23 Aboriginal Artists You Need to Know


Tommy’s paintings map both the physical and spiritual dimensions of his sacred country. His family were described as “The Lost Tribe”, the last known group of people to make contact with white society, by surviving for so long in the harsh environment of the Australian desert through their intimate knowledge of the land and its secrets, but eventually succumbed to the lack of water and diminishing lack of bush tucker. Tommy began his artistic career carving wooden implements and traditional weapons. Though only an occasional painter, he quickly became notable as a highly talented artist with an individual style.

Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya, 1984


Born in the early 20th century, Kngwarreye did not take up painting until she was 80 years old. Kngwarreye went through many different phases in her short career as a painter. Starting with small dots and parallel lines, she then started to use larger brushes resulting in larger dots. She then moved into bold and very bright colours, and began painting rings that were clear in the middle. She then ended her ‘colourist’ phase, and began painting with plain stripes that crossed the canvas. Her main subjects were Yams, a plant critical for human survival but difficult to find. In 2007, her painting ‘Earth’s Creation’ sold for AU$1,056,000 at auction, setting a new record for Aboriginal artwork.

Earth's Creation II, 1995


Namatijira’s richly detailed, Western-influenced watercolours of the outback departed significantly from the abstract designs and symbols of traditional Aboriginal art. His artworks were colourful and his love of trees often resulted in his depictions of trees described as portraits more than landscapes. Namatijira was the first Aboriginal person to be granted Australian citizenship, was the first Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize (in 1956) and in 1968 he was posthumously honoured with an Australian stamp.

Ghost Gumin West Macdonnell Ranges, 1945-49


Moffatt primarily uses photography and video to communicate themes of sexuality, history, representation and race. Her highly acclaimed series Up In The Sky (1998) used a sequential narrative concerning Australia’s ‘Stolen Generation’ performed on location in Queensland’s outback. It employs the theme of race and violence, with loose narratives (open for interpretation), and a backdrop of a remote town, ‘a place of ruin’ and devastation populated by misfits.

Something More I, 1989


Kathleen comes from a well-known family of Indigenous artists (including sister Gloria) and is known for her paintings displaying an extremely refined layering technique with intricate dotting. Patyarre’s painstaking and virtuosic method of applying countless dots with kebab sticks (yep…kebab sticks!) of various sizes, means she typically spends many days, sometimes weeks, on one canvas. She is among the ’50 most collectable artists in Australia’ and won the ‘National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award’ in 1996.



Gloria, sister of Kathleen, paints her stories in a range of different styles and types of brushes, including her signature ‘big brush’ style. Gloria won the prestigious Wynne Prize in 1999 with “Bush Medicine Leaves” (pictured) and became the first Indigenous person to win this major prize. “Bush Medicine Leaves” depicts leaves of a particular type of shrub that has medicinal qualities. The women collect the leaves from the sacred plant and boil it down to make a paste.  In 2009, Hermès commissioned Gloria to design one of its signature silk scarves, based on her paintings and in 1999, Australian magazine ‘Art Collector’ called her “one of our most collectable indigenous artists”.

Bush Medicine Leaves, 1999


Possum emerged as one of the leaders of the ‘Papunya Tula’ school of painting in the early 1970s, which saw the Aboriginal people put their dreaming stories on canvas, stories which had previously been depicted ephemerally on the ground. When Tjapaltjarri joined the group of ‘dot and circle’ painters, he immediately distinguished himself as one of the most talented members and went on to create some of the largest and most complex paintings ever produced. In 2007, his majestic painting ‘Warlugulong’ was sold for AU$2.4 million to the National Gallery of Australia.



From early figurative works, Tjapaltjarri moved to creating large geometric designs that were typical of the ‘Papunya Tula’ art in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, he began producing ‘minimalist’ paintings that depicted the imprint of a kangaroo in the sand, the seeds that the marsupial mouse feeds upon and the aftermath of hailstorms in the desert.

