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Contemporary Australian art

Contemporary art is defined as art that is current, offering a fresh perspective and point of view, and often employing new techniques and new media. Current art means works by both emerging and also established artists.

Ken Unsworth work suspended stones

Suspended Stone Series, Stone Circle III, Ken Unsworth. Image courtesy of the artist, Boutwell Draper Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Ken Unsworth, Robert Owen and John Davis were the first to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1978 as contemporary artists. Unsworth presented epic river-stone sculptures which resulted in the works being reviewed by Robert Hughes in Time magazine.

The currency of contemporary art challenges what was before and hints that there is more to come. It should confront prevailing notions. It might also be seen as interesting, exciting, significant and fresh.


The very early foundations of Australian contemporary art can be explored in the context of the Heidelberg School (1891– ), sometimes referred to as the Australian impressionists, whose fresh perspective and new painting techniques radically changed the way Australians saw themselves and their landscapes.

Other significant movements in Australia that have defined contemporary art include Surrealism and Modernism. The legacy of the freshness and spiritual exploration in the works of Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, known as the Angry Penguin painters, also offered unique views of Australian culture. Direct threads from these movements are sometimes brought into the creation and presentation of contemporary art work and artistic practice.

John Mawurndjul work

Mardayin at Dilebang, John Mawurndjul, 2003. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Victoria.

In Australia the contemporary art movement has referenced and also been defined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, especially the emergence of the Papunya Tula art movement of the 1970s and its iconic 'dot' paintings by Indigenous men from the western deserts of Central Australia.

John Mawurndjul, a bark painter from Arnhem Land, is said to open up the surfaces of painting:

Mawurndjul has forged a new way of painting out of the old, transforming the dot infill X-ray method derived from rock art, into a series of abstract tableaux composed entirely of masses of rarrk (cross-hatching), unrelieved by figurative motifs.

New media in the form of digital video and sound sculpture test and challenge prevailing notions of what is current art. Tracey Moffatt, in her videos Bedevil (1993) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990) is said to have created a new genre with her film-making – mixing spirituality, horror, luscious colour, memories and fantasies – to explore issues of race, gender, sexuality and identity.

Emerging contemporary artists contrast 'slick new surfaces with rough-and-ready ones, the smoothness of rhetoric with the embarrassing tangle of history, the quickness of virtual information with stubborn physical presences and slow-release images' (Justin Paton, Against the Current, Current: contemporary art from Australia and New Zealand)

Challenges to prevailing notions of Australian culture, identity and history are proffered in the works by Chinese-Australian artists Ah Xian and Guan Wei. Ah Xian's use of classical artistic materials and techniques practiced for millennia in China reapplied in contemporary Australian context confront viewers with notions about culture, the body and our environment.

Motorised models, neon and LED signs interwoven with sculpture, drawing and painting is the hallmark of a younger group adept in new media and collective performance. These artists include Brook Andrew, Del Kathryn Barton, Callum Morton, Ricky Swallow, Shaun Gladwell, James Angus, Ben Quilty and others who engage in a variety of approaches.

The energy and vision of the 1970s

Christo and Jean Claude Little Bay wrapped

Wrapped Coast One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Christo and Jean Claude, 1968–69. Image courtesy of the Kaldor Public Art Projects , Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The energy and vision of contemporary Australian art was supported for the first time with the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts in the mid–1970s. This followed closely on the heels of the inaugural Biennale of Sydney in 1973, set up by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and the opening of the Sydney Opera House. A steady stream of engagement with international artists and vibrant work began in 1969 with John Kaldor bringing Kristo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap Little Bay in cloth. Other visiting artists included: Gilbert and George, Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Richard Long and Sol LeWitt.

The mutual relationships developed through the public art projects saw 'an awareness of Australian art as part of a global discourse' (Nick Waterlow, The Creation of Contemporary Australian Art in Current: contemporary art from Australia and New Zealand). Australian artists began to show in overseas exhibitions as well as being collected in public and private collections. This led to overseas residencies and coverage in a great variety of international publications as well as on television and film. The international arts community was also brought into close contact with the emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island arts. Exchanges with performers from New York with Australia's Elizabeth Cameron Dalman led to workshops in Redfern with David Gulpilil and the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Theatre.

In 1978, Australian contemporary artists Ken Unsworth, Robert Owen and John Davis represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. For the preceding 20 years Australia failed to be represented at the Venice Biennale, having refused an invitation to exhibit in 1960. Both Arthur Boyd's 1958 work exploring the wedding of an Aboriginal half-caste and Russell Drysdale's work representing Australia's Indigenous population was omitted in 1954. Yet, through the continual advocacy of the industry and the media, along with the establishment of the Australia Council, artists eventually achieved representation in 1978.

