An overview of native Australian art forms

Native Australian art forms have received renewed interest in recent decades, with anthropologists and historians arriving at a refined understanding of them.  Of particular interest is the emphasis on artistic style and environmental sensitivity displayed by artefacts.  Recent research on this interesting field was made possible through the analysis of numerous aboriginal wooden artefacts traded between European and Aboriginal Australians in South East Australia during the time of colonization of the continent.  For example, in the comprehensive study carried out by research team of Tacon, “thirty objects were studied, 17 (56%) being boomerangs, 4 (13%) clubs, 3 (10%) shields, 3 (10%) walking sticks, 2 (7%) clap sticks and one spear thrower. On these, there are 119 animal depictions, nearly half (47%) being emus or humans. A total of 28 objects were illustrated. There are a few floral motifs, trees and a tree branch, as well as six landscape settings with animals, trees and topography.” (Tacon,, 2003, p.91)  This essay will focus on one particular aboriginal wooden artefact, namely the boomerang, and broaden its understanding through the lens of style and environment.

Firstly, although recent studies have included wooden objects with figurative designs, as well as their links to earlier ground, tree and rock-art traditions, ethnographic documentation of them in and of itself does not lead to complete understanding of their cultural evolution. The research team of Tacon carefully studied 469 individual pieces of wooden artefacts (a substantial number of them being boomerangs) by also considering the development of individual, community and regional styles. They arrived at a “theory about the role of such material culture during changing times in south-east Australia. More generally, they argue that material culture both mediate and express change, with figurative motifs and storytelling through pictures particularly effective when communicating to diverse groups of people of varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds.” (Tacon,, 2003, p.89)

One of the earliest dated artefacts from this collection from the Australian museum was documented to have been acquired near Wagga Wagga in the year 1865. It is an assortment of various types of artefacts.  Some of them are illustrations of early European settlers in the neighbourhood.  These artefacts are also unique in that they contained Roman numerals as opposed to more plain geometric depictions of earlier productions.  Drawings are composed on such artefacts as clubs, parrying shields and boomerangs. The profound influence of the natural environment on indigenous culture is learnt from frequent appearances of animals in the wild.  This includes goanna, kangaroo, snake, emu, kookaburras, etc.  The frequent depictions of the wildlife show the importance of the environment to the daily lives of native Australians.  For example, in later productions, refined and

“faintly incised poker-worked animals in landscapes are common in material made between the early 1920s and 1970s, usually boomerangs and shields…In central Victoria, nineteenth century pieces are incised but Coranderrk pieces from the early 1900s are poker worked. On nineteenth century incised objects solitary small animals such as lizards, emus, kangaroos or koalas are common. Sometimes there are depictions of humans with weapons and/or engaged in combat, or introduced subjects, such as a horse’s head or sailing ship, are illustrated. Early twentieth century pieces have possums, swans, kookaburras and other birds. Half circle designs border edges of some boomerangs and shields from Coranderrk and Echuca.”  (Haslam, 2010, p.52)

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