Theme Indigenous Women and the Arts

Written by Anna Haebich with Julie Parsons, Curtin University

Indigenous women at the end of the 20th century were leaders across the spectrum of Aboriginal performing and visual arts in Australia. Through their imaginative power and political drive, they had helped to forge in the space of three decades a vibrant national Indigenous arts sector that is respected internationally and represents a multi-million dollar industry. Here we acknowledge the unique contributions of various women known for their creative and political leadership in the context of the opportunities and struggles of their times. Space prevents a comprehensive account with biographical details but these can be found in the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture and at online sites such as Design & Art Australia Online ( and the Australian Women's Register (

How do we explain the extraordinary sustained energy of the Indigenous arts movement from the 1970s? Actor and arts advocate Lydia Miller (Kuku Yalnji) finds an explanation in past and present cultural practices of survival:

Before 1788 our peoples had to think survival. Art and culture were inseparable: hunting, family structures, genealogy, Law, geography were reflected in the art, and so they are today. Though the world has changed and the role of our performance may have as much to do with political survival, social awareness, and the need for systematic change, the power and the role of the artists is to think survival. (Enoch, 349)

Survival means keeping cultures alive, retaining the multiplicity of stories and heterogeneity of styles and designs, but also involves the strategy of taking on the new, as playwright Jane Harrison (Muruwari) explains:

Our cultural expressions are not static - we morph and weave and are porous to other influences, but we hold our values; our cultural core persists. We are resilient. We are not homogenous. How could we be? ... [We are] all different, but with common "base metals" - of passion, commitment to community, a sense of history or continuance of cultural practices, yet forward thinking... In myriad shades and tones. (Harrison, 2)

Indigenous cultures have provided women with a rich variety of forms of expression - personal, communal, creative and religious- a treasure trove of stories, dance, art, design and music that brings special fulfilment. A myriad of myths and ceremonies celebrate the feats and powers of ancestral female beings bringing life to the world. The Djang'kawu sisters traversed Yolngu land creating country, people and culture, trailing feathered strings from sacred dilly bags and their arms until their dilly bags were lost and they departed leaving men to control the Law. In the great Yolngu ceremonies of song and dance, men and women recreate the journeys, the men carrying sacred dilly bags and strings, the women holding woven conical mats signifying their fertility and sexual power (Haebich, 45). In today's art market, the conical mats woven by Judy Baypungala (Wulaki) from twined pandanus palm leaf with natural dyes are highly valued, and sales provide a source of wealth for women artists caring for their families.

Aboriginal women celebrating their custodianship of land in ceremony 'paint up' their bodies and now paint their country on canvas as well. Martu women painters (Ngayarta Kujarra) explain: 'The paintings are the country, the country are the songs, the songs are the dance, it's not all separate, it's all the one thing connected' (Fremantle Arts Centre, 8). Curator Djon Mundine describes the approach taken by Dorothy Napangardi (Wulaki) in her 'painted landscapes' as 'mimic[king] the repetition of singing and dancing- usually in short 30 to 60 second bursts, over and over, all through the night ... a danced landscape of song lines and dance lines' (Mundine, 69).

The destructive forces of colonisation undermined women's business in many areas and almost erased it in sites of concentrated white settlement. Discriminatory laws and policies controlled women's lives, segregated them and subjected them to cruel deprivations and humiliations. Consider the trauma of forcible removals on mothers and children and the rupture between generations. Performance artist Sarah-Jane Norman asks, 'Does [this] grief make us eloquent?' (Norman, 5). Certainly much Indigenous art has been driven by the anguish of history and loss. Artists from the Stolen Generations provide us with profound insights into their abyss of loss and anguish: multi-award winning singer songwriter Ruby Hunter (Ngarrindjeri) and artists Sandra Hill (Nyungar), Heather Kemarre Shearer (Arrernte) and Pamela CroftWarcon (Uralarai). Jane Harrison's play Stolen (1998), which responds to contemporary issues of suffering and trauma caused by the removal policies, has toured nationally and overseas. Still the director of Stolen, Wesley Enoch, reminds us that more remains than just loss: 'often the discourse is about what's been taken from us. How do we shift that to ... what is the cultural capital that we have, as opposed to what is missing in our lives?' (cited in Glow, 75).

