We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art tour

Join our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art team on an audio tour of ten works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

This audio tour was recorded in September 2020 at the Art Gallery on Gadigal land of the Eora nation.

An introduction to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art audio tour.

Recorded in September 2020

Thanks for joining us on this tour of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection. 

Let’s  start by  acknowledging the  Gadigal  of the  Eora nation,  the  Traditional  Owners of the land on which we’re standing. We hope you enjoy this audio experience  that’s  been written  and read  by staff from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art team.

Hear from programs assistant, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Liam Keenan about Lola Ryan's artwork 'Sydney Harbour Bridge' 2008.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Lola Ryan Sydney Harbour Bridge 2008. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Peter Flay 2000.

Hello, my name is Liam, and I’m a Kamilaroi artist and an Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

I like talking about this small sculpture because it represents Sydney and the city’s history in such a unique way. This, of course, is the iconic form of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, adorned with seashells of different colours and shapes.

Shellwork Harbour Bridges like this are very specific to Sydney and the Aboriginal community of La Perouse. The practice of collecting and making art from shells is passed down through women in a number of Aboriginal families from the region.

What I find fascinating about this work is the way it’s connected to Sydney and our environment. It might look easy to make, but each shell was collected by hand at specific locations on the coastline.

Some shells are only found at particular beaches at particular times, so you can imagine the effort that goes into a work like this before it’s even made! Feel free to get up close and try and count the number of different shells you see.

For me, Ryan’s impressive Sydney Harbour Bridge represents the strength and solidarity of the Aboriginal communities that make Sydney so unique.

Join programs producer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Wesley Shaw about John Mawurndjul's artwork Mardayin 2001.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: John Mawurndjul Mardayin 2001. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 2002.

Hi I’m Wesley. I’m a Yuin, Dharawal, Ngarigo man and programs producer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Gallery.

Come in close and take a moment to appreciate the masterful chemistry of John Mawurndjul’s work. The dizzying visual effects make it easy to get lost in this painting. Mawurndjul is arguably the finest bark painter working today. There is an alchemy to his practice. Magical combinations of natural pigment are delicately and meticulously applied to the surface.

Select any panel within this painting. Look closely and you’ll find each one is unique. Intricate designs known as rarrk shift between black, red, yellow and white. You can’t help but notice the complex interplay between them. Cold, stark red lines quickly shift, taking on warm orange tones.

Now pick a line and try to follow it through the work. You’ll find you’re often met with sharp shifts in direction. This movement relates to the slithering and dazzling optical effects associated with the skin of Ngalyod, the serpent. Each line is different to the next. Each individual panel is a unique part of the whole. They have the ability to draw you close, and at the same time push you away. This is the power of Mawurndjul’s abstract patterning.

Hear from Wesley Shaw, programs producer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, about Timmy Timms's artwork 'Mistake Creek Massacre' 2000.

Image: Timmy Timms Mistake Creek Massacre 2000. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 2003.

Recorded in September 2020

Hi, I'm Wesley I’m a Yuin, Dharawal, Ngarigo man and Programs Producer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Gallery.

This painting by Timmy Timms is composed of bold, outlined elements of the landscape. Its rich colours of red, black and white come from natural pigments. The story it tells is haunting.

Here Timms recounts the history of the 1915 massacre at Mistake Creek in East Kimberley where members of his family were murdered. This painting is uncompromising and truth-telling. This painting is shared history.

In his art, as in his life, Timms made it his primary goal to pass on to younger generations his knowledge of the Ngarrangkarni, including histories of his Country such as this one. Timms and his family have carried memories of the tragic events that occurred at Mistake Creek, but the landscape too bore witness to these truths.

With this in mind, you’ll see there are no people in this painting. Instead, Timms gives voice to these stories and people through the landscape itself. Above, he paints a boab tree framed by hills. Below are remnants of the pyre where the bodies were burnt. This is the power of art from the East Kimberley. The power to paint the so-called bones of Country.

Hear from Kirra Weingarth, programs assistant, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art about Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu's artwork 'Untitled' 1997.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu Untitled 1997. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds by the Friends of Yiribana 1998.

Hi I’m Kirra. I'm a Biri woman and Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

Tiwi artist Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu, also known as Kitty Kantilla, once said that ‘to dance is to sing is to paint’. This is a beautiful way to understand Purawarrumpatu’s artwork. The more you look at this painting the more it begins to sing and dance.

When I look at this painting, I see a visual harmony and balance. There’s a kind of rhythm that plays out in the shift between geometric forms and the trembling trails of dots. Look closely at the lacework of lines, the intermittent fields of colour and the traceries of dots. Notice the brushwork and the individuality of each dot. This brilliant and original painting vibrates. Nothing stays still.

