Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also use art, music and dance to keep their deep connection with the land and sea alive, to each 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.


Paintings and carvings can be found 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. Many paintings or carvings also include sea creatures, reptiles, 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 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

The mask is one of the most distinctive art forms of the Torres Strait Islander people. Each type of mask has a specific name, which describes the masks purpose or ceremony for which it was made.

Historical records show that Torres Strait Islander people made masks for rituals to increase garden produce and hunting success, and for sorcery and initiation. Masks were also created as playthings for children and effigies for canoes.

The masks were made from wood or turtle shell, designed to cover the head or face, and took the shape of birds and marine creatures as well as the human face.

Artworks were also incorporated into weapons sometimes. The Yidinji people of the Cairns region decorated their shields with various images, and used them for ceremony, fighting or to symbolise each of their eight clans.

Contemporary art sometimes uses modern implements but still reflects traditional elements, totems and storylines. The Balarinji artwork on some Qantas jumbo jets is an example of ancient Aboriginal culture connecting with contemporary design.

Music and dance

Dancing and 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 have traditionally used their natural environment to make musical instruments, and they continue to make things like clap sticks, didgeridoos and drums this way.

The didgeridoo is an Australian Aboriginal musical instrument 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 is still performed in the traditional ways. Meanwhile, contemporary Aboriginal recording artists like Yothu Yindi and Christine Anu combine traditional instruments with contemporary instruments, like guitars, in their arrangements. These artists sing abour a wide range of topics, such as the struggle for land rights, treaty, Christianity, homelands, animals and dreaming, and their songs often include traditional language words.