Women's creative output was also influenced by colonial framings of Indigenous cultures (Casey, xvii). The prevailing ethnographic discourse represented the cultures as homogeneous primitive relics untouched by change and incapable of surviving its forces. Aboriginal men were the masters of this ancient world of ceremony and the sacred laws and rituals. Authentic 'traditional' forms were avidly gathered by scholars and collectors (Barney, 212). Museums were driven to salvage authentic artifacts from the threat of oblivion and to explain them to the world. In the inaugural Aboriginal Art of Australia exhibition in London in 1957, men's bark paintings from Arnhem Land and Melville and Bathurst Islands were presented as relic artifacts from the 'art of a living race comparable in its social and cultural development to the prehistoric men of the Stone Age'. Meanwhile, innovative hybrid creative works and women's domestic and ritual artifacts were overlooked. This ethnographic discourse proved tenacious over the decades and was only gradually undermined from the 1970s, due in part to the efforts of Indigenous women like acclaimed artists Fiona Foley (Badtjala) and Julie Gough (Palawa), who have critically deconstructed this frame in installations that unflinchingly seek to depose conventional colonial histories.

Indigenous women artists are embedded in the responsibilities and constraints of their community cultural obligations as well as those of the wider art scene. Participants at the 3rd National Indigenous Theatre Forum held in Cairns in 2012 discussed the contrast between the mainstream, where 'all is up for grabs', and the imperative of recognising cultural ownership through a process of 'great sensitivity, protocols and permissions' (Harrison, 2). Banduk Marika (Dhuwa) explains: 'I have to worry about what designs I use. I can't use a design from Western Australia or Central Australia. I couldn't do that; I have to use a design that comes from North-Eastern Arnhem Land - a design that comes from my clan only' (speaking in Featherstone et al.). That these are vital cultural obligations makes the history of white appropriation all the more shameful as artists and designers plundered Aboriginal cultures for their own creative and commercial benefit. Lawyer (and singer songwriter) Terri Janke (Meriam, Wuthathi and Yadaighana) has led the push for recognition by Australian law of Aboriginal collective ownership, cultural protocols and cultural knowledge. The bottom line is that artists must always seek permission from Indigenous owners and artists before making use of their work and any material gain must be returned to them in 'fair portion'.

Indigenous curator Margo Neale refers to the early decades of the 20th century as 'Before Visibility' pointing to the hidden histories of artists working below the radar of the emerging white nation (268). At this time, Aboriginal women pushed through as pioneers, achieving excellence in their work, providing an income for their families and setting an example for their peers and descendants. Previously neglected, their works are now prized by collectors.

Women of the Timbery and Simms families at La Perouse in Sydney, working in small family groups, created innovative shell works using post-contact styles that they handed down the generations. Esme Timbery's (Dharawal) iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge shell works are now prized collector items. In Tasmania, Palawa women maintained the techniques of making shell necklaces and basketry used today by Lola Greeno (Palawa) and contributors to the touring basketry exhibition, Tayenebe (2006-2008). Pitjantara women at the Ernabella art centre (opened in 1948) decorated posters, greeting cards and woollen rugs with their own unique designs for sale by the missionaries. At this time, girls at Carrolup settlement in the southwest of Western Australia were making designs for crockery, while the boys created paintings that influenced generations of Nyungar artists including Alma Toomuth and Bella Kelly.

