The desert region is most famous as the home of the contemporary acrylic painting movement that began at the community of Papunya in 1971, although this is considered to be the first contemporary innovative art form to come for the desert area, there is an art form that predates the acrylic painting movement. Toas are small painted sculptures that were first made at Killalpaninna, near Lake Eyre in South Australia. They are the first form of portable desert art and were made under the encouragement of a Lutheran Missionary in order to raise funds for the mission. Between 1903 and 1905 approximately 400 Toas were produced and this collection was acquired by the South Australian Museum in 1907. Due to the attitude of the time, the Toas were thought to be a traditional form of sculpture; non-western cultures were generally considered to be non progressive or “traditional” in nature. Toas were believed to be markers left by tribes at sites to describe the areas significance and to act as a sign post indicating who had recently been there and in what direction they were traveling. This explanation was in fact encouraged by the producers, and although Toas adopt the traditional desert lexicon they are in fact totally innovative objects with no cultural precedent.

Desert Iconography

Central Desert iconography places major emphasis upon sites of cosmological significance and the movement of both people and ancestral beings between these sites. This emphasis is very much a reflection of the nomadic existence, required to live in a desert environment. Furthermore, the symbols that are used in desert art a not singular in their meaning, but change according to the context in which they are placed. As an example concentric circles may represent a fire, site, camp or a waterhole. Lines either wavy or straight may denote watercourses, lightning or the paths that ancestral beings took travelling across the land. These symbols may also have a number of simultaneous meanings that are dependent on the viewer’s knowledge of the site and dreaming; Central Desert art often has a public interpretation and a private one that is only accessible to the initiated. During the early stages of the acrylic painting movement that began in Papunya in 1971, more figurative, narrative based elements were painted. Due to the popularity and portability of this new art form and acrylic paintings archival nature, Aboriginal elders became concerned, that important sacred information was becoming accessible to the general public. As a result, later paintings now use symbols that are open to a number of interpretations, allowing for sacred information to be imparted upon those for whom this information was meant for, while simultaneously masking the sacred meanings from the unitiated. This concern shown by Aboriginal elders, resulted in, other communities such as Lajamanu only beginning acrylic painting, in the mid 1980’s, after much serious discussion. Similarly, the use of dotting in Cental Desert art which initially was a form of ornamentation that framed major iconographic elements was expanded to cover large areas of the canvas in order to mask sacred iconography considered inappropriate for general viewing. These fields of dots are also a visual device that can create strong optical effects and are used to emphasize the importance of dreamtime stories and the omnipotence of the ancestral beings.

Although the desert region is vast, the tribal groups within this area are the most cohesive cosmologically, sharing the same language group, stories and ceremony. Major differences in ceremony, stories and design are between the sexes. Religious designs and symbols, the basis of aboriginal art, were originally expressed as body painting, sand drawing and the decoration of utilitarian and ceremonial objects. In desert culture their utilisation can be divided into two sections, Kuruwarri and Yawulyu – religious designs by men and women respectively. Men’s designs often refer to epic tales about the ancestral beings and their travels across vast tracts of land covering many tribal regions and thereby linking the people of these regions together culturally. Women’s designs (yawulyu) are normally associated with fertility, growth and sexuality of the land, plants and animals and of the people. Both men’s and women’s designs are composed of similar iconographic elements, but the meanings are vastly different due to the combination and context of the work. In men’s painting, straight lines between roundlets might express the travels of the Tingari men across vast tracts of land, a similar groups of symbols in a women’s dreaming may express the root system of the bush potato, while simultaneously mapping the sites, soakage’s and rock holes were these plants are to be found.

Region and geography

The desert region of Australia is a vast area, covering large portions of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. This area is one of the most important regions for Aboriginal art, for it is here at the small community of Papunya, that the desert acrylic painting movement began. Although the desert is on first appearance a barren and inhospitable region, it is an area of great geographic variety, and for Aboriginal people with an intimate understanding this environment it is a place were spiritual and physical sustenance can be found. The desert region includes Mountain ranges, Spinifex grass savannah, patches of mulga and eucalyptus trees and impressive rock formations such as Uluru (ayers rock). The region is punctuated by soakages, seasonal watercourses and the rare permanent rock hole. It is the home of a large number of Aboriginal tribal groups. Although food is plentiful, Human survival in the desert, is most dependent on water sources, and as a result the population density has varied across the region according to local conditions. During dry times and in summer Aboriginal people would settle within range of permanent waterholes, normally found in the vicinity of the mountain ranges. During more plentiful times, when the rains had come filling dry watercourses and soakage’s, the population would spread out, travelling into the more inhospitable areas to fully utilise the deserts resources. This pattern of land usage is not without its danger; a sudden change to drier conditions could lead to tribes being stranded at a non-permanent water source, if this happened death was inevitable. There is no definitive knowledge as to when the desert was first settled, over time the desert region has undergone cycles of aridity and fertility. The desert appears to have been settled 12,000 years ago, but could well have been settled earlier during favourable conditions 30,000 years ago then abandoned 18,0000 years ago when the area was at its most arid.

Despite its apparent toughness, the Desert Region is a fragile ecosystem that has been badly affected by European settlement. The introduction of non-native species such as rabbits, the establishment of pastoral stations with livestock, plus other factors have seen the extinction of many animals that were once a plentiful food source for Aboriginal people. European settlement also came with the attendant rounding up of the indigenous population, and resettlement in missions throughout the Central Desert. In recent years these centres have come under aboriginal control and since the 1970’s their has been an extensive outstation movement, establishing new communities on traditional tribal land like Kintore, 400 km west of Alice Springs.


There are many communities in the Central Desert producing art. Despite the close cultural relationships held between different tribal groups, (Link to Aboriginal social organisation) innovation within the acrylic painting movement has led to definite stylistic variations between communities and individual artists. These changes in style can also be seen at a temporal level, for instance, in paintings originally produced at Papunya, Aboriginal artists experimented with the strong hues of modern acrylic paint, but since the mid-1980s there has been a conscious decision to limit the pallet to traditional ochres. Similarly, certain artists such as Emily Kngwarreye fully embraced acrylic paintings possibilities, and in the process vastly expanded the traditional Central Desert lexicon. Major Central Desert art communities include, Papunya, Lajamanu, Utopia, Ernabella, Hermannsburg, Yuendumu and Kintore. Since the 1980’s Aboriginal artists from desert communities have been creating Limited edition prints, including etchings, screen-prints, woodcuts, lithographs and linocuts. Aboriginal art prints has a close association with artists from desert communities, our current touring exhibition Yilpinji, Love Magic and Ceremony has been the result of three years of close collaboration with, senior Central Desert Aboriginal artists from the communities of Lajamanu, Yuendumu and Balgo Hills.

Aboriginal art prints has a large selection of prints from Central Desert Artists including:

  • Emily Kngwarreye from Utopia
  • Paddy Simms from Yuendumu, and
  • Abie Jangala from Lajamanu.
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