Mike Parr artwork

Wax Bride, Mike Parr. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Contemporary art is new in terms of representation, not age. Established contemporary artists like Mike Parr (performance, installation, sculpture, video and photography), Julie Rrap (photography, video, sculpture and installation), Imants Tillers (painting), Tracey Moffatt (film and photography), Pat Brassington (photomedia) and Fiona Hall (sculpture, painting, installation, garden design and video) have been exhibiting since the 1970s.

The 1970s also coincided with the growth of the public galleries and a network that enveloped the National Gallery of Australia, state, regional and university galleries with contemporary art spaces, artist-run initiatives and commercial galleries.

The Biennale of Sydney in 1979, curated by Nick Waterlow as the Artistic Director looked at Australia's mutual contemporary art relations with a theme of 'European dialogue'.

A core strength of a rich variety of practice in the 1980s

Contemporary Australian art today has developed from a strong core of artists, pioneering their work in the 1980s. In 1981, Bernice Murphy initiated 'Australian Perspecta' a biennial survey of current Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Trevor Nickolls artwork

Mother Natures Son, Trevor Nickolls, 2008, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Victoria and Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne.

It was in the 1980s that the challenge of new practice with confronting sculpture and conceptual questions was presented by artists, who were chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. Artists such as Mike Parr (1980), Rosalie Gascoigne (1982) Imants Tillers (1986), Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls (1990) gave context to the work of all Australian artists represented at Venice up to that time.

The influence of feminism, the recognition of women painters, Indigenous artists and the rich multi-cultural legacy of migration and the changing faces of modern Australia, created a rich cultural cloth. Just as this helped define a new sound in Australian music, especially folk and innovative jazz, the variety of cultural backgrounds contributed to a rich, cultural diversity in visual arts.

Artist such as Pat Brassington, Fiona Hall, Susan Norrie, Julie Rrap, Rosemary Laing, Destiny Deacon, Tracey Moffatt, Kathy Temin and Julie Dowling have confronted audiences with questions about colour and race and challenged notions about women's existential lives. Their strengths variously in installation, photography, mixed media, sound, performance, video and film as well as sculpture and painting have helped to redefine those genres.

Consolidated artist-run initiatives and the opening of the MCA in the 1990s

By the 1990s, there were a range of consolidated artist-run initiatives across all states, such as Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne (founded in 1983), CASCA in Adelaide (established early in 1942 but not incorporated until 1986), the publication of PraxisM and PICA in Perth (incorporated in 1989), and 24HR Art (Now Northern Centre for Contemporary Art) in Darwin (established in 1989). These provided energetic and vibrant art spaces to show the best of contemporary Australian artists' work in the context of national and international projects as well as providing exhibition, curatorial, publishing and other opportunities for contemporary arts practitioners.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney was officially opened in November 1991. The MCA was established to fulfil the visionary bequest of Australian expatriate artist John Power (1881–1943), who left his fortune to the University of Sydney to inform and educate Australians in the contemporary visual arts. Power had been a successful participant in the international avant-garde during the 1920s and 1930s.

Different world views

From the mid-1990s, many Australian artists whose practice is considered contemporary reflected a bicultural or multicultural background. The artists brought with them experience in working in different mediums and different world views. Artists such as Ah Xian and Guan Wei from China, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn from Laos, My le Thi from Vietnam and Dadang Christanto from Indonesia have offered a complexity in their questions about who we are in the world.

Ah Xian artwork

Concrete Forest 2 Sagittaria trifolia (Threeleaf Arrowhead), Ah Xian, 2008-09 (detail), winner of the 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award. Image courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Victoria

Liu Xiao Xian

Brothers Ah Xian and Liu Xiao Xian (born 1963, China) came from China to live in Australia in 1990. Both had been invited to exhibit at the first Sydney Spring International Festival. They grew up in China during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. Both artists have exhibited widely, in Australia and internationally. Their works have been collected by the National Gallery of Australia, by state galleries, and by private collectors. The first major solo exhibition of Chinese-Australian artist Liu Xiao Xian opened at RMIT Gallery in August 2009.

By 2000 the Queensland Government was deciding to support a Gallery of Modern Art, commissioned in 2002, which opened in December 2006. The flagship project is the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art series of exhibitions. The expertise developed from staging the Triennial for over a decade has led to the establishment of the Australian Centre of Asia-Pacific Art (ACAPA), to foster alliances, scholarship and publishing, and the formation of an internationally significant collection of art from the Asia-Pacific region.

The practice of Australian contemporary artists 2000–

Confronting personal identity and re-imagining the body

Contemporary art has challenged much about personal identity and the body. Some of the key artists in this respect are Julie Rrap and Rosemary Laing.

Julie Rrap (Born 1950, Lismore, New South Wales) lives and works in Sydney, Australia and Brussels, Belgium. For over 30 years, Rrap has focused on the body with an athletic and intellectual rigour.