Women also participated in public performances: tourist corroborees with men in leading roles; the Cumergunja dance and singing troupe of Iris Nelson, Claire Murray and Mona James in the early 1920s; protests for the 1938 Day of Mourning; Aboriginal activist Margaret Tucker (Yorta Yorta) in the 1940s acting in community theatre in Melbourne; Bettie Fisher (Jirrinja) evacuated from Croker Island Mission to Sydney where she began her singing career; and blues and jazz singer Dulcie Pitt (Murri) (performing as Georgia Lee), who made her first recording in 1949 before going to Britain and returning in 1957 and then, in 1962, becoming the first Aboriginal woman to cut her own album.

The policy of assimilation introduced during the 1950s and 1960s opened new opportunities for Aboriginal women by extending citizenship, removing restrictions and controls, and promising better living conditions. However, they were expected to abandon their distinct cultures and adopt an Australian way of life in the suburbs. Aboriginal women were now represented to an interested public as being assimilated into modernity. The exemplar in the national media was the first female Aboriginal film star, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (Utopia), who acted in Jedda directed by Charles Chauvel in 1955. In the media she appeared as a mix of 'exotic difference and glamorous modernism', her Aboriginality adding mystery to the allure of a white movie star (Fox, 48). In government publications like Dawn magazine, she and singer and actor Candy Williams (Koori) were praised as 'assimilation successes' who displayed 'harmonious race relations' within the nation and were a 'credit to their race' (Fox, 93, 95).

Ironically, the Australian public was also keenly interested in 'traditional' Aboriginal cultures. In 1963, Melbourne newspapers reported on the dance troupe from Melville and Bathurst Islands, the Daly River and Yirrkala who performed in the Palais Theatre, the Age (14 November) describing them as 'completely authentic; in this "natural form" the performances have their most appealing aesthetic and spectacular appeal'. Two women from the Daly River song group were reportedly amongst the 45 performers. Similar performances were held at the Perth Festival in 1967.

The early 1970s marked the beginning of a new era for Indigenous arts. A younger generation of activists and artists embarked on a surge of experimentation and innovation that empowered Aboriginal people to represent their cultures and histories to the public according to their own practices and beliefs. The driving themes were celebration of Aboriginal cultures and political protest to right the wrongs of the past, especially through the return of land to communities.

Women stood with men as leaders in the Aboriginal political organisations. Activist and writer Oodgeroo Noonucal (Noonucal) explained that they joined together as Indigenous women and men to fight the legacies of colonialism and added that women had 'more than enough freedom in the Aboriginal world' (Fox, 133). Some women joined the National Council of Aboriginal and Island Women co-founded in 1970 by Aboriginal poet, sociologist and educator Hyllus Maris (Yorta Yorta, Wurundjeri).

The Indigenous arts movement was highly politicised from the beginning. Civil rights and the 1967 Referendum had brought new freedoms and opportunities. In 1968, in an historic first, a Koori female singing group with Laurel Robinson, Lois Peeler, Beverley Briggs and Naomi Mayers (Yorta Yorta) toured army bases in Vietnam. Their story is now a major feature film, The Sapphires (2012), starring Deborah Mailman (Bidjira) and Aboriginal singer Jessica Mauboy, which took out the major honours in the prestigious 2013 AACTA awards. The younger radical leadership of the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra staged innovative protests and performances supported by the new grass-roots Aboriginal organisations. They attracted the attention of leaders from the Black Power, international Indigenous and student movements, as well as practitioners of New Wave theatre and street theatre. Protests continued into the 1980s, peaking during the 1988 Bi-Centenary and the celebratory Survival Day, then into the 1990s with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991), the Bringing Them Home Report on the Stolen Generations (1997) and the 1992 Mabo triumph.

The federal government entered the field following the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 and worked collaboratively to establish the foundations of a landmark system to fund, develop and promote Aboriginal arts under a policy of self-determination. A three-tiered structure was instituted: the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council (1973); the Aboriginal Arts and Crafts marketing company (1971); and a network of arts advisers and arts centres in remote communities. The focus was on 'traditional' arts that attracted international interest. The vitalising force this generated for the desert painting movement is now a matter of legend. Support in other areas of the arts followed in the 1980s, again with a focus on remote areas. In the Kimberley, Goolari Media (Broome) was a catalyst for the now internationally recognised local music scene. Aboriginal television expanded rapidly from the mid-1980s, with CAAMA and Imparja transmitting Aboriginal cultural programs and entertainment from Central Australia. Government support for the development of Aboriginal arts expanded dramatically during the early 1990s under the Keating Labor government.

