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About the collection

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this exhibition includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Mountain devil dreaming

Mountain Devil Dreaming, 1996, Kathleen Petyarre, acrylic on canvas. Copyright: Kathleen Petyarre, licensed by Gallerie Australis.

A time capsule of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

The Off the Walls exhibition features about 200 works from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection.

The collection was started in 1967 by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. It passed from one agency to another and included more than 2200 works when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was dissolved in 2005.

This highly significant collection illustrates an important part of Australia's history. It is entwined with the story of the relationship between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Many of the works are also things of great beauty. All of them are like objects in a time capsule — a time capsule representing the regional and stylistic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture over nearly 40 years.

A painting on a black background featuring four yellow ochre rectangles in the centre of the canvas and two long red ochre rectangles above and below. White animal tracks and lines of dots join the rectangular shapes.
Emu tracks replace arrows in Risk Management Track, 1999, a painting by Paddy Gwambany Carlton Joolama, commissioned by ATSIC to show how risk could be reduced in daily decision-making. VISCOPY. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Local and world-renowned Indigenous artists

The works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art collection were brought together by organisations including the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1973–89), Aboriginal Development Commission (1980–89) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1989–2005).

Thirty regional offices across Australia developed significant collections of local artists. The collection also includes works by world-renowned artists and the resulting diversity is one of its greatest strengths.

Despite the closure of ATSIC being a time of great upheaval, staff members met removalists with civility and cooperation and the collection was kept together as a whole. Now, as part of the National Historical Collection it can be preserved, studies and displayed into the future.

View a map showing ATSIC offices and how the collection was transported
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A framed red, white and black sleeveless top with V-neck and logos on both breasts. It has various signatures in black across the front. Two small colour photographs of a footballer in play appear underneath, with a central gold-coloured plaque which reads 'Presented to / Gatjil Djerrkura / A truly inspiring leader / from / Nicky Winmar / St Kilda Football Club / 1998'.

St Kilda Football Club jersey, 1998, presented to ATSIC Chairperson Gatjil Djekurra by AFL player Nicky Winmar after a racist incident at a 1993 match. Photo: Katie Green.

Contemporary objects

The collection includes many objects linked to contemporary events. The presence of these works reveals much about the circumstances that existed at the time the objects came into the collection.

A framed St Kilda Football Club jersey which hung in the Melbourne ATSIC office was presented to ATSIC Chairperson Gatjil Djerrkura by Australian Football League player Nicky Winmar in 1998. It relates to an incident that occurred at the close of a St Kilda versus Collingwood match in 1993.

Winmar turned to racist elements in the crowd and raised his jersey, pointing at his bare skin. That act, symbolic of pride in his Aboriginality, was mirrored in his support for ATSIC.

The collection also includes a small number of important documents. A letter from the Reserve Bank to ATSIC Chairperson Lois (now Lowitja) O'Donoghue, recognises her proposal to feature David Unaipon on the $50 note. The letter hung in the ATSIC boardroom in Canberra alongside artist Lyell Dolan's original drawing of Unaipon.

The collection also features original artwork and framed posters chronicling various health campaigns and community events.

A colour painting on board featuring a face at the top with two snakes positioned vertically with two burial poles, two lizards and a black stingray in between. Down the sides are animals, broken up by dot and cross hatch patterns.
Mortuary Ceremony, 1978, Narritjin Maymuru, ochre on particle board, 1263mm x 1615mm.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

Bark paintings

Bark paintings, a powerful symbol of Aboriginality, were among the first artworks acquired by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.

They provided a strong message of respect for Aboriginal culture and linked the work of the office staff to the people they worked with and represented.

Bark paintings make up about a tenth of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection.

The bulk of these painting were amassed in the earlier years, although some barks, including those of contemporary painters, continued to be acquired.

The Nhulunbuy, Sydney and Canberra offices held the largest collections.

Featured artists included Narratjin Maymuru, Billy Yirawala and Roy Dadaynga Marika.

See more bark paintings from the collection


Watercolours from the Hermannsburg School of painting, a group of Aboriginal artists noted for their depictions of their country were collected in the 1970s, in the early years of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The department displayed these distinctive works in its offices, alongside bark paintings and other traditional objects.

