Aboriginal people have long found spiritual inspiration for their art. Phil Mercer explores how this tradition has become one of Australia’s most potent cultural and economic movements. Australia's lower house unanimously passes a bill recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples as the country's first inhabitants. Aborigines remain by far Australia’s most disadvantaged group; they die younger, and suffer higher rates of poverty and unemployment than anyone else. The search for reconciliation between black and white Australia is a constant theme for Raymond Walters Japanangka, a commercial painter based in the Northern Territory. “I’m very passionate about building relationships between all cultures, and I want to look at exploring art in that way also,” he tells BBC Culture. He comes from a rich artistic bloodline. His late uncle was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, one of the most collected and distinguished Aboriginal painters. ‘Warlugulong’, his celebrated piece of acrylic on canvas that tells the tale of the power of a hallowed bushfire, was sold at auction for more than AUD$2 million in 2007. Like other Aboriginal artists, Raymond Walters Japanangka draws inspiration from those closest to him. “The foundation for a lot of my art is based on my spiritual upbringing, and my connection with my grandfather and grandmother’s country and also my connection with our belief system and family. Acrylic paint and brushstrokes are just a way of expressing that,” he explains. Ancestral spirits also inspire the brushstrokes of veteran Aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft as she depicts the divinity of the lands of her tribe, the Djanbun clan, in northern New South Wales. A founding member of Boomalli, an Aboriginal artists’ collective in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, Bronwyn Bancroft surveys a gallery full of charcoal drawings, works in acrylic and art made from felt. Her work is deeply personal and is “drenched with symbolism” as it explores an unbreakable connection to the earth. “We refer to them as the old people,” she says of her forebears. “They protect and guide me. My ancestors are my religion,” she says. Like other indigenous painters, her paintings interpret traditional ‘Dreamtime’ stories of creation, and the struggles and triumphs of Australia’s first inhabitants.

Home and away

Indigenous art has become one of Australia’s most potent cultural movements, full of brilliant iconography and mesmerising landscapes. It started to be marketed in the 1970s. A professor of art history at the University of Sydney, Roger Benjamin says the art “offers buyers some kind of ’spiritual connection’ to the land in the world’s most urbanised society [Australia].” Since then, surging demand from non-Aboriginal Australians, including wealthy collectors and investors, along with strong interest from overseas, has transformed a fledgling industry into a cultural phenomenon, appreciated by millions of people around Australia, and beyond. The art has become one of Australia’s proudest exports, finding favour in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris. “It has the kind of aura of sanctity about it,” says Roger Benjamin. “Almost every private home that I would visit,” he says, speaking of friends and colleagues in Australia, “would have some kind of Aboriginal art in it, and quite often original pieces.” “A lot of the dot paintings and the bark paintings from the Top End (the northern part of the Northern Territory) are windows into a very complicated culture that is based on religion and belief. So you also get a beautiful decoration for your wall but you also get some kind of connection to ancient ways of thinking that have disappeared from modern lifestyles,” Prof. Benjamin tells BBC Culture. It has unparalleled richness and regional diversity; from the use of ochre and bark by the people of the tropical savannahs to the acrylics popular in Central Australia, where, during tribal ceremonies, art decorated the ground or the bodies of participants. SOURCE: Culture BBC

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