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Being Inspired by Indigenous Culture


Advice from an Aboriginal professor in visual arts education:


It is easy to engage with and be inspired by the works of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and performers. Some of the most inspiring arts in Australia are being produced by Indigenous artists working with traditional practices and knowledge while pushing the boundaries of political and social thinking through their works.


No undergraduate should feel concerned about drawing inspiration and motivation for their own works from any Indigenous artist. In my experience as a lecturer in the visual arts, however, I have found that most students are inhibited by concerns that they will somehow breach cultural protocols or misinterpret a work because it is outside their own experience. This is true for all students whether Indigenous or of another background. There is nothing in a work of art by any Indigenous artist that is made available publicly that will give away easily any ‘business’ or Law that you are not allowed to see.


My students became comfortable with drawing inspiration from Indigenous artists by attending exhibitions and events. There they could, with a little guidance, explore and develop their own practices and thinking, supported by access to the artists and curators.

There is much to be learnt from Indigenous artists of all traditions and genres, and delving into the processes of production and the meaning of the imagery will only help develop your own practices. Copying a work can be inappropriate because images and stories belong to particular individuals and are passed on through formal processes of Law. But taking inspiration from the language of the artists, the iconography and the techniques is normal practice for all artists.


To help you see how easy it is to engage with Indigenous art, let me tell you about how my students in visual arts education drew on the Yiwarra Kuju: Canning Stockroute exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, in 2010 ( The exhibition contained a wide range of painted images produced by artists from Country in northwest Western Australia near the stockroute. Their paintings are maps of the Country that explain its history, cultural traditions and the Laws that govern all interactions between people and Country. These images are beautiful and challenging visual works with technical use of materials that any student can appreciate, learn from and enjoy as they would any work of art.


My students could see the bold and masterly use of colour, and the creative and free brush technique, appreciating that the paintings were created not on upright easels but on the ground with the artist working over the canvas. Often artists worked together at the same time. This different vantage point and way of working shaped the image.


For the artists of Yiwarra Kuju, mapping is not simply a geospatial plotting of routes. Instead, a map guides and explains social relationships and responsibilities to Country. The atlas or directory-style maps that students were most familiar with were challenged, and they began to see mapping as a process of describing events that occur in the landscape. The images also guided the students in thinking about developing an iconography of their own to indicate people, tracks and significant places.


With these new perspectives on how to create imagery and map their environment, the students created artworks that described and chronicled their own significant places. For example, they created work about home environments, the university campus and their paths of their daily travel. The iconography of the Yiwarra Kuju artists inspired swirls for bodies of water, wavy lines for contours in the land and symbols for men and women and their activities linked by tracks between events and places.


Techniques included standing above large sheets of paper, working together, and producing the works with a range of materials such as long sticks, brushes, leaves, feathers, hands, sponges, drizzling ink, dabbling thick paint and throwing thinned pigments. They explored, with great freedom, mixing colour and materials while interrogating their own notions of Country and connections to place and landscape. In the end, the students became comfortable taking inspiration from works by Aboriginal artists and they gained an understanding of Aboriginal art practices of north western Australia.



When inspiration crosses the line


Non-Aboriginal artists who create work inspired by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultures can be controversial. It is worth spending time exploring the various viewpoints.


It may help to speak to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist to discuss the amount of cultural understanding that is embodied in a work of art. Once a non-Aboriginal person is aware of the complexity and detail that goes into Traditional Cultural Expressions, they may realize that they do not have the appropriate knowledge to make something similar. There are still ways to engage and learn from traditional culture, as long as you do it with respect and seek advice.


Some elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are vulnerable to being misused. For example, rock art figures are so ancient that any copyright must have expired (see the upcoming section on Copyright). But communities would likely assert ongoing cultural rights. Special care must be used to ensure sacred images are treated respectfully and in the correct manner.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists gain the right to use certain imagery and represent particular stories through their birthright and in gaining seniority by passing through Law. This is different to the freedom experienced by artists in Australia working in Western traditions who are less constrained by their group, family and cultural ties. These protocols have been in existence for many thousands of years and are a mechanism for protecting knowledge. They must be recognised as being equal to any non-Indigenous forms of expression. 


Many artworks produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are so personal and connected to Law, Country and family, that to have their works copied or reproduced by people who do not have the right under Customary Laws could cause real harm to the original artist. The artworks are intrinsic to a person’s identity and represent elements of clan and totemic associations that must remain with the artist. To appropriate these images can have a profound effect on people, in the same way that a personal assault on an individual affects their wellbeing.


For non-Aboriginal people, it can be difficult to know what respectful use under Customary Law is. Even something that seems respectful to you may cause deep offence to other people. The answer is simply to ask the right people. Seek advice from a Traditional Custodian from the community that the image belongs to. Let them know what you have in mind, and be open to adjusting your project if they say it is inappropriate. If in doubt, leave it out.