Water Dreaming in the Sandhills, 1971


Aboriginal women traditionally did not make paintings for the public – that is, until a women’s program was developed in 1994, providing an artistic outlet and a source of income for women. Central to Nungurrayi’s paintings are traditional women’s law, ceremony, ancestral stories, and, importantly, her Country. The Tingari are ancestral men and women who created sites of significance as they traveled great distances throughout their Country. Nungurrayi is a well-respected artist and Elder whose paintings evoke the depth and beauty of her Country, culture and ancestral stories.

Untitled, 2004


Judy grew up living a traditional nomadic lifestyle, travelling vast distances by foot, hunting and gathering in the harsh Australian desert. Her paintings depict the Dreaming of her sacred land “Mina Mina”, her ancestral country on the border of the Tanami and Gibson Deserts. Judy developed a distinctive style of vivid colour and organic composition that has led to her widespread appreciation in the art world. Judy uses a “drag and dot” technique, where the brush does not leave the canvas as she paints. This technique is thought to mimic the typical style of dancing of the Warlpiri women, in which they drag their feet through the sand.

Women's Dreaming, 1995


Dorothy’s paintings are created by an intricate network of lines that collide and implode on top of each other creating a play of tension and expansion, transporting the viewer through a myriad of intersections. Her view is constantly changing: one painting giving an aerial perspective; the next as if she has placed a microscope to the ground.

Tali Tjuta, 2007

ROVER THOMAS (1926-1998)

Thomas broke away from the tradition of producing tribal art on canvas and instead painted landscapes on dismembered tea chests. In the 1970s, he created the style of ochre painting on canvas, called East Kimberley School, and continued to be a respected elder and leader of the Aboriginal art movement.

All That Big Rain Coming From The Top Side, 1991


Somewhat controversial, Bell is an Aboriginal artist and political activist who speaks his mind. Bell came into the spotlight when his painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) (pictured) won the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2003. It predominantly featured the text “Aborignal Art – It’s A White Thing”. Bell’s other artworks include slogans such as “Leave us kids alone”, “Australian art does not exist”, and “We were here first”.

Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem), 2003

LIN ONUS (1948-1996)

An eloquent speaker, Onus was a Scottish-Aboriginal who grew up in urban Melbourne and rose to prominence from the early 1980’s as an advocate for the Aboriginal arts movement. Onus’ work often involve symbolism from Aboriginal styles of painting, along with recontextualisation of modern artistic elements. The images in his works include haunting portrayals of the Barmah red gum forests. His most famous work, Michael and I are just slipping down to the pub for a minute, features a dingo riding on the back of a stingray which is meant to symbolize his mother’s and father’s cultures combining in reconciliation.

Fish and Storm Clouds, 1994


Maggie began painting at the age of 60 years old and was a leader amongst a group of women artists who began to challenge the notion that men were the sole guardians of visual life in Aboriginal communities. Maggi created paintings for 15 years but was never a prolific artist. Maggie’s paintings are characterized by linear dots applied in alternating bands of colour. Her paintings recount the long journeys and travels of a large group of ancestral women, depicting digging sticks, dancing, ceremonies and resting sites. The applied textures create a rhythmic trancelike quality which evokes the movement of women as they dance and their chanting during ceremony. Her flamboyant use of colour and richly textured surfaces became the signature style of her paintings.

Mina Mina Dreaming, 1995


Considered to have been the greatest of all artists to have rendered the ancient spirit of Wandjina in modern-media, Mingelmanganu’s Wandjina are highly distinctive and unique in proportion, composition and tonal quality. The Wandjina are spirits who preside over the rains and the unborn spirits of children. In ancient times, Wandjina depictions were mysteriously found on the walls of caves, where they are said to have transformed into paintings upon their death. Thus the Aboriginal custodians believed that they did not create the Wandjina paintings, but inherited them from the spirits who made them. Not all Wandjina look alike and in a number of Mingelmanganu’s works, the full-length figure of a Wandjina is decorated in lines of dots similar to body painting designs, intended to give a visual brightness which express the spiritual essence of the ancestral beings.