Back in the 1970s, the grass-roots movement of the Tent Embassy ignited a wave of radical Aboriginal performance that challenged, entertained and sometimes shocked, as Black Theatre groups performed 'sketches and street theatre ... in hotels, in lounges of pubs, in the marches ... all the political demonstrations' (Bostock, cited in Black Theatre). In Sydney and Melbourne, there were Aboriginal firsts in film, theatre and television, including Nindethana Theatre (Melbourne) and Black Theatre (Redfern). Plans to spread the movement across the nation were realised in 1975 when the first National Aboriginal Performing Arts Workshop was held in Redfern. The singer, Bettie Fisher, became the administrator of the Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre from 1974 and supervised classes there in the visual and performing arts.

Old images of assimilated Aboriginal women were banished. Instead, as actor Justine Saunders (Kanomi) recalled, they were portrayed as Indigenous radicals and activists, although in the mainstream they continued to 'fight the stereotype, the white interpretation of the Black story' (Fox, 99). The first Indigenous women's productions also appeared from within film and television industries unaccustomed to working with Aboriginal people. The first film directed by an Aboriginal woman was the overtly political My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979) by Essey Coffey (Muruwari) with Martha Ansara. Then came the award-winning historical drama television miniseries, Women of the Sun, broadcast on SBS Television and the ABC in 1981. Hyllus Maris developed the concept and co-wrote the series, which employed what must have been the largest cast of Aboriginal women actors assembled until then.

In the 1980s, Nyungar theatre burst onto Perth stages with an aesthetic and style that dominated Aboriginal theatre to the end of the century. Using the frames of Nyungar urban cultural and historical knowledge, the plays set out to entertain and to educate white audiences. The focus on family and the sustaining role of wives and mothers opened new opportunties for Aboriginal women and produced a generation of outstanding female actors. Playwright Jack Davis's sisters, Dot Collard and Barbara Henry, and niece Lynnette Narkle, acted in the plays along with members of their extended family, all untrained actors who intuitively worked themselves into the characters to release the drama of their own lives.

The Broome musical, Bran Nue Dae by Jimmy Chi, joyfully celebrated Aboriginal performance in all its elements and hybrid influences. Playing to packed houses around Australia in the early 1990s, it created a revolutionary vision of Aboriginal performance as cool, fun and exciting. The musical launched and extended the careers of many of the women performers notably Ningali Josie Lawford Wolf (Wangkatjungka), Leah Purcell (Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka), Della Rae Morrison (Nyungar) and Maroochy Barambah (Turrbul-Gubbi Gubb).

A further West Australian development was one-woman Aboriginal autobiographical theatrical performances. The prototype was Ningali (1994), written and performed by Ningali Josie Lawford Wolf. This politicised theatre of 'talking back' (Helen Thomson, cited in Glow, 72) set the style for several shows by women (and some men) that followed: Box the Pony (Leah Purcell and Scott Rankin, 1997); I Don't Wanna Play House (Tammy Anderson (Palawa), 2002); The 7 Stages of Grieving (Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, 1996). The shows' distinctive qualities and devices included: the use of Aboriginal languages and dance; addressing the audience directly; exposure through story-telling of painful personal life stories mixed with humour; a focus on the roles of women in family and community and their survival; and the joyful celebration of Aboriginal cultures (Glow, 71-7). These productions destabilised assumptions about Australian history and Aboriginal homogeneity and demonstrated instead that there was 'no one kind of Aboriginal person or community' and no 'one "right way" to be Aboriginal' (Marcia Langton, cited in Glow, 76).

