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Australian Aboriginal art and culture is the oldest continuous art tradition on the planet. In the last century it has also emerged as one of the world’s most important contemporary art movements.

Whether on bark, canvas or in new media, Aboriginal artists have used art to express the power and beauty of their culture, across cultures: to show their enduring connection to, and responsibility for, ancestral lands and the continuity of their identities and beliefs.

In our increasingly global world, this ability to speak across borders without forsaking any of its distinctive identity makes Australian Indigenous art some of the most innovative contemporary art being produced anywhere today.

Dreaming

The Dreaming or Everywhen is a dimension that runs parallel to the measurable dimension of time as human beings can understand it. “Dreaming” is an inadequate rendering of an essentially untranslatable concept, which in the many Aboriginal languages has different names. The Dreaming is not only past, but is still ongoing. Dreamings have little or nothing to do with nocturnal dreams. During the Dreaming, everything – landscape, people, animals – was brought into creation by the ancestral beings. During their journeys they created all living things, plants, animals, people, but also the natural elements, water, fire, air, and the heavenly bodies. These ancestral creatures of creation left traces. These traces, prints or body metamorphoses, are still visible and legible in the landscape for the initiated. The sacred places or sites where these signs occur are also of great importance to today’s First Nations people. The journeys that the ancestral beings undertook in the Dreaming, the journeys they experienced, the things they did and the ancestral beings themselves are called Dreamings (Jukurrpa in the Warlpiri language of Central Australia or Ngarranggarni in the Gija language of the Kimberley region). These Dreamings are also the main subjects of art in traditional Aboriginal society. These stories are evoked in ceremonies during which the story is performed, sung and told. Contemporary artworks from remote regions are also based on these stories.

Culture

Culture is intrinsically linked with art and contemporary art practices play an essential role in the maintenance of culture. Fundamental to culture, art, law and knowledge of the land are elemental creation stories known as Dreamings. These stories, from the Djan’kawu and Wawilak stories for Arnhem Land, the Tingari cycle cosmology for large tracts of desert country in Western and Central Australia, the journey of the Seven Sisters in the Western Desert to the deeds of the Rainbow Serpent in the Kimberley, coalesce the ancestral past and contemporary times for several regions throughout Australia. In contemporary times art has acquired another dimension adjacent to the ceremonial arena; that of sharing knowledge and fostering understanding in order to position and perpetuate culture in a globalised world.

Art

In Australia, the oldest traces of ‘art’ in the form of petroglyphs date back to 20,000 years ago. The first inhabitants of this island continent, often referred to as Aboriginal people, believe that these early examples of art were made during the Dreaming.
In some Aboriginal languages ​​there exists a specific word for ‘art’, in others there is not. Art in the traditional sense can have different functions – didactic, utilitarian, social or political – that overlap but are inseparable from the religious and spiritual. Above all, however, art is a system of communication.
The basis of Fondation Opale is the collection of Bérengère Primat. The works in the collection showcase the rich diversity and dynamism of the art and culture of Australia’s earliest settlers. Australian Aboriginal contemporary art bears witness to the longest continuous cultural history in the world.
While many artworks in this collection focus on Dreaming stories in which creation of the land plays a vital role, others examine First Nations identities in current times. The work by these artists is characterised by a multi-medial arts practice. Painting and sculpture are used next to modern media such as photography, video, film and neon installation. While their work is to varying degrees less anchored in tradition, it is marked by a deep concern of political issues.
Artists like Gordon Bennett, Michael Riley and Tony Albert explore in their art issues of Indigenous identity, representation of Aboriginal people in popular culture and reassessing history. The question that these artists seem to ask is what does it mean to be an Indigenous Australian in today’s complex society and political landscape. Yet, their art speaks also about country and transmission of knowledge. Rather than ceremonial or ritual knowledge, it is often history and past museum practices of recording history that are reinvestigated. These artists have continued to be social commentators and tellers of untold histories.

Art in the desert

Dreaming stories – journeys of the ancestral beings in the Dreaming – alongside events from everyday life, are still the themes of contemporary painting from the desert regions of Central and Western Australia, the so-called ‘Western Desert Art’. The material with which and on which painting is done, however, is typically Western: canvas or panel as supports, synthetic types of paint (usually acrylic paint), possibly brushes.
Created in 1971 in the government settlement of Papunya at the hands of a European Australian art educator, Geoffrey Bardon, this painting is primarily a contemporary Aboriginal painting with deep roots in the conventional and traditional art forms. The early rock paintings and carvings, body and object painting, sand drawings and ground paintings are the sources of contemporary painting known as Western Desert Art. Characteristic of this painting is the dot technique that can be found in many works. The development of art from Papunya took place in a number of phases and has spread widely to other settlements in other areas, such as Yuendumu, Balgo and Utopia, and later the APY Lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands). The different language groups and communities (settlements) often have recognisable styles.
These acrylic paintings testify to the enormous adaptability of the Aboriginal culture to the changing times, which are characterised in particular by the inevitable contact with Western culture. The position they occupy within the international art world gives rise to highly topical debates about contemporary art.