With a continuous history that spans at least 50,000 years, the native peoples of Australia have their own unique culture, art forms and set of traditions that differ from anywhere else in the world. Secluded from outside influences by the Indian and Pacific Oceans until English settlement began in the late 18th century, the ancient customs and art practices of the Aborigines have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.
Some of the world's longest surviving art forms are found in Australia, as Aboriginal Art Online tells us that some of the surviving Aboriginal rock carvings and paintings are at least 30,000 years old. One of the oldest and most popular Aboriginal rock paintings is the Bradshaw Paintings in Kimberly, and though the art work is at least 17,000 years old, it is impossible to tell exactly how old they are because the pigments have become part of the rock itself.
Despite the ancient history of these cave paintings and rock carvings, bark paintings are in fact the oldest form of Aboriginal art. Unfortunately these natural materials disintegrate over time, so very few existing pieces of Aboriginal bark art have been found intact.
Most ancient Aboriginal art was created to portray and narrate the "Dreamtime" stories, which are the creation myth of the Aborigines. The website Aboriginal Art Online tells us that over time, traditional symbols were created to visualise common aspects of the Dreamtime stories, such as man, water and earth, and many of these symbols are used in contemporary Aboriginal art to this day. "Dot Painting" is another traditional Aboriginal art form in which minute dots, painted with natural pigments from plants and seeds, are used to create patterns and symbols.
Like many indigenous people of the world, the Aborigines of Australia used perishable materials including tree bark, carved logs, and natural pigments to create some of their earliest art pieces. Aborigines used ochre, a natural paint made by grinding hard rocks coloured by iron oxide into a fine powder and binding it with a fluid such as blood or saliva. In contemporary art, an acrylic binder is often used to bind the ochre, which comes in a wide variety of colours from pale yellow to a dark, reddish-brown.
Contemporary art still uses natural canvases, such as bodies, wooden planks or rock carvings, as they have been for thousands of years.
Patterns and symbols passed down through the generations were created using ochres, charcoal, coloured clay and other organic materials and applied with stencils, hair brushes or crushed sticks, or one's hands.