Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
When exploring the artworks below, allow enough time to look closely at the different elements. You might like to consider
- What colours and shapes do you see?
- What do you think this artwork is made of?
- Who do you think might have created this painting?
- Is the artist trying to tell us something? If so, what might this be?
- If you were the artist, what would you call this artwork?
- How do you feel when you look at this artwork?
Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa [Country and Culture will be protected by spears]
This painting was created in 2017 by 19 senior male artists of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Watch a short film about the artists and their painting:
- How are fallen warriors represented in the painting?
- Referring to the case study of William Punch, why was his story important to the APY Lands artists?
- Discuss ways in which stories can be told and passed on to others.
- Think of a story that is important to your family. Create a drawing, sculpture, or song to share this story with others.
In this painting, Aboriginal artist of Badimaya descent Julie Dowling is sharing her family history, showing a moment from the lives of her grandmother and grandfather.
- What story is Julie sharing? What clues help you to piece this together?
- When do you think this event took place?
- Who did the men in this painting work for? How can you tell?
- What jobs could women do during the Second World War?
- Find other stories where people from different cultures have met and fallen in love during times of war. You might like to research Australian or Japanese war brides during the Second World War for example. This eBook may assist.
This painting shows the dance where Julie’s grandparents got engaged in 1946. She said that her grandfather had a fight with his Air Force mates because they were racist. Despite inequality in society, people could still show love and devotion to others.
Time marches on
Artist Bronwyn Bancroft is a descendent of the Djanbun clan of the Bundjalung nation. She made this portrait to remember her father Owen, hand colouring a photograph which she took in Sydney.
- Who are the men in this art work? What are they doing?
- Does it look like the original photograph was taken recently, or is it older? How can you tell?
- Why do you think Bronwyn coloured her father’s jacket?
- What does this work of art tell us about how Bronwyn viewed her father?
You might like to try hand colouring a black and white photograph too. An instructional film can be viewed here.
Bronwyn wanted to honour her family as well as comment on the Indigenous military experience in Australia. She took the original photograph in 1985, when her father was marching with the Water Transport Group, in his light blue coat. He had served with this group during the Second World War. Owen controlled the barges for landing and was the equivalent to an engineer.
Bronwyn’s father was the only Aboriginal man in his division, but she remembered how much he loved meeting up with his mates, and how they adored him too. Bronwyn once asked her father why he went to war. His response was, “It’s my country too!”
Bombing of Darwin
Artist Susan Wanji Wanji lives and works on Melville Island, which is the larger of the two Tiwi Islands, the other being Bathurst Island. These islands are within the Northern Territory, approximately 80 km north-west of Darwin, and have been inhabited by the Tiwi people for thousands of years.
During the Second World War, people on the Tiwi Islands saw Japanese planes flying overhead. They saw 188 planes on the morning of 19 February 1942, and radioed this information through to Darwin. Shortly afterwards, Darwin was bombed. As a damaged Japanese plane was returning from the bombing raid, it crashed on Melville Island. The pilot was captured by a traditional warrior of the Tiwi people, Uncle Mattias Ulungarra.
The attacks on Australia during the Second World War came as a shock to many Tiwi Islanders. These events are still shared by the Tiwi people today through traditional songs and stories. Dance is part of everyday life on the islands, and is a common way in which history and knowledge are passed down.
- Can you see the Tiwi people in the artwork? What might they be doing?
- Susan has used ochre on linen to create this artwork. Investigate ochre and how it is made.
- Locate other works of art which explore the bombing of Darwin. Discuss any similarities and differences you can see.
- Investigate the Tiwi people and the islands further. What can you find out about Tiwi history and culture?
- Create a dance that tells a story, and then pass this on to somebody else so that they can share it too. Did the dance remain the same? Did the meaning or story of the dance change?
When talking about the artwork, Susan said,
“After the first bombing, the men thought of making songs and dance about the bombing and the planes. This painting is about that. One old man singing, while men, women and children dance around. Some people when the bombing started were standing around or hunting with their spears, when the bombing started they were throwing their spears to the plane and hiding to try to keep safe.”
