There are many different Indigenous cultures in Australia, made up of people from various Indigenous 'nations' and speaking their own languages.
Over thousands of years, communities of Indigenous Australians have exchanged ideas, technology and cultural practices with each other. As a result, many communities may share certain technologies but use them in different ways. Objects, such as shields and baskets, differ in their design, decoration and meaning from region to region.
Shields were made by men and used in ceremonies, dances and occasionally in defensive combat. The narrowest shields were usually used in hand-to-hand combat while large, broad shields protected the bearer against spears and missiles. The largest and most spectacular shields were made by the rainforest peoples of north Queensland, where they were painted with clan designs and colours.
Baskets, bags and other containers are usually made by women but are used by both sexes mainly for food gathering. Some of these containers and bags are often woven from bark, human hair, pandanus and palm fronds, grasses and bush twine made from plant fibres. They are coloured with dyes made from roots, bark and other natural substances, and are sometimes decorated with feathers and pieces of cloth.
European misunderstanding of Aboriginal life
The complexity and richness of Aboriginal cultures was poorly understood by the majority of early colonists. Government legislation and policies worked against the interests of Aboriginal people but greatly benefited the pastoralists who were rapidly spreading across Australia, setting up farms and sheep stations, often with the labour of Indigenous men and women. This lack of understanding of Aboriginal ways of life and how they used the land resulted in many clashes between settlers and Aboriginal people, particularly over land and access to land, which for Aboriginal people meant food and spiritual well-being.
As in the past Indigenous Australian arts today are as diverse as the people that make them. Many artists work in introduced media, such as acrylic, fabric, photography or print-making. The themes of Indigenous art reflect the range of artists' concerns and experiences: from relationships to landscapes and animals to political and social injustices.
Some forms of contemporary art, such as certain bark paintings, are based on historic practices. However, most Indigenous artists express their heritage and experiences in innovative ways which both reflect Indigenous and non-Indigenous influences.
Bangarra Dance Company
Traditionally Aboriginal ceremonies have always blended dance and drama with music and visual art forms. This tradition has continued in new ways by contemporary dance companies such as Bangarra.
Bangarra's mission is:
to maintain the link, with respect and integrity, between the traditional Indigenous cultures of Australia and new forms of contemporary artistic expression, giving voice to social and political issues which speak to all people.
'It is a mistake to dismiss our languages as part of history, and long gone. They're not. They are alive and vibrant. They are in a new phase of growth. They're part of us as the Indigenous people of the land. Our languages are the voice of the land, and we are the carriers of the languages.'
Boyer Lectures, 1993.
At the time of invasion there were over 700 different Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in Australia. Now there are less that 250 still in use.
One of the major practices of colonists was to stop Aboriginal people speaking their own languages, which interrupted the passing of language from one generation to another. Today, many of Australia's Indigenous languages are no longer spoken as first languages. However, they live on through individual words and through varieties of Aboriginal English which incorporate the structures of Aboriginal languages.
The unique aesthetic of Indigenous Australian cultural work is recognised all over the world. However, the marketability of Indigenous arts has resulted in many cases of exploitation: Indigenous artists' work has at times been reproduced without permission and without regard for the cultural and spiritual significance of the designs to the artist.
In an effort to protect the integrity of their work and share it with others, many Indigenous artists now make licensing agreements with manufacturers so that their designs can be reproduced and the artist can be fairly rewarded.