Aboriginal performing arts burgeoned during the 1990s. The emerging generation of young women became leaders in their fields of theatre in the new century as actors, directors (actor Rachael Maza), writers and back stage. Vital for extending opportunities for women in all areas of theatre production were the first Aboriginal performing arts theatre companies: Ilbejerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative (Victoria, 1990); Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre (Western Australia, 1993); and Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts (Queensland, 1993). The establishment in 2007 of National Indigenous Television (with SBS from 2013) continued to widen the niche for Aboriginal women working in the performing arts.

The first generation of professional Indigenous women film makers emerged in the 1990s and they too became leaders in their fields. Tracey Moffatt had already built her international career during the 1980s with films Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) and her feature film Bedevil (1993). This flourishing of new talent followed the establishment of the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission in 1993, with funding for training development and film projects. From this came a series of groundbreaking 'world stories dealing with issues of culture, religion, family, love, politics and social welfare specifically rooted in aboriginal and torres strait islander [sic] cultures' (Gallasch, 3). Leading women, to name just a few, include: Michelle Torres (Yawurru/Goonyandi), director of fifteen documentaries, her most recent being Jandamarra (2011); director Beck Cole (Yawuru/Djarbera-Djabera), Plains Empty (2004); Darlene Johnson (Dunghutti), writer and director, Crocodile Dreaming (2006); and Rachel Perkins (Arrernte), acclaimed film and television director of feature films and documentaries Radiance (1998), Bran Nue Dae (2008) and The First Australians (2008). These developments also assisted women actors moving into film, notably Deborah Mailman, who won her first AFI award in Radiance (1998) and is now Australia's best-known Indigenous female actor of film and stage.

These extraordinary achievements in the performing arts were paralleled by developments in Aboriginal visual arts over the same period. These too were testimony to the brilliance and dedication of the artists but, in this case, the artists in remote areas had the support from the beginning of government funding and community arts centres and interested public and private galleries, some who advocated for protection of Aboriginal commercial interests and cultural rights, and an increasingly generous financial market for their works and system of art awards and professional recognitions. Also pivotal was the homelands movement of family groups returning to live on country following the transfer of lands to traditional owners and the advent of community control and management. Today distinctive regional painting styles can be mapped across the desert areas and northern Australia: Central Australia; PY (Pitjantjara and Yankunytjatjara) and NPY (Ngaanyatjarra) Lands; the Kimberley and the West; Top End and Arnhem Land; Queensland and Torres Strait Islands (McCulloch & McCulloch Childs, 3).

Well into the 1980s, men remained the major artists, reflecting the continuing ethnographic frame and male dominance in art centres, and also the sacred nature of symbols used in their paintings. At Papunya, women often worked alongside the men artists in their roles as wives, sisters, daughters or extended kin. At Utopia, the Women's Batik Group (formed in 1977) created Aboriginal textiles for the fashion market. Both contexts were incubators for women artists.

From the late 1980s, women began painting their own distinctive regional and personal styles. Kintore women from near Papunya started in the 1990s, using a distinctive expanded traditional palette with brighter colours and loose brush strokes, as in the work of the famous artist, Mankiinti Napanangka (Pintupi). The women artists combined painterly brilliance with community leadership as strong women respected for their knowledge and leadership in the Law and women's ceremonial business. They were respected mothers and grandmothers, who supported their families from their art sales and were a vital force in their communities. Such was the life of Australia's best-known Aboriginal woman artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Anmatyerre), who, in 1989, aged in her 70s, began painting her country and Dreaming, developing her own unique colourist style in over 3000 works that are represented in major galleries and public and private collections in Australia and overseas.

Clusters of women painters linked by close ties of kinship shared rights to creation stories and innovative painting styles that passed along the generations. At Utopia, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Anmatyerre) raised her niece, Barbara Weir (Anmatyerre), painter, land rights activist and the first woman president of the Urapunta Council, who in turn encouraged her mother, Minnie Pwerle (Anmatyerre), to take up painting in 2000; her daughter, Charmaine Pwerle (Anmatyerre), has since launched her own career as an artist.

