Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of the Arts, English and Media


This thesis surveys in a strictly chronological fashion discourses that were critical to promoting changes in the understanding of Arnhem Land bark painting from 1850 to 1990. The thesis is based on extensive surveys of the record in relation to early historical accounts, reports, press clippings and catalogues of exhibitions of Aboriginal art and bark painting in particular.

While this study does not depart from existing perspectives on the reception of Aboriginal art, such as those of Jones, Lowish, Morphy and Taylor, it presents a more nuanced account and its specific focus is the reception of Arnhem Land bark painting. Its chronological period is 140 years and it includes new data from the press. It elaborates more fully on the reception of Aboriginal art in the gallery. It considers 177 press commentaries (from 1853-1990), many of which have not, to my knowledge, been hitherto noted, and creates broader contexts by means of the chronological documentation and analysis of the commentaries detailed in 62 key exhibition catalogues of Aboriginal art. As well, - 17 local and international professionals in the fields of anthropology, art and business who have played critical roles in the development of the understandings for Aboriginal art and Arnhem Land bark painting since the 1960s have been interviewed.

An underlying aim of the thesis has been to document the shifts in perception that occurred in regards to emerging understandings in the historical records of the sophistication of Aboriginal people and their art; importantly, it aims to identify how and when these first happened and what the mechanisms were that allowed this to become widely understood by mainstream audiences. It therefore tracks accounts of the earliest periods of contact, noting evidence of these initial perceptions and the changes that followed.