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Paintings from Arnhem LandArnhem Land


Arnhem Land is a tropical region of great richness and diversity of landscape, peoples and culture - and of art. There are seven main Aboriginal communities in the region: Yirrkala on the far eastern mainland, Galiwin'ku (Elcho Island) off the north east shore, the central coastal communities of Ramingining, Milingimbi and Maningrida, to the west the inland community of Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) and to the south east, Ngukurr on the Roper River.

Map of Arnhem Land communities


The region has been occupied by people for at least 50 000 years and the evidence of occupation and art is the oldest in the country (see How old is Australia's Rock Art?). Art and cultural traditions of great strength continue to the present day. There has also been a long tradition of contact and connection with outside cultures, through visits and trading with sailors from South East Asia. This is reflected in a number of ways, including the appearance of Macassan boats and figures in art images and more recently the incorporation of European influences into traditional iconography by artists who have taken up Christian beliefs alongside their traditional culture.

The adoption of different materials and techniques by Arnhem Land artists has also varied. Artists from Yirrkala, for example, have consciously adopted the discipline of working strictly with traditional materials and a palette of four natural colours. Other communities have taken an approach using modern materials, such as replacing bark with paper and making use of acrylic materials, while others again have taken an even freer approach (for example from Ngukurr) using acrylics and screenprinting inks on canvas.

However, while it is appropriate to recognise this diversity, overall there is a unity of style and imagery about much Arnhem Land art that derives from the long tradition by artists of painting clan patterns and images on rock, on bark and wood, on their bodies and in ground paintings. Images from Arnhem Land are unmistakable and have a strength that grows on viewers the more they are exposed to them.


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