

There might have been some in publications, but pre-1970, you just wouldn’t have seen very much of it anywhere.

Now if you ask an everyday person in the street how would they describe an Aboriginal artwork, a typical response would likely be a description of dot painting. If you ask a child to do an Aboriginal style artwork they'll start dot painting. Those aesthetic qualities have captured people's beliefs and understandings of what Aboriginal art is.

This Central Desert style has created the contemporary movement in Aboriginal art. It's captured the impetus, it's reached every part of Australian society. Therefore I think it is recognised as the prototype Aboriginal style.

You can probably show this work to anyone with a bit of artistic exposure and interest and they'll probably be able to recognise this, whether they're Australian or not. That's how deep it has gone in terms of recognising dot painting as belonging to a particular cultural group; it's quite extraordinary.

The desert area is enormous, it's getting up towards two thirds of the inland part of Australia, and the culture is shared, and the dot painting style belongs right across that region. So it is true that many think of this as what Aboriginal painting is.

Some Aboriginal painters who are not in that genre say, "Actually, we've been swamped. We've been swamped by the success of dot painting and it's really hard for us to make our mark from under the shadow of this huge movement that's had so much success."

So in a relatively short period of time a style has come to dominate what is thought of as Aboriginal art. It is good to reflect that just as there is great diversity within indigenous communities there is also great diversity in the style of art that is being produced by those communities.

If you scroll down the Japingka Artists page you’ll see instantly that contemporary Aboriginal art is dot painting and so very much more. Many of the indigenous artists at work in Australia today are extremely innovative.

It is still a joy to see exhibitions of dot painting coming in that take your breath away. It is also a joy to see new styles emerging that take traditions and build on them in exciting new ways.

I believe there is still so much life and possibility to this intriguing art movement. Even now, thirty years down the track for us, we are all still excited and curious when the new works come in. Whatever the style of paintings we see passion, commitment and a universal language that speaks for itself.