Be Deadly – NORFORCE
Tony is connected to the Girramay and Kuku Yalanji people from Queensland. His grandfather is a veteran of the Second World War and continues to be a great source of inspiration.
In 2012, Tony became the Australian War Memorial’s first official war artist to be attached to the Army’s Regional Surveillance Force North West Mobile Unit (NORFORCE). This unit is based in Darwin and operates in remote areas of northern Australia. Many of the people working in NORFORCE are Aboriginal Australian soldiers.
- Tony has called his work Be Deadly – NORFORCE. In this context, deadly refers to something that is excellent or very good, as opposed to something that causes death. Brainstorm other words that can have both negative and positive meanings.
- Tony has included lots of references to pop culture in his artwork. Which ones can you identify?
- Can you spot the planes? Which country are these from, and why do you think Tony chose to include these?
- Can you find the kangaroos? Look at the way the pattern has been repeated. You might like to experiment with this type of design too.
- How would you describe the three children in the middle of the artwork?
- What positive messages is Tony trying to share?
- Create your own collage that expresses a positive message about something that is important to you.
Reach out and touch – distance and time
Of the Miriam people of the Torres Strait Islands, Ellen Jose created several works remembering the war experiences of her father, Gregorio “Gorie” Phillipe Jose. Gorie fought in the Pacific during the Second World War, including on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. In a Sydney Morning Herald article, Ellen said that her father’s wartime experiences contributed to his tragic life and early death, and also impacted the life of his family.
- You can see three people in this artwork. Who might they be?
- Ellen uses different symbols in her work. Can you identify those which might represent time, and memory?
- Why do you think Ellen chose to remember her father in this way?
- Discuss the impact that war has on the families of those who serve.
Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion
Rosie is an award winning Torres Strait Islander artist based on Waiben (Thursday) Island. For this artwork, Rosie hand carved images into lino squares before covering them with fabric paint and pressing them on to fabric. The three panels show images of the Torres Strait before, during, and after the Second World War. Rosie has also included images relating to her family, as her father Elia served with the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion. Here is Rosie talking about her artwork:
- Identify the Torres Strait Islands on a map.
- Investigate the role of the Torres Strait Islander Light Battalion.
- In the film above, who does Rosie say is the woman in the very first square? Why do you think Rosie placed her here?
- Why are there lots of images of women in this artwork? What is Rosie trying to say about them?
- What images of Rosie’s island and marine home environment can you see?
- You might like to make your own lino prints. An instructional video can be viewed here. Younger students can also experiment with printing by using Styrofoam and a pencil. An example can be found here.
Ngaw Babn ngu Ngayka [from my father to me]
Laurie is a senior Badu artist from Badu Island in the Torres Straits. This lino print shares his connection to the Second World War through his mother and father’s stories. Laurie’s father Phillip (known as Tauwie) served in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, while his mother Rita remembered the sounds of war planes flying over the island when she was a young girl. People would run away and take cover when they heard the planes.
The young warrior in the middle of the print is Laurie when he danced the Badu Island plane dance for the first time at the unveiling of his grandmother’s tombstone (tombstone ceremony). Younger generations in the Torres Strait Islands commemorate and remember their families’ service through dance and ceremony. When Laurie’s father passed away, his mum would remind him to visit their father’s grave on Anzac Day, to say hello and spend time with him.
- Why do you think the only section of the print that is in colour is the sun?
- What is Laurie wearing while he is dancing?
- What are the other people in the print doing?
- Why do you think Laurie chose Ngaw Babn ngu Ngayka (from my father to me), as the name for his artwork?
- What special stories or objects have been passed down through your family?
- Does your family have any special traditions on Anzac Day?
Of the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu/Alyawarr people in Queensland, Shirley is a fibre artist who works mainly with spinifex, which is a very strong and resilient grass. Listen to Shirley talk about her crucifix on ABC Radio Canberra before answering the following questions:
- Why did Shirley make this work of art?
- What material did she use to make the small white crosses, and what do these represent?
- What do you think Shirley means when she talks about honouring “the warriors and the battlegrounds fought at home”?
- Gather natural materials from your home area, and create an art work to remember people who have served in war. You might even like to research techniques like weaving.