How Printmaking came to the Desert

Even today, it is not common for Indigenous artists living outside of major cities to use printmaking techniques. A major reason for this is that neither the small communities in which the artists live, nor the artists’ cooperatives, can provide the necessary technical and financial resources for printing presses. Only a few experienced printmakers live in, or visit, remote areas. Thus there are, even today, only a few art centres which are equipped to create art prints.

In order to nevertheless give the artists the possibility of becoming acquainted with and trying new techniques, experienced printers invited them - right at the start of the new art movement – to their workshops in the main cities. In this way, individual examples of Indigenous printmaking have been created since the 1970s. One of the first attempts to bring such prints into the art market was undertaken by the Port Jackson Press. They achieved little success, however, because the market had at that time a very narrow view of what constituted Indigenous art.

The first well-known prints were linocuts made a little earlier - 1968 - in the Long Bay Prison by artist, author and activist Kevin Gilbert, as he served a sentence there. Jimmy Pike was also one of the first artists to try the new medium, also in a prison, in Fremantle. (1) 

In the same year, Bede Tungatalum and Giovanni Tipungwuti, who later operated the Tiwi Design printing press, began their influential series of woodcuts. Johnny Bulun Bulun and David Milaybuma created in 1979 a set of screen prints in the studio of Larry Rawlins. More art prints were created at the Canberra School of Art, which had operated a printing press since 1976. Artists in Yirrkala worked sporadically with printing in the early 1980s. The linocuts by Banduk Marika are well known.

The breakthrough in printmaking came in 1993, when Leon Stainer at the School of Art and Design of the Northern Territory University in Darwin, created a Print Workshop. This  “Northern Editions” was managed and directed for many years by Basil Hall. One goal of the organisation was to provide those artists who had no access to a print workshop with expertise in printing techniques. Therefore the employees of “Northern Editions” travelled west to the artists in the Kimberley, northeast to Arnhem Land or south to central Australia. Some artists also came to workshops organised in Darwin. In the university program “Artists in Residence”, artists from all over Australia participated: not only those from rural areas, but also from major cities, e.g. Brook Andrew and Judy Watson. By the year 2000, “Northern Editions” was publishing over 120 print editions annually.

With the help of “Northern Editions”, artists from many art centres gradually began creating prints. Ernabella art centre was already active in 1993. Alice Nampitjinpa and Narputta Nangala Jugadai from the Ikuntji art centre in Haasts Bluff travelled to Darwin in 1998 for a workshop. The first graphics workshop in Yuendumu took place in 1998, with participation by Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Andrea Nungurrayi Martin. Artists of the Warlayirti art centre in Wirrimanu began printmaking in 1999.

The art centres on Tiwi, Bathurst and Melville Islands, as well as in Maningrida, were the first to operate their own printing presses, with the aid of printers trained by “Northern Editions”.

The most commonly used technique is etching. Lithography and screen printing are somewhat less popular. Woodcut and linocut are likewise less common, but have a number of famous examples by prominent artists such as Banduk Marika or well-known portfolio like the “Utopia Suite” (2), which is found in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and the Kunstmuseums Spendhaus in Reutlingen.

Larger image in new window. Fig. 2: Alice Nampitjinpa, Tali at Talaalpi, 1998, etching, printed in: Northern Editions (ed.): Land Mark - Mirror Mark, Darwin undated, p. 54

Fig. 2: Alice Nampitjinpa, Tali at Talaalpi, 1998, etching, printed in: Northern Editions (ed.): Land Mark - Mirror Mark, Darwin undated, p. 54

Three years after Alice Nampitjinpa began her artistic career, she received the opportunity to create etchings at “Northern Editions”. One result was „Tali at Talaalpi“. Talaalpi is the birthplace of the artist, and tali are long, stable sand dunes, a recurring motive for the artist. The etching thus shows the country of greates importance for Alice Nampitjinpa.


(1) Even today, a disproportionately high number of Indigenous Australians are in prisons. In 2009, for example, 25% of all prisoners were of Indigenous origin, although First Australians make approximately 2.3% of the Australian population. The risk of being sentenced to prison was 14 times higher for Indigenous Australians than for others.

(2) Printed in full in: Städtisches Kunstmuseum Spendhaus Reutlingen (ed.): Bilderwelten in Utopia. Holzschnitte und Gemälde von Aborigines, Speyer 2004, ISBN 3980707229

Further Literature:

Anderson, S. and Smith, T. (eds.): Getting into Prints. A Symposium on Aboriginal Printmaking, Association of Northern and Central Australian Aboriginal Artists, Darwin 1993

Hall, Basil: Printmaking Gains Momentum, Artlink Vol 20 no 1, 2000 pp. 56-58

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (ed.): Jimmy Pike, Edition Cantz, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3893223002

Northern Territory University (ed.): Printabout. Lithographs, Etchings, and Lino Prints from the Northern Territory University Art Collection, Darwin 1993

Northern Editions (ed.): Land Mark - Mirror Mark, Darwin, 2000

Watson, Judy and Martin-Chew, Louise: judy watson blood language, Miegunyah Press, Darlton 2009, ISBN 9780522856583