The other significant group of watercolours in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection comes from south-west Western Australia. Most of these works were collected in the 1990s by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission offices in WA. They show the influence of child artists from the Carrolup Native Settlement, whose work sparked a landscape painting style in WA that is reminiscent of the Hermannsburg School.

In the midst of these delicate paintings is a vivid watercolour by Harold Thomas, the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an art school. He also designed the Aboriginal flag.

See more watercolours from the collection

A watercolour painting on board of a landscape featuring two blue trees with green and yellow leaves with two blue mountains in the background.
Untitled, Cordula Ebatarinja, watercolour on paper, 578 mm x 454 mm. Copyright: Estate of the artist 2011, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

Print works

Many of the contemporary works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection are print works, including linocuts, screenprints, etchings and lithographs.

Aboriginal activist Kevin Gilbert's foray into lino-printmaking generated stunning examples of the power of this simple medium. Artists Fiona Foley, Karen Casey, Sally Morgan, Rosella Namok, Rover Thomas and Judy Watson are also represented.

The success of artists from the southern and eastern parts of Australia, many of whom were formally trained, led the way for master printmakers to take their expertise into more remote areas in the 1980s.

These specialist printmakers ran workshops where artists were able to create designs directly onto plates that the printmakers then took back to their studios to print. The relatively low cost of this form of art production meant that original artworks became affordable and accessible to a wide market.

See more prints from the collection

A colour print on paper featuring a brown and black landscape.The landscape is split into to horizontal sections, brown at the top and black at the bottom. Cutting across both sections are five thin grey shapes resembling dead trees. In the top left corner is a grey circle resembling a sun. On the right side is a dog-like animal, probably a dingo, and a section depicting human footprints. There is a rectangular feature in the bottom left showing a black, white and grey landscape. On the bottom left of the print is the series number '42/50' and the signature 'F Foley 90' is on the bottom right.
Fraser Island, 1990, Fiona Foley, lithograph on paper, limited edition 42/50, 840mm x 710mm. Courtesy Fiona Foley. Photo: George Serras.
A colour dot painting on canvas featuring three rounded 'cross' shapes against a multicoloured background. Black concentric circles are at the centre of each central shape.
Untitled, about 1985, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, acrylic on canvas, 940mm x 1525 mm. Copyright: Estate of the artist 2011, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd. Photo: George Serras.

Acrylic paintings

There are many acrylic paintings in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection, with feature artists including John John Bennett, Lin Onus, Kathleen Petyarre, Andrew Spencer Tjapaltjarri, Trevor Nicholls and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula.

A highlight of the collection are early paintings from Papunya, acknowledged as the birthplace of Western Desert acrylic painting.

From the 1970s, and encouraged by the Aboriginal Arts Board which promoted their work nationally and internationally, artists from the Western and Central Desert regions embraced painting on boards and canvases.

The marks and designs they painted, rich in symbolic meaning, had previously been confined to ceremonial use, as painting designs on the ground and on people's bodies.

In the south, the paintings of urban-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists working in acrylic emerged in a different tradition — one of politics and protest.

These works are charged with individual expressions of history; they draw on shared pasts and singular experiences.

More on the Museum's Papunya collection

Baskets, carvings and other works

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection includes a wide variety of necklaces, boomerangs, digjeridus, sculptures and other carved wooden works.

It includes several batiks on silk and cotton, from the Ernabella and Utopia regions, along with a woollen rug, made about 1972 and attributed to Nyukana (Daisy) Baker.

Other works made from natural fibre included fans, mats, fishnets, traps and skirts. The largest group of woven fibre work is baskets. The identity of the makers of most of these objects is unknown but their styles and types show they came from across Australia.

Most were probably made by women. From the 1970s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs bodies recognised the importance of women in communities, and promoted their role in posters, programs and collections.

Search the collection by medium or type of artwork

An orange, brown and straw-coloured coil basket made from pandanus fibre and vegetable dyes. It has an 'INJALAK' tag tied to a small handle at the side.
Woven basket, Dorothy Dullman, pandanus fibre, 170 mm x 370 mm.

More on the collection

Read more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs art collection in 'An extraordinary collection', an article by curator Andy Greenslade from the August 2011 edition of Goree magazine.

An extraordinary collection

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