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Image 'The dawn of art', 1880s

TLF ID R6645

This is a set of six drawings by the Aboriginal artists Ilontereba, Mindilpilpil and Billiamook. The set is prominently titled 'THE DAWN OF ART' with smaller text stating that it shows 'Original Sketches and Drawings by Aboriginal Natives of the Northern Territory of South Australia executed without the aid of a master. Exhibited by J. G. KNIGHT, Deputy Sheriff, Palmerston, N.T.' The coloured pencil drawings include birds, fish, animals, canoes, artefacts and male figures in ceremonial head-dresses. The drawings are displayed together in the original 1888 frame, the work measuring 81.5 cm x 116.5 cm.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This is the only set of artworks surviving in its original frame from the first exhibition of Aboriginal art held in Australia. It is one of a series of framed sets from a display entitled 'The dawn of time' at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne. The works were gathered together by John George Knight, Deputy-Sheriff of Palmerston (now Darwin), who was also responsible for prisoners in Fannie Bay Gaol. Some of the works were done by Aboriginal inmates at the jail.
  • The drawings illustrate the application of styles and techniques traditionally used in rock art. For example, the kangaroo in the work on the top left clearly shows internal organs in the X-ray style of early rock paintings. As in rock art, the main forms and lines were first outlined in one colour. The artists whose work is shown here used black, red and blue coloured pencils and a white colour obtained from the paper itself.
  • Australian Indigenous people have drawn and painted for millennia. Traditionally, Aboriginal artists made paint with natural pigments of ochres, charcoal and clays, ground up with a pestle-type stone and mixed with a binding agent. Paint was then applied using a variety of brushes made from sticks with frayed ends or from human hair, grass or fibre bound tightly to short sticks, to a range of surfaces including rock, bark and the skin itself for ritual and ceremony.
  • Bellamack or 'Billiamook', who completed two drawings in this set (top row, centre and bottom row, left), often acted as a bridge between two cultures. In 1869, when aged about 16, he was one of the Larakia people who greeted the first British colonists arriving by boat on a survey expedition to establish a permanent settlement at Palmerston. Billiamook learnt to speak English fluently and by the 1880s he was acting as an Aboriginal interpreter for Darwin's courts and police.
  • Mindilpilpil, a Larakia man also known as 'Paddy', was the most prolific artist in 'The dawn of time' series, producing three drawings (top row, left; top row, right and bottom row, centre). His works included the example of the X-ray style. Mindilpilpil was an inmate at Fannie Bay Gaol.
  • Ilontereba, a Wulwulan man also known as 'Jemmy Miller', completed one work in this series (bottom row, right). He was from the area of Pine Creek and the South Alligator River to the east of Darwin. He was serving a life sentence in Fannie Bay Goal at the time the work was done.
  • The words in the centre of this work reflect the attitudes towards Australian Indigenous people prevalent in the late 19th century, including the racist belief that it was quite remarkable that the people could draw 'without the aid of a master'. To non-Indigenous eyes, the drawings were seen as evidence of Aboriginal people 'becoming civilised'. Unusually for the era, however, 'The dawn of art' series was exhibited as art and not designated as 'primitive art'.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum Victoria
  • Organization: Museum Victoria
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Mindilpilpil
  • Description: Author
  • Person: Billiamook
  • Description: Author
  • Person: Ilontereba
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Museum Victoria
  • Organization: Museum Victoria
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum Victoria, 2016, except where indicated under Acknowledgements