Aboriginal Sculpture


Aboriginal Sculpture originated in Yirrkala and the Tiwi Islands. Some early sculptures can be very collectable.

The aim of this article is to assist readers in identifying if their aboriginal Sculpture is an early example. It shows examples from different early artists.
If you have a Aboriginal Sculpture to sell please contact me. If you want to know what your Aboriginal Sculpture is worth to me please feel free to send me a Jpeg because I would love to see it.
Before European settlement of Australia, aboriginal sculpture was ephemeral. After ritual use sculptures made and empowered for a particular ceremony are discarded.
Unlike Papua New Guineans or Africans, Aboriginal people did not make wooden figures and venerate them over long periods of time.

Sculpture by Mawalan Marika

Eastern Arnhem Land Aboriginal Sculpture

The Earliest sculptures from this area are Lorrikon. Lorrikon are hollowed log bone receptacles painted with totemic designs.  According to oral history, Carved Human figures from Yirrkala in Arnhem land were first created by Djuakan. They were first carved at the turn of the 19th Century. Djuakan got the idea from an old Macassan Fisherman, to carve a human head on top of a burial post. 
In 1948 a collector called Mountford recorded the carving of full-length human figures.   These full-length human figures are painted in clan motifs. The surface painting on sculpture refers to aspects of legends and myths and to clan designs related to the figure represented. Local Yirrkala artists gained access to far better tools like pocket knives, rasps, and axes During World War II.
Eastern Arnhem land also has ceremonial sculptures made from bark, string, feathers, human hair or other fibers. These are ceremonially important items. They are symbolic representations of animals food and birds. They sometimes have small painted wooden heads fixed to the top. These sculptures called Rangga are seldom sold and are collectible in their own right.

Tiwi Aboriginal Sculpture

Figurative Aboriginal Sculptures were first collected at Parunear Bathurst Island. Figures were left at the graveside. This was so that the ghost of the recently departed would haunt the wooden figure instead of the closest kin. It was from this small community that many of the most important and collectible Aboriginal Sculpture Artists worked.
Initially, they worked making posts and spears for traditional use. As European demand increased they soon made the sculpture for sale as well
Tiwi Island Artists often traded sculptures with the Mission on Bathurst Island for supplies. The people at Paru referred to themselves as Mandimbula. They maintain traditional beliefs, particularly the Pukumani ritual.
The Pukumani ritual includes the carving of Painted Pukumani poles and large painted Ceremonial Spears. An artist called Katuhe was the first to make a figurative carving. He carved a Pukumani pole with a figure on the top. Katu may have been inspired by wooden sculptures he had seen in Darwin at the end of the second world war. Tiwi Sculptures have painted designs in traditional skin design patterns.
Some well-know Tiwi sculpture artists include Enraeld Djulabiyana, Cardo Kerinauia and Mani Luki

Central and Western Arnhem Land Aboriginal Sculpture

The origins of Central Arnhem Land Aboriginal Sculptures is very poorly documented. In the Berndt collection at the University of Western Australia, there are some small bee wax figures. These early sculpture come from the “Honey Men ceremony”. The majority of figures associated with the wild honey men have a very distinct diamond pattern on the body. A term used to refer to sculpture from this area is Mokoy Figures. Other figures from this area depict Mimi spirits. Mimi spirits live in the rocky areas of Western Arnhem land and they are always long and slender.
Aboriginal artists still make sculptures today for sale at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair
Two well known sculpture artists from this area include Crusoe Kuningbal and Libundja,

Torres Strait Sculpture


There are a few very old sculptures from the Torres Straits. They were made to help with the growing of tobacco. They are flat and two dimensional.

These sculptures are very rare and highly collectible.

The Torres Straits Islanders also Sculpted masks from wood and turtle shell

Central desert Sculpture


Traditional sculpture from the central desert is predominantly flat intricately carved oval boards called Churinga.  Out of respect for Aboriginal culture, they will not be discussed here.

The other form of sculpture from the desert started in the 1950’s and consists mainly of realistic looking desert reptiles.

The two best artists who later became well known painteds are Tim Leura and Clifford Possum.

Lizard by Tim Leura

Clifford Possum Lizard carving

Artifacts as Sculpture


Many traditional Aboriginal Weapons and Coolamon have wonderful sculptural forms.  These weapons are collected by some people as sculpture rather than Artifact


Aboriginal weapons and coolamon are covered in separate articles.


There are also several types of Artifact that could be considered sculpture. These artifacts though are of a secret and sacred nature and it would be inappropriate to show them on line.






Contemporary Aboriginal Sculpture


Some wonderful contemporary sculpture is still being made in Australia today.  These include wooden camp dogs from Aurukun and Yawk Yawk figures along with other fiber artworks.

Some Examples of Collectable Aboriginal Sculpture

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*Aboriginal Sculpture as discussed in this article refers to figurative wooden sculptures. It does not include Churingas or elaborate dancing head dresses