For these women, working as artists brought personal and creative growth and pride in the opportunity to promote their cultures, and there was the joy of experimenting as well. The works drew power from the cycle of ceremonies that reaffirmed women's replenishing powers through myth, dance and song and the sacred marks made on sand, rocks, ritual objects and their bodies. The major artist, Gloria Petyarre (Anmatyerre), found inspiration in 'awelye'- the body paint for ceremonies. Lilly Kelly Napangardi from the Mt Liebig community, northwest of Alice Springs, drew on the sacred and poetic imagery of sand hills in her country and the ephemeral movement of the wind across them. In the East Kimberly, Queenie McKenzie (Gija) revived local women's law and ceremonial knowledge and taught this to young women. For many years, she painted with her kinsmen, Rover Thomas, creating works in gentle colours of soft pinks, browns and yellows that often shocked with their horrific stories of massacres within.

Leading Indigenous women painters like Emily Kame Kngwarreye were quickly taken up by the international art world. Works by Kintore painter Ningura Napurrula, who adopted a monochromatic palette of black and whites, now adorn ceilings in the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. New styles continued to emerge in the new century. The work 'light painting' by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu's (Gumatj) for the 2012 Sydney Biennale is a collaboration with new technology, being a projection work of 100 or so randomly sequenced designs. Women's craft forms were also joining the high end of market. The renowned fibre artist, Yvonne Koolmatrie (Ngarrinjderi), used traditional materials and basket coil stitch techniques for her eel and yabby traps and Lorraine Connelly-Northey (Waradjari) created innovative works that weave found and traditional materials together into dilly bags and other women's artifacts. These featured prominently in the 2013 Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA in Brisbane.

During the 1980s, women artists living outside these remote areas became increasingly frustrated by the mainstream discourse of Aboriginal tradition, authenticity and romanticism in remote Australia. City galleries refused to show their works, considering their styles and art school training too Western and their issue-driven works 'too hard' and 'too political' (Boomalli). It was not until 1983 that the first government funding was allocated to them. In Sydney, a group of mainly women artists followed the independent action of earlier activists and staged two exhibitions, Koori Art '84 and Urban Koories (1986), taking over white gallery spaces and pointedly exhibiting there as Aboriginal artists. Reviewers attacked the exhibited works as 'second rate art' and 'a passing fad' (Croft, 52).

These exhibitions marked the beginning of Australia's contemporary urban Indigenous art movement. In 1987, the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative was formed- the name meaning 'to strike, to make a mark, to fight back, to light up' in the Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri and Bundjalung languages. Boomalli artists worked in a variety of contemporary media, including painting, sculpture, textiles, photography, video, new media and installation. Their work challenged popular misconceptions and celebrated the diversity of Indigenous expression. Women members included Bronwyn Bancroft (Bandjalang, designer, Boomalli manager, arts advocate), Brenda Croft (Gurindji, photographer, artist, curator, writer), Avril Quail (Nunugal-Goenpul, print-maker, curator, writer), Fiona Foley (Badtjala, diverse media, installations, international artist), Tracey Moffatt (photographer, film maker, international artist) and Rea (photographer). All achieved wide acclaim and exhibited around Australia and overseas. Through their work as artists, curators and writers, they also helped to shape the representation of contemporary Indigenous cultures and political issues affecting them. Boomalli continues to operate a studio, exhibition space and retail outlet despite funding challenges over the years.