Wandjina, 1980


Tommy began painting in 2001, providing rare insight into traditional Aboriginal culture through his vivid artworks, in which the land and sacred spirituality are intertwined. Watson’s use of strong vibrant colours such as oranges, burgundies, reds, ivory, blues, and pinks create complex compositions that symbolically represent the stories embedded in this harsh and ancient country. Watson gained a deep understanding of his physical environment and its relationship with the ancestral stories through his paintings. Watson has received international critical acclaim, with art critics drawing parallels with some great Western Abstractionists such as Kandinsky and Rothko. Watson, now 81 years of age, still continues to make artworks to this day.

Waltitjatta, 2006


In the 1960s, Numbulmoore was discovered by anthropologist Ian Crawford, repainting Wandjina figures in a Mamadai cave. The Wandjina, exclusive to areas of the Kimberley, are said to have lain down in a cave and turned into a painting after their time on earth. Numbulmoore’s paintings show a unique conception of the Wandjina, characterised by large round black eyes fringed with short delicate lashes. The inclusion of a mouth is distinctive to his work as is rare in Wandjina depictions. Individual interpretations of Wandjina are unique to each clan and subtle differences in interpretations are said to be in reference to certain elements (such as inclusion of a mouth) bringing perpetual rain.

Wandjina, 1971


Renowned for his bold, intense paintings, Shorty was one of the last members to join the original painting group Papunya. He spoke almost no English and had to communicate within the group his painting needs. Shorty moved to Kintore where he painted Blue-Younge Lizard, Goanna, Bush Banana and Snake.

Big Cave Story, 1992


Jaminji viewed the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 as a manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent warning them to make a stand against sliding into Gadiya (white man’s) ways. This cataclysmic event became, for Gidja people in particular, the catalyst for cultural revival. Jaminji choose, during his career, to work only in traditional ochres, which rendered a highly textured surface and conveyed a warm, earth quality. Jaminji’s diagrammatic depiction of the landscape, which followed the actual contours of the earth itself as the medium, imparted the feeling that the actual traces of the events, which unfolded through time, were embedded in the works.

Hills of Turkey Creek, 1984


Tjampitjin was a senior Kukatja ritual leader who sought to create a body of works to record, in the most intimate detail, the site maps of the desert country in which he grew up. Despite hearing about the genesis of the painting movement at Papunya, the Balgo elders were cautious in following their initiative because of the dangers of representing imagery connected to sacred ceremonies in permanent media. The simplicity of Sunfly’s compositions are indeed reminiscent of sacred ground paintings and his use of bold flat blocks of red, yellow, white and black have spiritual significance for, as ochres, they embody the transformed substances of the ancestral beings. These same pigments are applied as body paint during ceremonies to reunite the participants with the land.

Yapinti-Pinki Dreaming, 1991


Life for Bedford was hard and shaped by the harsh racial politics of early 20th century Australia; he married and had two daughters who were taken away as part of the “stolen generation”. Bedford commenced painting in around 1998 and was one of several artists who own Jirrawun Arts, a company established to assist the development and sale of indigenous artworks from parts of the Kimberley. Bedford’s painting is loosely representational of landscape and is strongly influenced by traditional techniques of iconography while also addressing black-white relationships and historical events in his country.

Thoonbi, 2006

UTA UTA TJANGALA (1926-1990)

Tjangala was part of the original group of painters at Panunya in 1971 and was considered a master painter on a grand scale. In 1985, Tjangala won the National Aboriginal Art Award. Many of the stories he painted are based on the Tingari cycle and also sites associated with Yumari, and old Man, Emu and Carpet Snake Dreamings. 

Special Pinup Travelling Ceremony, 1972

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