The restricted palette of red, black, yellow and white ochre honours Tiwi traditions. These designs, known as Jilamara, are a visual language shared by Tiwi people. Although Purawarrumpatu paints designs inherited from her father, she has interpreted them in her own way.

Purawarrumpatu was a leading artist within her community. She worked every day at Jilamara Arts and Crafts. This art centre was established by Tiwi people at Milikapiti on Melville Island in 1989, to ensure the maintenance of their cultural heritage.

Purawarrumpatu generously shared and celebrated her cultural inheritance through her paintings. This painting does not tell a story or map space. Rather it distils the simplest visual elements: colour, grids and dots. Here Purawarrumpatu invites us to appreciate the beauty of her Jilamara.

Join programs producer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Wesley Shaw about Gunybi Ganambarr's artwork Gapu 2017.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Gunybi Ganambarr, Gapu 2017. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by Rob and Jane Woods 2017.

Hi, my name is Wesley. I’m a Yuin, Dharawal, Ngarigo man, and programs producer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Gallery.

Gunybi Ganambarr is an artist who redefines the conventions of Yolngu art. In unexpected and innovative ways, he pushes the boundaries of his art centre’s policy, which is to use materials derived only from the land.

Take a close look at the surface of this work. Not all is what it seems. Notice how light shimmers off the surface as your eye moves across the sculpture. Can you guess what material might produce this effect?

With this work, Ganambarr has replaced the bark he would usually paint on with a discarded conveyor belt from the mine on his Country. In doing so, he makes a poignant comment on the devastating impact of mining in north-east Arnhem Land. You’ll see the remnant marks of white chalk that hint at this destructive relationship to industry.

Despite the departure from the conventions of bark painting, there is an enduring familiarity in this work. Clan designs for gapu, or freshwater, are intricately carved into this object of exploitation and destruction. Meandering across the surface, these designs have been firmly connected to place since time immemorial.

They denote ownership of, and responsibility for, Country. They speak to the rights of the Yolngu that have eroded like the mined surface of Country itself.

Hear from Kirra Weingarth, programs assistant, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art about Judy Watson's artwork deadly bloom 1997.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Judy Watson's artwork deadly bloom 1997. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Amanda Love 2011. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

Hi, my name’s Kirra. I’m a Biri woman and Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

Standing in front of this work, I’m always struck by the strong rusty reds that bleed into the softer notes of ochres and creams. The more time I spend looking at these hypnotising swirls and colours, the more I uncover.

This painting, like much of Judy Watson’s art, is about unearthing histories and elevating the experiences of Aboriginal people. Here, she presents us with a layered story connected to water and memory. It’s a story that stretches across time and relates particularly to the waters of Sydney Harbour.

Although the imagery is abstract, you’ll notice there are areas of subtle circling patterns. These pools of colour echo the formation of algae blooms that have occurred in Sydney Harbour. This is the result of too much nitrogen and not enough oxygen in the water.

The concentric lines and dashes of paint might be ripples in the water, moving in and around the algae blooms. One layer in this narrative has to do with the colour of the water. Along the coast are sites where both whaling and Aboriginal massacres took place. These are sites where the waters turned red with blood.

Watson’s family – the Waanyi – are said to be ‘running-water people’. So, her cultural link to water adds a further layer to the narratives embodied in this work. Look at how Watson has layered different marks across the bare canvas. Beyond this textural beauty lies a complex history waiting to be revealed.

Consider for a moment, what does this artwork suggest to you?

Hear from programs assistant, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Liam Keenan about Lorraine Connelly-Northey's artwork.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Lorraine Narbong (String bag) 2008. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Women's Art Group 2008.

Hello, my name is Liam. I’m a Kamilaroi artist and an Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

I really enjoy talking about this artwork with visitors because there’s definitely more to it than meets the eye. At first glance, this narbong, or bag, looks like its woven from soft, natural materials. But if you look closer, you can see it’s actually made from sharp, rusted wire.

See how the colour and shade of the rust on the wire makes it look like it’s made from dried grass? In this sculpture, Lorraine Connelly-Northey has replicated important cultural forms with recycled and found materials.

These materials, found on country in the south-east of Australia, are the debris from farming industries that have occupied Aboriginal land. Connelly-Northey's forms embody the continuity of cultural knowledge and presence.

Look at how each piece of wire is threaded and woven in the way a classic Indigenous string bag would be made. Each wire had to be bent and sculpted by hand, until it sat upright.

I love how this gets you thinking about the artist making and shaping this work. How long do you think it might take to make one of these bags?

Hear from Kirra Weingarth, programs assistant, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art about Julie Gough's artwork Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land 2008 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Recorded in June 2020

Image: Julie Gough Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land 2008. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Patricia Lucille Bernard Bequest Fund 2008.