Women artists have worked to bridge the divides created by the public's narrow framing of Aboriginal visual and performing arts and the cultural and geographic separations between north and south and east and west. Fiona Foley resists simplistic labels of traditional and urban: 'I have real trouble saying "urban" ... I think it would be helpful and true to recognize different people's countries. I am a Butchulla person' (Tjakamarra, Marika & Skipper). Like other women artists, Foley has found inspiration working across these divides, in her case, through visits to Maningrida. Ceramicist Thancoupie moved south from Weipa in North Queensland to study painting at East Sydney Technical College but took up pottery after realising the deep cultural meanings of clay for her culture and so decided 'clay would be my art and also my legends' (cited in Isaacs, 713). Banduk Marika travelled from Yirrkala to the Canberra School of Art in the early 1980s and, as artist-in-residence there, studied printmaking and subsequently became a leader in the field. Bangarra Dance Theatre collaborates with Arnhem Land communities in cultural exchanges that artistic director Stephen Page describes as an 'organic process ... here's this full circle of giving back from where inspiration is' (cited by James, 4). Some artists have settled permanently away from their homelands. Destiny Deacon is a Torres Strait 'Mainland Islander' living in Melbourne, where she works with a variety of media to create installations and her photographs, which mix 'fantasy, reportage, humour, and political comment', to create haunting re-castings of stereotypes of gender and hybridity (Fraser, 571). Melbourne-based Ellen Jose explores her Torres Strait identity in works such as her installation, RIP Terra Nullius, which responds to the Mabo case. Artists also make physical and metaphysical journeys back to the country their families were forced to leave. Judy Watson (Waanyi) has been profoundly influenced by her experience of travelling to northwest Queensland to the country of her maternal ancestors, and her yearning for this heritage permeates her paintings, installations and writing:

I listen and hear these words a hundred years away
that is my Grandmother's Mother's Country
it seeps down through blood and memory and soaks into the ground.
(cited in Fink, 735)

Treanha Hamm (Yorta Yorta ) learns from her country on the Murray River and has revived the Koori art form of possum-skin cloaks. Julie Dowling (Yamatji-Badimaya) draws on her Aboriginal family history and uses Western painting conventions to create portraits that represent the lives of her family and the historical experiences of Aboriginal women generally.

By 2000, Indigenous women around the nation were in senior arts positions as bureaucrats, lawyers, entrepreneurs, curators and festival directors. For example, actor Lydia Miller is executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, the peak national body and film maker Sally Riley (Wiradjuri) is manager of the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission. Curators from state and national cultural institutions include Hetti Perkins (Arrente), Margo Neale, Franchesca Cubillo (Larrakia, Bardi, Wardaman and Yanuwa) and Doreen Mellor (Mamu/Ngagen). Curators have moved on in the new millennium from carving out permanent sites for Aboriginal works in the nation's major cultural institutions to working collaboratively to transform these organisations by infusing Indigenous systems of knowledge and ways of working. An example is the touring exhibition Yiwarrukuju: The Canning Stock Route (2010) in which 50 artists and custodians collaborated with National Museum of Australia staff and young Aboriginal curators to share in paint, dance, video and story-telling the 'renegotiations' that had served to 'preserve an ancient understanding, but also to bring it forward into a new truth, a truth which we are all privileged to share' (Ngurra Kuru Walyja).

Festival directors have showcased the diversity of contemporary Indigenous arts to transform the public's narrow imaginings of Indigeneity. The 1997 Festival of Dreaming, organised in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics by artistic director Rhoda Roberts (Bundjalung), showed the best in contemporary Indigenous arts to the world. The Dreaming Festivals that Roberts directed at Woodford in southeast Queensland between 2005 and 2011 were more reflective of Aboriginal ceremonies with their celebration of custodianship of the land and the diversity and dynamism of Indigenous cultures. The Festivals created carnivalesque Aboriginal sites where white Australians became fringe dwellers and their conventional framings of Indigenous cultures and identity became untenable. From within this uncomfortable liminal space, they were challenged by Indigenous performers to join with them to 'see … think, feel and partake in creatively re-imagining the country and Australianness' (Slater, 179).

Additional sources: Age (Melbourne), 14 November 1963. Enoch, Wesley, 'Interview 2005', cited in Glow, Hilary, 'Recent Indigenous Theatre in Australia the Politics of Autobiography', International Journal of the Humanities 4, no. 1 (2006): 71-7.

