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Ancient influence: Australian high school students' response to Aboriginal art.

Australian aboriginal art, developed in isolation over many thousands of years, is the world's oldest extant art form. It has deep symbolic meaning for the aboriginal peoples, incorporating their traditional beliefs, customs and relationships with the land and its creatures.

At Ulverstone High School, located on the northern coast of Tasmania, Australia, we showed our ninth- and tenth-grade students pictures of many kinds of aboriginal art, representing a vast range of styles and modes of expression. We included traditional tribal works from the Northern Territories as well as works from the western deserts, where artists are exploring new styles and modern materials. Also included were paintings by aborigines who have been formally trained in art schools or through university fine art courses. It seemed a tall order to ask our students to paint pictures influenced by such an array of work; however, it proved to be both possible and highly rewarding.

In the first place, there is a quality running through all of this work, more easily sensed than defined, that is unquestionably aboriginal. Then, there are stylistic features that recur in various forms. These include the use of simplified silhouette shapes, textures such as crosshatching and dots, and decorative borders around individual forms and complete works. In certain cases in which a painting is meant to be viewed from all angles as it lies on the ground, figures and animals are apparently painted upside down.

Our method of working was for students to make several preliminary pencil drawings within ruled rectangles on a sketchbook page. Subject matter could be derived from either traditional or modern sources. One of these drawings was then chosen to be squared up and enlarged onto cartridge paper. When we discussed color schemes, some students chose to use the earth colors and neutrals of the traditional work, while others were attracted to the vibrant colors of more recently developed styles. Artists' quality acrylic paint was used throughout.

There was a high level of response and involvement, and students took great care in their work. Because realistic representations were not expected, the students were free to be highly imaginative and decorative.
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Author:Makin, Gerald
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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