Aspex Portsmouth

New Aboriginal Art – Australia: Art & Aboriginality

In response to the festivities taking place in Portsmouth surrounding the 200th anniversary of the departure of the First Fleet to Australia, this exhibition sought to celebrate the new art term of Urban Aboriginal Art. Celebrating traditional and modern Aboriginal art, and contemporary Aboroginal artists, this exhibition was one of the first exhibitions in the UK to showcase this work.

New Aboriginal Art – Australia: Art & Aboriginality was curated by Anthony Burke, with a catalogue written and compiled by Vivien Johnson, who wrote of the exhibition:

‘The presence of a show of contemporary Aboriginal art in the festivities at Portsmouth surrounding the bicentennial re-enactment of the departure of the First Fleet for Australia is not without a certain irony. After all, the object of the original expedition was the occupation of Aboriginal lands using the flimsy excuse that the Aboriginal inhabitants were too uncultured to be regarded as owners of territory. Against this infamous legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’, ‘any expression of Aboriginal art is an act of political defiance’. In that context, even the standard ethnographical presentation of Aboriginal art to the outside world would still have added to the crushing weight of evidence that, on the contrary, Aboriginal people are bearers of the oldest continuous artistic tradition on Earth. Instead, Art and Aboriginality 1987 takes on this now incontrovertible fact as a starting point from which to explore some of the complex realities of that tradition’s survival, and in the end respectful acknowledgement within the settler’s own canons of cultural achievement.’

The exhibition was made possible by Aboriginal Arts Australia, the Aboriginal Arts Board, the Australia Council, Malaysian Airlines and the Portsmouth Festival. 

You can read more about Art and Aboriginality 1987 as part of our 40 Stories, with week 5 and 6 written by previous Aspex Director Les Buckingham.

Artists: Banduk Marika, Roy Marika, Raymond Meeks, James P. Simon, Trevor Nickolls, Jimmy Pike, George Milpurrurru, Djardi Ashley, Tracey Moffatt, Narpula Scobie, Willy Tjungurrayi, Paddy Jupurrula Nelson, Thancoupie, Lin Onus, Tiwi Designs, Fiona Foley, Sally Morgan, Byron Pickett, Terry Shewring, Djawida, Gurdal, Maningrida Weavers. 

About the artists:

Banduk Marina 

Banduk Marina’s work is rooted in the representation of her family designs, retaining strong links with her tribal country and vision. Her works in this exhibition included two prints based on her father Mawalan’s great bark paintings in the 1960’s, and a lino print depicting the ancestral Goanna figure, titled Djanda and Waterhole (linocut, 69x58cm). Her work testifies to the inspiration which has sustained the Yirrkala artists through generations of collective creativity. 

Raymond Meeks 

The work featured in the exhibition by Raymond Meeks was titled Dilly Bag (linocut, 30x30cm). His work explores traditional visions and values of Aboriginal society.

‘I believe that art is a language for interpreting who you are, and I can’t find any satisfaction other than painting. I have a natural need to interpret what I feel and see. I feel it in my hands and I can do it. It’s like knowing an emotion and it’s very important to record it. Aboriginal people have always had a vast, rich culture and I am a part of this. 

There are many things which are too numerous to mention about the treatment of Aboriginal people. But through my art I have identity and strength. It would be true to say that I am hunting for lost pieces of myself but through my culture I have many answers.’ 

Lin Onus 

Lin Onus’s painting in this exhibition, titled Gamardi Dreaming (acrylic on canvas, 122x91cm), was inspired by a visit to Gamardi, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Inspired by the beauty of the land, and the contrasts of modern technology, the painting depicts a variety of bush foods including Geese and their eggs, Kangaroo, tortoises and fish, a battery powered radio, and a windmill which the community were excited to soon receive. The depiction of a cat represents the friendly and hospitable people the artist met on this visit. 

Printmaking Artists: 

Fiona Foley 

Sally Morgan 

Byron Pickett

Terry Shewring 

Urban aboriginal artists like the four young printmakers included in this exhibition are extending into the art world a tradition of print and poster making, carrying a message of Aboriginal identity and struggle to a vast audience. At this time, traditional artists from remote communities began to experiment with creating prints from their works, to give their stories wider accessibility.

Tiwi Designs

The screen printing workshop known as Tiwi Designs began in 1969 on Bathurst Island, the home of the Tiwi people. Many Tiwi people are now employed full-time in screen printing fabric designs, supplied to garment making businesses. The quality of their work is so high that recently these same cloths have been supplied to exhibitions like this one as works of art. The piece featured in this exhibition is titled Kurlama/Yam (cotton/linen).


Djawida’s paintings in this exhibition depict the Nawura Dreaming Man of Gudjekbinj (ochre on bark, 159x59cm), the first ancestor of his community. At this time he lived in a remote community in the Northern Territory of Australia, among sacred sites named by mythological heroes long ago. The artists explained that the entirety of the myths his work is rooted in cannot be divulged to outsiders, and can only be created by fully initiated men.

Tracey Moffat 

Tracey Moffat has worked in many Aboriginal communities in Australia as an independent filmmaker and self taught photographer. Raised by a foster mother, her work is rooted in the search for identity and celebration of Aboriginal culture. Included in this exhibition is her series of studio portraits of black male dancers titled Some Lads (gelatin silver photographs, 45.5× Some Lads takes the traditional representation of Aboriginal people – nineteenth century ‘scientific’ studio studies by early pioneer photographers – and changes the intentions. Moffat encourages her subjects to enjoy the presence of the camera, moving freely and showing off, capturing a rarely assigned bold sensuality.