Hi, my name’s Kirra and I’m a Biri woman and Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

Julie Gough’s haunting sculptural installation echoes the exquisite shell necklaces that Tasmanian Aboriginal women have become known for. But here, she’s replaced the iridescent mariner shells with lumps of black coal.

Gough collected the coal from an old working mine in the Fingal Valley of central lutruwita, or Tasmania. This is a region many Tasmanian Aboriginal families were forced out of. Even the shape of the necklace maps out the borderlines of Iutruwita. I think that by using a physical element of the land, Gough is asking us to think about the Country that it was pilfered from, and the Traditional Owners who were removed to make way for pastoral companies. I think she also captures her feelings for place and the unresolved intergenerational trauma she feels from being disconnected from Country.

Now, look at what the necklace hangs from. Draped on prized native Tasmanian oak mounts and deer antlers, the threaded coal hangs like a hunting trophy. Gough displays the necklace this way to reflect on how the British saw lutruwita only as land to be conquered. Deer were introduced by the British in the 1830s, at the same time that Aboriginal communities were being outlawed from their homelands. Understanding Gough’s choices gives us insight into the intentions of this mournful work. Gough poignantly reminds us that the weight of history remains.

Hear from programs assistant, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Liam Keenan about George Ward Tjungurrayi's artwork Untitled (Kutungka Napanangka) 2003.

Image: George Ward Tjungurrayi, Untitled (Kutungka Napanangka) 2003. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 2004.

Recorded in September 2020

Hi, my name is Liam. I’m a Kamilaroi artist and an Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

This painting by George Ward Tjungurrayi was awarded the Gallery’s prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 2004. It’s a favourite for many on guided tours because it speaks to the strong presence Aboriginal artists have had in the Wynne Prize over the past two decades.

Tjungurrayi is known as a leading artist with Papunya Tula Artists. This company was established by a group of artists who began painting in the early 1970s at Papunya, a small Aboriginal community located west of Mparntwe, or Alice Springs.

Tjungurrayi’s reduced palette and minimalist composition evokes the expansive desert landscape of his Country. Looking at the mesmerising dotted linework of this painting, you might begin to see a kind of web take shape. This is Tjungurrayi’s personal adaptation of a style of painting that refers to the travels and ongoing presence of the Tingari. Here, he’s used it to represent Kutungka Napanangka, an old woman who travelled across Country to the west of Walungurru, where Tjungurrayi lives.

Do you notice how his dotting creates a vibrating optical effect? This captures the dynamic nature of Country, its energy, and how ancestors like Kutungka Napanangka remain as an animating presence within it.

Hear from Kirra Weingarth, programs assistant, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art about Noŋgirrŋa Marawili's artwork Baratjala – lightning and the rock 2018.

Recorded in September 2020

Image: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili Baratjala – lightning and the rock 2018. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors tour to Arnhem Land 2018.

Hi, my name’s Kirra. I’m a Biri woman and Indigenous programs assistant at the Gallery.

I love showing visitors this work because it celebrates Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s love for Country. What you see here is Baratjala, an isolated coastal cove during a wild storm. If you look long enough, the white lines seem to vibrate with undercurrents of pulsing energy.

I love the way they capture the euphoric sensation of seeing lightning strike in the distance. You’ll notice that much of the bark’s uneven surface has been left bare. Its colour and texture contrast with the different shades of natural pigment.

Three large ovoid forms are soaked in a soft chalky pink, like clouds banding in the sky. They poetically echo Country, both in their forms and in the materials they’re painted with.

Notice too how Marawili has depicted movement through the loose linear patterns. The ripples in the bark’s surface add to the flowing motion of the work. Now, stand at a distance and see how the painting sings of Country being alive. Marawili shares with us her deep understanding of place as it runs through her hands and onto the bark.

  • 01
    Introduction: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art tour
    24 seconds
  • 02
    Lola Ryan 'Sydney Harbour Bridge' 2008
    1 minute
  • 03
    John Mawurndjul 'Mardayin' 2001
    1 minute
  • 04
    Timmy Timms 'Mistake Creek Massacre' 2000
    1 minute
  • 05
    Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu 'Untitled' 1997
    1 minute
  • 06
    Gunybi Ganambarr 'Gapu' 2017
    1 minute
  • 07
    Judy Watson 'Deadly bloom' 1997
    1 minute
  • 08
    Lorraine Connelly-Northey 'Narbong (String bag)' 2008
    1 minute
  • 09
    Julie Gough 'Dark valley, Van Diemen’s Land' 2008
    1 minute
  • 10
    George Ward Tjungurrayi 'Untitled (Kutungka Napanangka)' 2003
    1 minute
  • 11
    Noŋgirrŋa Marawili 'Baratjala – lightning and the rock' 2018
    1 minute