Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures
As a traveller, understanding Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander story is an invitation to understand Australia’s first and original story.
To look up into Australia’s glittering night sky is to be transported to another place and time. It’s no surprise that for Australia’s First Peoples, their stories and spirituality originate from the world around them. Indeed, that these places had names and stories going back millennia, long before the arrival of the British in 1788.
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - a term used to describe the Aboriginal peoples of mainland Australia and Tasmania and the Indigenous peoples of the Torres Straits - learned how to navigate by understanding astronomy and the movement of the stars. So, the constellation of the Pleiades represents the trans-continental journey of the Seven Sisters whose story is shared by many cultural groups across mainland Australia. Over generations, these stories have been passed down in an unbroken lineage, connecting spirit to people, people to place, place to culture, and embracing family, community and home country.Show more
Dreamtime and spiritual beliefs
Over millennia, Aboriginal Australians have developed a highly complex belief system that interconnect the land, spirituality, lore, culture and care of country. Central to this belief is the concept of the ”Dreamtime“ or ”Dreaming”. Neither of these English words capture the true meaning or nuanced sophistication of this Aboriginal belief-system.
While Aboriginal groups may have their own meaning and stories for the “Dreamtime” broadly, it is understood as the time when spiritual ancestors created the world, and everything that exists. Different Aboriginal groups will also have their own word, in their language, to describe this time of creation, and their own particular creation stories that link to this period.
So, in Yawuru language, in Broome, Bugarrigarra is the word for the Dreamtime or Dreaming; in central Australia, Tjukurpa is the Anangu word referring to the creation period.
The creation stories from across mainland Australia are as equally diverse. The Arrernte people believe Tjoritja (the MacDonnell Ranges) were created by great mounds of caterpillar carcasses when they lost a fierce battle. In South Australia, the River Murray’s sinuous path is carved by Ponde (the giant cod) pursued to his death by Ngurrunderi, a mighty hunter and creator spirit of the Ngarrindjeri nation.
In the Torres Strait, there is no specific word for the “Dreaming” and Torres Strait Islander creation stories are most commonly referenced as the Tagai, who is often represented as a great fisherman and hero, and also shown as a constellation of stars.
"Dreamtime stories link up to the sky, the land, the country, the animals, the people and totems. That’s how and why we are so strongly connected to the land because it goes right back to an ancestral time. The Dreamtime and the Dreaming stories keep us knowing and having that powerful respect for the land."
Unlike in the West where time is viewed as linear, many Indigenous cultures around the world, including Aboriginal Australia, view time differently. On the one hand Aboriginal people have a practical understanding of time, based on the cycles of the day and the rhythm of the seasons. After all, they’ve been successful hunters and gatherers for tens of thousands of years. Yet, another dimension of Aboriginal time exists that is integral to the spirit world and the understanding that everything is interconnected.
"There is no such thing as time. Time is something that we’ve made up for our life, for industry, for being on time for work. Ngujakura is our preferred term for creation, the beginning, when everything came to be. Once we were created [these] stories were passed on to where we are now… They give us everything."
The role of storytelling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture
"We're an awesome country, and we have an awesome story to tell. Technology just keeps changing, but the concept of storytelling doesn't."
Indigenous cultures continue to evolve, reflecting the changing lives and attitudes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. Their stunning contemporary art captures worldwide interest. But there is so much more to see and learn. No matter where you are in Australia, city or rainforest, coast or desert, enrich your stay by experiencing their stories told across many art forms today.
Traditional Indigenous art practitioners do not see themselves as artists but as storytellers. A great diversity of artistic styles and media exists, from the well-known dot paintings of the Western Desert to the cross-hatching, rarrk design and x-ray paintings from Arnhem Land in northern Australia to the ghost net art works of Erub Island in the Torres Straits.
Traditionally, there was rock art, sand and body paintings as well as ochre bark paintings, wood carvings and fibre weaving. Over the past 50 years, western acrylics and canvas have been introduced as well as lino prints, fabric printing, contemporary jewellery and glass-making.
In order to support genuine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, you should only buy pieces from members of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, the Australian Commercial Galleries Association or the Indigenous Art Code. If you’re travelling to remote Australia, visit one of the many community-based Aboriginal art centres. They also market their art nationally and internationally, often online. Key umbrella organisations include Desart and the Association of Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artists of Australia (ANKAAA).
