Art, Music and Dance

The deep cultural connections Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with the land and sea are also kept alive through their art, music and dance that is taught to each new generation.

Artwork depicts animals, details experiences and communicates ideas and the times, while music and dance present another avenue for story telling and portraying elements of people's lives and their relationship to the natural environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different histories and environments and this reflects the various subject matter and styles of art that we see throughout Australia.


Artworks such as paintings and carvings can be bound in rock shelters, sorcery sites and on ceremonial implements, as well as on everyday objects. In paintings, different coloured ochres were used in different areas and where necessary were traded between groups.

Older artworks found in rock shelters often show people and events such as contact with Europeans, as well as spiritual beings, patterns and abstract figures that do not physically exist in nature as we know it. Many artworks have been found that contain paintings or carvings of sea creatures, reptile, birds and other animals.

These demonstrate how the natural environment has influenced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander craftsmen. Due to the age of these pieces it is often hard to determine exactly when and why artworks were made or the meaning behind them.

Examples of rock art

The Flinders Group National Park, situated off the east coast of Cape York Peninsula in Princess Charlotte Bay, is the sea country of the Yiithuwarra Aboriginal people.

Here rock art sites on the islands depict the intensive contact between the Yiithuwarra and Europeans during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The sites are dominated by motifs (designs) of marine creatures and post contact ship paintings. In contrast, the rock art of the Ngaro people in the Nara Inlet of the Whitsunday's is described as non-figurative art or abstract art as it does not depict animals or humans.

Other types of artwork

One of the most distinctive types of art forms of the Torres Strait Islander people is the mask. Each type of mask has a specific name, which describes the masks purpose or ceremony for which it was made. Masks are made out of wood or turtle shell and designed to cover the head or face. Not all masks were used in ceremonies as some were made as children's playthings or used as effigies on canoes.

In designing a mask, birds and marine creatures are used as well as the human face. Historical records show that masks were made for rituals to increase garden produce, for hunting success, sorcery and initiation.

An example of where artwork is incorporated along with weapons is shown by the Yidinji people of the Cairns region. The Yidinji people made shields for ceremony, fighting or to symbolise each of their eight clans and these were decorated with various images and artworks.

Contemporary art, sometimes created with modern implements, still reflects traditional elements, totems and storylines. An example of where ancient Aboriginal culture connects with contemporary design is the Balarinji artwork that can be seen on some Qantas Jumbo Jets. This is just one example but there are many more.

Music and dance

Dancing for pleasure with accompanying traditional music is an important social activity for men, women and children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Traditional dancing is very energetic and often done for ceremonial purposes. Generally, dances imitate domestic tasks, terrestrial and marine creatures especially those that represent totems or the environment. For instance, dances could mimic sharks, kangaroos and waves or could also be about courtship, hunting with spears, shooting bow and arrows or paddling out to sea.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also used their natural environment to make musical instruments and to this day continue to make things like clap sticks, didgeridoos and drums in the traditional way.

A notable invention, the Australian Aboriginal musical instrument, called the didgeridoo is endemic to the northern part of the continent. Its sound is immediately recognisable and is played using a circular-breathing technique where air is inhaled through the nose while also being exhaled out of the mouth. There is a popular belief that it is taboo for women to play the didgeridoo so it is respectful to ask the local traditional owners before you play.

From region to region music differs in both language and purpose and today, music is still performed in the traditional ways. Recording artists like Yothu Yindi and Christine Anu use both traditional instruments as well as contemporary instruments, like guitars, in their arrangements. The lyrics of these artists reflect a whole range of things such as the struggle for land rights, treaty, Christianity, homelands, animals, dreaming and their songs often include traditional language words.