Indigenous Art of FNQ

The Indigenous Art Centre Alliance supports the Indigenous artists of Far North Queensland Indigenous Art Centres.

Fresh, distinctive, vibrant and alive Indigenous paintings, sculpture, prints, fibre art and ceramics reflecting a wide range of styles from the islands of the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria, to the rugged remoteness of Cape York and the lush tropical rainforest and coastal regions of Far North Queensland. 

History of Art in Cape York and Torres Strait Islands

Although awareness has developed for Cape York and Torres Strait Islander art it has not yet been fully realised. There are many reasons for this lack of profile of the diverse communities and cultures of this region. The language groups, communities and cultural practices of Cape York and Torres Strait Islands are as diverse and complex as any in Australia (Burnett, 2003). Yet there is still a common misconception that Australian Indigenous art consists of dots and stripes from the desert and that the art from Far North Queensland is not genuine Indigenous art.

Cape York communities have suffered catastrophic loss from the time of early colonization, impacts from pastoralists and mining were significant factors in the disruption to culture and dispersal of communities, yet through this some of the traditional and unique culture has been retained (Burnett, 2003).

While explorers, prospectors and settlers had moved into most of North Queensland by the mid nineteenth century, dispossessing Aboriginal people of their land, they had left the rainforest regions alone. Most of the rainforest was seen as impenetrable with dense thick and prickly foliage; dark and gloomy with slippery and muddy ground. The rainforest people did not share the Europeans perception of this land and were left to lead a rich and cultural life, making and decorating objects found nowhere else in Australia (Caruana, 2003).

The rainforest regions along the east coast of Cape York are known for their painted clubs, throwing sticks, shields and weavings which are characterized by bold and geometric designs. The range and variety of these designs suggest a highly developed visual language, with a number being described to denote totemic species as well as objects such as boomerangs and carrying bags. (Caruana, 2003). The bicornuate woven baskets made from lawyer cane; also known as ‘wait a while’ due to its stick and prickly stems and leaves, is a basket common to the rainforest people around Cardwell and Atherton Tablelands used for carrying as well as straining food; it was commonly decorated with geometric designs made from earth pigments (Kleinhart & Neale, 2000) & (Caruna, 2003). Contemporary versions of the bicornuate baskets are made today by artists at the Girringun Art centre in Cardwell, which honour this ancient tradition.

On the Western Cape simple figurative sculptures as in figure 2 have emerged from Aurukun, usually painted in broad areas of colour, similar to ceremonial body decorations, they represent ancestral beings in human and animal form. The sculptures were the focus of ceremonial narrative dances (Caruana, 2003). The people from Aurukun had successfully repelled Dutch explorers in the 17th century, but were not as successful in deterring the miners in the 20th century who under government legislation forced the native people of Aurukun to live in missions. However many people still remained outside the mission until the 1950’s. This has been an important factor in the retention of traditional cultural practises, and in particular sculptural practise which is unique to this area (Demozay, 2006). This sculptural tradition continues today, and although highly sought after, few are made for sale outside the community

The Lardil and Kaiadilt people on Mornington Island in the south–eastern basin of the Gulf of Carpentaria have associations with Aurukun in the east, Groote Eylandt in the West and Bentinck Island in the south. In the 1950’s bark painting had become a feature of the of Mornington Island art, showing some connections to the styles with bark painting used in Groote Eylandt, (Caruna,2003). During the 1970’s people started using acrylic paint on bark and producing works for sale. By the 1980’s an arts facility was built where artists continued to make artefacts and began painting with acrylics on canvas (Mirnidyan Gunua Aboriginal Corporation, 2009). The Kaiadilt people come from the Bentinck Islands; they were evacuated from their country by missionaries in the 1940’s to Mornington Island, although in recent years many have returned to the Bentinck Islands. The Kaiadilt people had only the scantiest of traditions in visual arts, with simple body decorations and simple string crafts (Evans, 2010). Art from the Lardil and Kaiadilt people on Mornington Island continues today with many members of the community developing contemporary styles that draw from stories of their lives and country (Mirnidyan Gunua Aboriginal Corporation, 2009). Art produced by the Kaiadilt people shows distinct orientation towards, the sea, strand and story places, but not any pre-existing art traditions (Evans, 2010).

Lockhart River on the eastern side of Cape York is inhabited by the Sandbeach people. Sporadic visits by seafaring Europeans occurred in early colonial times, as well as contact and exchange with people from the Torres Strait Islands, Melanesia and Asia during the pearling and trochus shell collecting era of the 20th century. A mission was set up in 1924 which initiated systematic intervention in traditional ways of life, which has over time developed into a more bicultural and self-determined community (Butler, 2008). Contemporary art making in Lockhart River draws on this contact heritage in developing a visual language that sustains its cultural survival. The art represents the community of Lockhart River today and how past traditions and future aspirations are woven into the fabric of everyday existence.

The people of the Torres Strait Islands have cultural influences from Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific, making their art traditions distinctively different to those on mainland Australia (McCulloch & McCulloch, 2009). Contact with Europeans was intermittent until the London Missionary Society established itself on Erub (Darnley Island) in 1871. Over the decades the cumulative effect of missionary prohibitions and colonial rule disrupted but did not eradicate traditional practises however its influences did spread throughout the Torres Strait Islands (Caruana, 2003).

Badu Island in the Torres Strait has held strong cultural traditions such as making stunning turtle shell masks, headdresses and dance accessories which were made for ceremonies (Caruna, 2003).Alick Tipoti constructs contemporary versions of these masks for today’s art markets. Tipoti uses fibreglass to replicate the look and feel of turtleshell, as well as resin, fibre, beads, rope and feathers in his masks.   

Cairns was, and still is a central meeting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists. In 1983 art classes in painting and drawing were held in St Monica’s Cathedral in Cairns and later moved to Cairns TAFE College were formal classes were set up by Anna Eglitis. It was around this time that Australian Indigenous art started to dominate the art market, and the general public were becoming more aware of social issues affecting indigenous people. (Quaill, 2003). Many pioneering artists from Cape York and Torres Strait Islands have acquired the basis of their art practise from this TAFE course and taken those skills back to their communities, sharing their knowledge. This new knowledge allows Indigenous artists from Cape York and Torres Strait Islands to reflect on influences from their ancestral histories, and endures today to present audiences with unique contemporary styles of absolute cultural and artistic integrity.

Author:  Anthony Castles 2013

Information sources:


Burnett, D 2003, Story Place, Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest, Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, Queensland.

Butler, S 2008, Our Way, Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia Queensland.

Cairns Regional Gallery, 1998 Ilan Pasin, This is our way, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns, Queensland.

Caruna, W 2003, Aboriginal Art, Thames & Hudson, London, U.K...

Demozay, M 2001, Gathering, Keeira Press, Southport Queensland.

Kleinhart, S & Neale, M 2000, Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria.

McCulloch, S & McCulloch, E 2009, Contemporary Aboriginal Art, The Complete Guide, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Books, Balnarring, Victoria.

McNaught, P 2013, Alick Tipoti, Sugu Mawa mask, The Museum, Volume 3, March – August 2013, pp.  31.

Quaill, A 2003, Story Place, Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest, Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, Queensland.