Case study

A sculpture called ‘Wandjina Watchers in the Whispering Stone’ by Benedikt Osváth was inspired by rock paintings of Wandjina, sacred spirits to Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambal from the Kimberley. Aboriginal people expressed offence to the sculpture, as the image is sacred, the artist had not received permission, and the depiction of the image contained a mouth but Wandjina are never shown with mouths (this depiction is offensive).


There was no legal finding of misuse through the Copyright Act or the Trade Practices Act, however the sculpture had not received environmental planning permission, so the council found that it should be removed. The creator of the sculpture claimed that their original art should not be censored.


What do you think?





Seeking advice from the community


When you are engaging with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Traditional Cultural Expressions, always ask permission from the Traditional Owners. It is best to involve the whole community, rather than selecting one specific Elder. Be clear about any plans you might have, and give the community time to discuss your ideas and provide feedback. If requested, adapt your project to ensure it is not offensive. Keep detailed records of this permission-seeking process – such as a list of who you contacted, the date, whether you contacted them by phone or email, and what their response was.


To include a symbol in a visual arts project, you need a thorough understanding of what that symbol means. This may be impossible for someone not from the culture, including for Aboriginal people from another heritage. Don’t be afraid, people can guide you. Talk with people – tell them what you want to do and see if it’s okay. Think seriously about how you can connect with the symbol and interpret it appropriately.



Tips for finding Traditional Custodians


If you find a style that appeals to you, but you have no idea which culture it belongs to, start by contacting the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) reference desk in the Collections area. Their huge collection includes visual art, photographs, sound recordings and written records. They have experts available to guide you in your research.

If you’re trying to contact a visual artist, the Australian National Gallery (Canberra) may also be able to assist. Most artists are represented by an art centre or dealership that can introduce you.


You could also try sending the artist an email or contacting them through social media. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are keen users of social media, and if they don’t have a page themselves their art centres might well have. You can like their Facebook page and post a comment, or send a message through Twitter telling them how much you like their work. Most artists would be happy to talk about their culture and what has inspired them. Just approach them respectfully and with enthusiasm.

If you aren’t looking for a particular artist, but you know the Country or community a style is from, you can find information from local organizations and cultural institutions. Land councils, health services and other Indigenous organizations across Australia can help you contact local people. State museums and art galleries can also be very helpful in finding artists and giving you more information.



Cultural training


Respect is at the heart of good communication, no matter to whom you are talking. This is the same when talking to traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and it is respectful to be aware of cultural differences.

Here are some basic tips for talking in a way that respects traditional culture.


  • Listen carefully and do not interrupt. Long pauses may feel uncomfortable to European cultures, but some traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures consider this important thinking time.

  • Give people time to consider your ideas. People may need several hours, or weeks, to consider an idea and speak to all the people who need to be involved in finding an answer. Do not push for a quick answer – you may receive one but it may not be correct and might damage your relationship. It is more effective and efficient to be patient.

  • Try not to ask direct questions, as they may cause offence and embarrassment. Instead of saying ‘What do you think about that?’ try ‘I’m interested in something, and I’d like to know what everyone thinks.’

  • Be honest, clear and sincere. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Being indirect does not mean being dishonest.

  • Remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are first and foremost human beings. Genuine respect and empathy are more important than merely being politically correct or tokenistic. Avoid lip service or fake love. People will easily recognize when you are not being yourself.

  • Be mindful that all people have dignity, and do not allow anyone to feel shamed or embarrassed. In many Aboriginal cultures, community and family are valued highly and ‘losing face’ is more painful than it is in the individualistic European culture. If you come from a European background, a rough guide is to imagine how embarrassed you would be by a situation, and multiply it by ten.

Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures use communal communication, which means conversations do not happen with people rapidly taking turns and leaving no gap for thought (known as dyadic communication). For more information, see Michael Walsh’s 1997 article entitled ‘Cross cultural communication problems in Aboriginal Australia’ at



Case study

The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University teaches students to conduct science workshops in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They ensure their students receive ample cultural training before arriving at the community, to ensure the best possible outcomes.


The cultural training program consists of three parts:

  • Awareness of culture: Students are taught to be aware of their own culture and how it shapes their interactions with others. They discuss differences between European cultures, like Italian and English.

  • Aboriginal history and culture: Students attend a three-day camp to learn about living Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and Australian history. They are encouraged to ask questions and participate in role-play.

  • Culture specific to the community: As there are many different Aboriginal cultures in Australia, it is respectful to learn about the cultures within the community the students will visit. For example, before visiting Yolngu communities in the Northern Territory, students receive specific training in Darwin about Yolngu cultures and languages.


Recommendation: All staff and students planning to engage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and collaborations should receive ample cultural training.


Read more

Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development (1998) ‘Mina mir lo ailan mun; proper communication with Torres Strait Islander people’

NSW Health (2004) ‘Communicating positively; A guide to appropriate Aboriginal terminology’


Writing right


There are a range of research and writing guides to help students use the right terminology when representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures in reports and essays.  As well as students, all teaching staff who create essay questions are strongly encouraged to apply these protocols which can be found at:

Flinders University: ‘Appropriate Terminology, Representations and Protocols of Acknowledgement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ (2012),%20Indigenous%20Australians.pdf


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