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A History of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Printmaking

Aboriginal printmaking emerged in the 1960's and early 1970's. Although it can be said that it began much earlier in the form of stencilled images of hands that are found on cave walls throughout Australia.

The first prints were linocuts produced by Aboriginal artist, activist and writer Kevin Gilbert in the mid 1960's who learnt the technique while in Long Bay Prison as part of a prison art program. These Prints were later exhibited after Gilbert's release in 1970 and remain amongst his most powerful works, although they did not become well known until a decade later.

The first "traditional" Aboriginal people to learn printmaking were Tiwi artists Bede Tungutalum and Giovani Tipungwuti. In 1970 they learnt woodblock printing from Madeline Cleer on Bathurst Island. In the same year Bede and Giovani established Tiwi Designs. In 1971 on Elcho Island John Rudder provided Charlie Matjuwi, Monydirri and Botu with linoblocks which they carved with designs traditionally incised on wooden sculpture and utilitarian implements. This was the first example of how traditional carving techniques and imagery could be transposed without compromise into a contemporary printmaking medium.

Around the same time, Jorg Schmeisser, head of printmaking at the Canberra School of Art demonstrated how prints were made to an Aboriginal from Arnhem Land called Albert. Albert in return demonstrated the preparation of bark for painting. As a result of this cultural exchange Albert produced a small drypoint, the first etching intaglio printing link produced by an Aboriginal artist.

The publication of prints was developed through the commissioning of already successful painters. The first organisation to publish Aboriginal prints was the Aboriginal Artists Agency established by the Australia Council for the Arts. In 1979 Dinny Nolan Jampijinpa was commissioned via the Agency by the Canadian Government to produce a print for the Commonwealth Print Portfolio for the Alberta Winter Olympics. The portfolio also included a print by an Inuit artist Kenojuah. The Inuit had been producing limited edition prints since 1958 and a strong market for these prints had developed, enabling many Inuit artists to be financially independent.

Given the success of printmaking for Inuit artists and the reception that Nolans print received, The Aboriginal Artists Agency went on to commission Johnny Bulunbulun and David Malaybuma from Manigrida linkto Arnhem Land to produce a set of six screenprints link to screenprinting in collaboration with Port Jackson Press. These were the first limited edition prints by Aboriginal artists to be widely marketed.

In the 1980's A number of Urban Aboriginal artists link to urban Aboriginal art were on the forefront of the development of printmaking as a region for indigenous expression. They included Arone Meekes, Fiona Foley, Judy Watson, Sally Morgan, and Jeff Samuels. Urban Aboriginal artists were attracted to printmaking not only for the qualities of fine art printing but also for the production of posters that were used for political protest. The Bicentennial of European colonisation in 1988 was treated by Aboriginal People as a year of mourning, giving rise to a huge output of potent political posters. Of particular mention are Kevin Gilbert's "Treaty '88", Wendy Dunn's "Australia Day (Australia Day= Invasion Day, 1988- What's there to celebrate)" and Sally Morgan's "People United In Sorrow".

Until the 1990's almost all prints were produced in major southern cities, many of these prints were made at the Canberra School of Art from 1976, Studio 1 Canberra (1979) and the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne. Workshops were quite often facilitated by government funding organisations. There were also early workshops set up in Aboriginal communities by printmakers such as Theo Tremblay, who from 1989 has taken a lithographic press to the Tiwi Islands, Central Arnhem Land and South Australia. A lecturer at the Canberra School of Art, Tremblay initiated 'Mara Maru' (Black Hands), a workshop dedicated to furthering collaborative printmaking with Aboriginal Artists. Over the next 10 years, artists such as Banduk Marika, Bede Tungutalum, Arone Meekes, Jimmy Pike, Judy Watson and many others participated. This culminated in the exhibition 'Groundworks - collaborative prints at the Canberra School of Art'.

In 1992 the exhibition 'Old Tracks New Land' began a four year tour of the USA. This exhibition and accompanying 88-page catalogue was the first historical overview of Aboriginal printmaking. The exhibition resulted in unprecedented sales and lead to a dramatic increase in the number of artists working in the medium.

A year later the exhibition toured Australia, corresponding with "'Getting into prints' - A Symposium on Aboriginal Printmaking " which was held at the Northern Territory University. The Symposium was a watershed for indigenous printmaking and lead to the opening up of the University facilities to Aboriginal communities and eventual establishment of Northern Editions, with master printmaker Basil Hall as director.

Since the mid ninety's many Aboriginal communities particularly in Arnhem Land ,Tiwi Islands and the Torres Strait have had access to printmaking equipment. Workshops have been established at Yirikala, Oenpelli, Bathurst Island (Tiwi Designs), and Mua Island in the Torres Strait. The opening of such work shops has allowed for the exploration of many forms of printmaking; most commonly screen-print, woodblock and linocut prints as the equipment for these printing techniques are relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain.

The establishment of a print workshop in the Torres Strait Islands is an exciting recent development in indigenous printmaking. Torres Strait art and culture has undergone an expansion through the hands of four young printmakers; Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun and Victor Motlop. These artists, with the knowledge and permission of their tribal elders have transposed stories originally told though traditional wood carving and the spoken word to limited edition prints. These prints are a visual interpretation of the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Thus these linocut prints have become a way of preserving Torres Strait Island culture for future generations and bringing it to much wider audience.

More recent benchmarks in the history of Aboriginal printmaking have included the series of Yuendumu Door prints produced by Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. Also Yilpinji, Love, Magic and Ceremony, is the first exhibition of thematic prints on "Yilpinji", the love magic practiced by the Warlpiri and Kukatja people of the Central and Western deserts of Australia.

In 1996, the Australian Art print Network was established and in 1999, aboriginalartprints.com.au went online. This website is the most extensive site devoted to limited edition prints by Australian indigenous artists. Through it's website, sales to other Australian and overseas galleries, and Australian and international touring print exhibitions, the Australian Art Print Network has given collectors around the world the opportunity to view and purchase the latest Aboriginal prints published in Australia. The Australian Art Print Network was the first and still is the only company to widely market and publish limited edition prints by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Many of the Art Centres who represent the artists in their communities are also publishers of prints. These prints tend to be sold from the Art Centre and are not widely seen in the capital city galleries. Apart from a handful of communities that have their own printmaking facilities almost all the prints produced today emanate from the printmaking studios of:

  • Basil Hall Editions, Darwin
  • Northern Editions, Charles Stuart University, Darwin
  • Editions Tremblay NFP, Cairns
  • Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne

A noted exception is the Torres Strait Islander artists who are also their own printmakers. This has come about largely because of the highly successful educational printmaking facility at Cairns TAFE where many of these artists have studied. The first printmaking studio and art centre in the Torres Strait will open on Moa Island late 2004 Printmaking is now a major field of artistic endeavour for indigenous artists, with currently over 500 editions being produced annually. Print studios, and publishers such as the Australian Art Print Network have in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists around Australia, expanded the media for the expression of both contemporary and traditional Aboriginal culture. This partnership is greatly increasing accessibility to Aboriginal art and has created a new income stream for indigenous communities throughout Australia which in turn has resulted in greater autonomy for indigenous people.

Recommended reading...

Aboriginal Art

“Aboriginal Art”

New Edition
By Wally Caruna

Aboriginal artists today practice the world's longest continuous tradition of art. Widely sought after, Aboriginal art has now taken its place in the collections of the great museums and galleries. ... more

Published by Thames & Hudson; 2nd edition 2003
ISBN: 0 500 20366 0
Price A$ 37