Other opportunities to experience Indigenous art:
- Australia’s major museums and art galleries have Indigenous collections: the Australian Museum - First Australians Galleries in Sydney, the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
- Art Fairs celebrate the best new Indigenous art: the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, the Desert Mob event at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.
- Tours led by Aboriginal guides will take you to ancient rock art sites, galleries and museums to learn about the meaning behind the art, to see how artists create each piece or even learn how to make your own Aboriginal-inspired works.
- The Indigenous Art Centre Alliance (IACA) member art centres are spread across the islands of the Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria, Cape York and the tropical rainforest and coastal regions of Queensland.
Australia has one of the greatest and most diverse concentrations of rock art in the world. In Western Australia, stay at the Munurru campground in the Kimberley (located in the Mitchell River National Park) where an Uunguu ranger can take you to marvel at the finest depictions of naturalistic human figures, known as Gwion Gwion, or the ghost-like Wandjina creation ancestors (an Uunguu visitor pass must be purchased).
In the Northern Territory visit the vast rock art galleries in Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Don't miss Cave Hill, one of the most significant art sites in Central Australia. In Sydney, explore the ancient pecked and engraved art in the sandstone headlands of Sydney Harbour. In South Australia, rock engravings exist in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park at Wilpena Pound, Adnyamathanha Country, and in Victoria you can marvel at rock art in Gariwerd (Grampians National Park).
All around the country you'll find unique Aboriginal rock art experiences.
Festivals are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the richness of Aboriginal cultures. From the annual Garma festival in Arnhem Land to the urban Yabun Festival in Sydney, festivals showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
- Garma, held in Gulkula in North East Arnhem Land and hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF) each August, is where festival-goers rub shoulders with Australian politicians and Yolngu elders in a transformative gathering of arts, culture, politics and knowledge.
- Yabun means “music to a beat” in Gadigal language and is held on 26 January (“Australia Day”), promising activities for adults, children and all the family.
- TARNANTHI in Adelaide hosts an incredible art fair, performances and talks on a huge scale.
- Laura Dance Festival in Queensland’s Cape York is one of the oldest Aboriginal cultural festivals. Held every two years, over 20 Aboriginal communities gather to dance up a storm.
- Tjungu is a four-day festival at Uluru that combines dance, fashion, a short film festival, with masterclasses in modern bush food.
- Grand Final Day on the Tiwi Islands brings together football, family and fun. Football is taken very seriously in the Tiwi and this March event celebrates skilled sportsmanship, and coincides with the annual Tiwi Art Sale.
- Parrtjima, held in the Northern Territory’s Alice Springs, celebrates Aboriginal art, the history of the region, live talks, events, music and installations.
Dance Rites is the Sydney Opera House’s free national First Nations dance competition held on the Forecourt. Audiences are invited to celebrate the transmission of traditional practices by the world's oldest living culture through language, dance, skin markings and instruments.
Dance, theatre & comedy
Traditional dance performances can be seen at festivals and to mark important anniversaries. Since its founding in 1989, Bangarra Dance Theatre has offered audiences the opportunity to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and storytelling re-imagined in an exciting and contemporary way. The dance company tours Australia and internationally, so check their calendar for upcoming performances.
Other dance groups include Djuki-Mala (Chooky Dancers), famous for their Yolngu version of Zorba The Greek and their hilarious version of ‘Singing in the rain.’ In northern Queensland, see Tjapukai Dancers in Cairns and Rainforestation Nature Park dancers in Kuranda.
Aboriginal people are known for their down-to-earth attitude and sense of humour. They’re also “quintessential storytellers,” says Aboriginal comedian, Sean Choolburra, “a role they’ve been honing for thousands of years.”
Check out the listings of comedy festivals and television shows on Australia’s free to air TV channel, NITV, dedicated to telling Aboriginal stories, drama and comedy, on television.
Music & film
There’s an incredible array of Aboriginal musicians including Gurrumul Yunupingu, Dan Sultan, Kev Carmody, Archie Roach, Jessica Mauboy, The Pigram Brothers, Yothu Yindi, Casey Donovan, Emma Donovan and Ursula Yovich to name just a few.
To learn more about Aboriginal cultures, watch an award-winning movie that is rich in humanity and at times very funny or deeply affecting. Films include Samson and Delilah, We Don’t Need A Map, Sweet Country, Mad Bastards, The Sapphires, Beneath Clouds, Ten Canoes, She Who Must Be Loved, Bran Nue Dae, Stone Bros, Mystery Road and Rabbit Proof Fence.