Narpula Scobie

Reportedly one of the only women at this time emerging as a Papunya artist in her own right, Narpula Scobie’s work titled Mitukatjirri (acrylic on canvas, 120x120cm) in this exhibition depicts a story associated with the land near her Kintore community.

Willie Tjungurrayi

As the other Papunya artist showcasing work in this exhibition, Willie Tjungurrayi’s painting Tingari Story (acrylic on canvas) depicts the travels of the Tingari Men from Kulkuta to Karrkurritinytja (Lake Macdonald). These ceremonies form part of the teachings of the post initiate youths today as well as providing explanations for contemporary customs. As these ceremonies are sacred and therefore of a secret nature, no further detail was given regarding this work.

Paddy Jupurrula Nelson 

Paddy Jupurrula Nelson’s paintings are based on traditional ground painting, using symbols such as circles, lines and animal tracks to explain the story, and can be viewed from various orientations. His piece in this exhibition titled Yarla Jukurrpa (Bush Potato Dreaming) depicts Dreaming stories of his community (acrylic on canvas, 122x155cm). ‘Although we are making these paintings for sale, we have had to be careful about painters only painting the Dremings they have ownership of. We have kept back things we feel should remain secret’. 


Thancoupie’s work is inspired by sacred clay in her community in Weipa, northern Queensland, which she recalls was kept in a special storehouse and used only for ceremonial purposes. Her work consists of ceramic pots, sculptures and murals, exploring her heritage. Her piece Circular Form (stoneware, 28x28cm) in this exhibition depicts animal ancestors of the Thanaquith tribe of West Cape York.

James P. Simon 

James P. Simon’s paintings are based on Aboriginal symbols and stories. ‘What I do is think of a word sometimes like racism, destruction, something like that and I just use that word as the foundation for the whole painting. They represent not 200 years, but 30,000 years of Aboriginal culture’. His piece in this exhibition was titled Inspiration for the Artist (acrylic on board, 41x31cm).

Trevor Nickolls 

Trevor Nickolls’ work explores his own loneliness, his encapsulation, his frustrations and his dreams. His work, and its roots in Aboriginal art, is highly personal, rather than political. Trying to survive in an alien technological age, Trevor looks for meaning and balance in the wisdom of Aboriginal culture: ‘To me the most incredible thing about Aboriginal art is, that it communicates an understanding of nature; such an understanding of how things work! Such knowledge! And the Western world seems to have lost that. It has gone in the opposite direction; it is exterior and plastic. I think it’s quite false for Australian artists to always wonder what happens in Europe or America. All artists should relate first to their own environment and that means that all Australian artists must in some way relate to Aboriginal art’. His work in this exhibition was titled Manly Point (dot painting, oil on canvas, 152×197.5cm).

Jimmy Pike  

Jimmy Pike’s family lived traditionally by hunting and gathering, moving from waterhole to waterhole, in the Great Sandy Desert, Perth. He now lives in almost total isolation, creating work including multi-tonal screen prints and large paintings on canvas. His piece in this exhibition titled Warnajilyjikarraji (linocut transferred to screenprint, 31x45cm) depicts snakes living in sandhills, making smooth tracks, and sometimes fighting over female snakes.

George Milpurrurru 

George Milpurrurru was described as one of the most famous living artists of the bark painting tradition at this time, and his inspirations are derived from his traditional way of living: ‘My paintings are about my land and my dreamings’. His piece in this exhibition titled Mudukuntja (hollow log/bone coffin story 134x79cm) depicts the sacred bone coffin ritual of his community (ochre on bark).

Djardi Ashley 

Djardi’s family are the only people allowed to paint stone spearheads at a site called Ngilipidji in Wawulak country, Northern Territory. Djardi’s father is owner to this land, the only regional source of what was in traditional times a vital piece of Aboriginal technology, traded over vast distances. These trade routes are the subject of his painting in this exhibition titled Stone Axe Story (painting on bark), with rows of spears at the top and bottom acting as frames dividing the story into sequences – a characteristic of Djardi’s work. He is considered an innovator within the traditional canon of bark painting.


Gurdal is the sole inheritor of the right to produce Mimi carvings, a unique innovation in Aboriginal art, of which were first carved by his father. Two Mimi carvings are presented in this exhibition (ochre on wood carving, 215/204cm height). In Aboriginal folklore the Mimi spirits live in the caves of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and are known as benign, shy spirits with extremely thin, elongated bodies, so only emerge on windless days and nights to hunt. Stories of the activities of the Mimi spirits are traditionally told around a campfire at night

Maningrada Weavers

Dilly bags, of which were featured in this exhibition, are made from vegetable fibre spun into tightly twisted thread, and serve as string bags used in the daily tasks of gathering food. Their weave and design are the product of thousands of years of refinement, and are made today by Aboriginal communities who live traditionally in Maningrada, Northern Territory. Functional items including dilly bags, fishing nets and lines, baskets and mats have been long in demand from the tourist market, but were at this time beginning to find increasing appreciation in major exhibitions of contemporary crafts.