Published Resources


  • Featherstone, Don, Dingo, Ernie, Barry, Tony and Penglase, Joanna, Dreamtime Machine Time, Featherstone Productions, Sydney, New South Wales, 1987. Details


  • Ngurra Kuru Walyja - One Country One People: Stories from the Canning Stock, Macmillan, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Casey, Maryrose, Creating Frames Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967-1990, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 2004. Details
  • Fremantle Arts Centre, We Don't Need a Map. A Martu Experience of the Western Desert, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2012. Details
  • Langton, Marcia, "Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television": An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • McCulloch, Susan and McCulloch Childs, Emily, McCulloch's Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Complete Guide, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Balnarring, Victoria, 2008. Details
  • Read, Sir Herbert Edward; Montford, Charles P; Institute of Contemporary Arts; and South Australian Museum, Bark Paintings: Aboriginal Art of Australia [Catalogue of an exhibition held at ICA Gallery (Institute of Contemporary Arts), London, August 1957], Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, England, 1957. Details

Book Sections

  • Enoch, Wesley, 'Performance', in Sylvia Kleinert, Margo Neale and Robyn Bancroft (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000, pp. 349-54. Details
  • Fraser, Virginia, 'Destiny Deacon', in Sylvia Kleinert , Margo Neale and Robyne Bancroft (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000, p. 571. Details
  • Haebich, Anna, 'Reveries of Light And Water', in Diane Moon (ed.), Floating Life Contemporary Aboriginal Fibre Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Queensland, 2009, p. 45. Details
  • Hannah, Fink, 'Judy Watson', in Sylvia Kleinert, Margo Neale and Robyne Bancroft (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details
  • Isaacs, Jennifer, 'Thancoupie', in Sylvia Kleinert, Margo Neale and Robyne Bancroft (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000, p. 713. Details
  • Mundine, Djon, 'A Dance through the Desert', in Dancing Up Country: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003, pp. 68-71. Details
  • Neale, Margo, 'United in the Struggle: Indigenous Art from Urban Areas', in Sylvia Kleinert , Margo Neale and Robyne Bancroft (eds), Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000, pp. 267-77. Details
  • Slater, Lisa, 'Beyond Celebration: Australian Indigenous Festivals, Politics and Ethics', in Scott H. Boyd, Ana Christina Gil and Baldwin Wong (eds), Culture, Politics, Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspective, InterDisciplinary Press, Oxford, England, 2009, pp. 171-9. Details
  • Thomson, Helen, 'Aboriginal Women's Staged Autobiography', in Marc Mauffort and Franca Belarsi (eds), Siting the Other: Revisions of Marginality in Australian and Canadian Drama, PIE-Peter Lang, Brussels, Belgium, 2000. Details
  • Tjakamarra, M.N., Marika, B. and Skipper, P., 'Three Aboriginal Voices: Three Aboriginal Artists', in R. Crumlin and A. Knight (eds), Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Collins Dove, Victoria, 1991, pp. 128-31. Details

Edited Books

  • Gallasch, Keith (ed.), Dreaming in Motion: Celebrating Australia's Indigenous Filmmakers, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, New South Wales, 2007. Details
  • Kleinert, Sylvia, Neale, Margo and Bancroft, Robyne (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details

Journal Articles

  • Barney, Katelyn, 'Gendering Aboriginalism: A Performative Gaze on Indigenous Australian Women', Cultural Studies Review, vol. 16, no. 1 (March), 2012, pp. 212-39. Details
  • Croft, Brenda L., 'A Change is Gonna Come', Periphery, vol. 40-41, Spring-Summer, 2000, pp. 52-5. Details
  • Glow, Hilary, 'Recent Indigenous Theatre in Australia: The Politics of Autobiography', International Journal of the Humanities, vol. 4, no. 1, 2006, pp. 71-7. Details
  • Harrison, Jane, 'Realblak: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writing on Indigenous Performing Arts', Realtime, vol. 111, October/November, 2012, pp. 2-24. Details

Magazine Articles

Online Resources