Rosemary Laing is internationally recognised as a leader in the field of concept-based photo media. In 2007 she was selected to show at the Venice Biennale.

Distance, proximity and spirituality in the land

It has been argued that new technologies have brought us closely related to global currents and economies, characterised by a spirit of celebration tempered with a degree of irreverence (Victoria Lynn, Current Fragments in Current: contemporary art from Australia and New Zealand)

The degree of irreverence in seeing Australian life was displayed radically by Chris O'Doherty aka Reg Mombassa from the late 1970s. In text accompanying one of his works he explains his view of the European relationship to the Australian landscape:

The image ... depicts the loneliness and alienation that results from placing Northern Europeans in a vast, empty, incongruent landscape. (It has taken time, cultural conditioning, air-conditioning, refrigeration and insecticides to help us learn to appreciate and love the Australian landscape as we now do.)
Reg Mombassa


Since the 1970s, a new way of seeing the land emerged with Indigenous artists. This was first introduced to the art public by the Papunya Tula artists. Other significant Indigenous artists on the international stage included Paddy Bedford, Rover Thomas, George Tjungarrayi.

Dennis Nona artwork

Byerb Ibaik, Dennis Nona, 2009, White brass, pearl shell and fibre. Image courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Victoria and Australian Art Print Network.

A second wave of women artists, notably Emily Kame Kngwarreye, have greatly influenced the current of contemporary art. Hetti Perkins and Brenda L. Croft curated Fluent, an exhibition of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie, in 1997 as the presentation of Australian art in Venice.

Highly sought-after for his works in a range of media, Dennis Nona's prints and sculptures reflect his Torres Strait Islander heritage and in particular his intimate association with the sea and its creatures.

Trevor Nickolls balances his strong sense of Indigenous identity, spirituality, affinity with country and love of nature; 'Dreamtime with Machinetime' of the dominant culture, with its 'giddying and enticing machines, rampant materialism, cartoon imagery, surreal cityscapes and technological advancement'. (NGV)

Confronting colonialism in the local

The experience of globalisation, colonialism confronted through the resistance of art is evident in the strength of work by Indigenous women artists working in a variety of media and with installation: Tracey Moffatt, Julie Dowling, Destiny Deacon and Julie Gough. The exploration of Indigenous family histories, the exposure of racism, the experience of the local and the haunting dynamic from past to present is made global in their work.

Simryn Gill's intriguing art operates experimentally across a range of ideas, methods and media, including photography, objects, collections and text works based on her early years in both Malaysia and Australia. A major exhibition produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney focused on Gill's works, including a selection of works from her time living in Adelaide, early in her career.


Fiona Hall artwork

Paradisus Terrestris, Nelumbo nucifera; nelum (Sinhala); thamereri (Taml); lotus, Fiona Hall (b. 1953), 1999, aluminium and steel. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Contemporary art is also about transformation. Fiona Hall deliberately transforms ordinary everyday objects to address a range of contemporary issues such as globalisation, consumerism, colonialism and natural history. Other artists like Tony Schwensen use whatever medium (drawings, photography, sound and video) is appropriate to explore the human condition by examining 'political correctness and everyday experiences'. Michael Stevenson creates photographs and installations examining 'fragments of local histories' to raise questions about relationships. In Nick Mangan's distinctive work 'the by-products of consumerism are integrated with unique sculptural forms of the artist's own making'.


Ben Quilty (b 1973, Sydney) started using portraiture from 2005 to explore notions of Australian manhood. The dense thick lustrous layers of paint with jarring colours and juxtaposition evoke uncomfortable feelings.

The portraits by Adam Cullen (b. 1965 Sydney, Australia) seem to flow unmediated from popular culture, reflecting sentiments and images deep-rooted inside society.

In the world of Del Kathryn Barton (b. 1972, Sydney Australia), portraits are interwoven with 'nature and the feminine in sensual, sometimes disturbing dreamscapes'.

Vernon Ah Kee creates work dealing with issues facing Australian Indigenous culture in a post-colonial society. He is best known for his monumentally scaled pencil portraits of Aboriginal family members, who gaze defiantly at the viewer.

Triennials and retrospectives

In late 2009, Australian contemporary art was celebrated across the country: The Clemenger Contemporary Art Award Triennial (National Gallery of Victoria), 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects exhibition (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and the 6th Asia-Pacific Trienniale of Contemporary Art (Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane). Shows continue at the MCA (Sydney), CASCA (Adelaide), PICA (Perth) and the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (Darwin).

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia – 2012

MCA Opening and Refurbishment

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) closed for a massive refurbishment in 2011 and reopened in March 2012. The new extension included a northern wing with expanded gallery spaces, a sculpture terrace, and education facilities forming part of the National Centre for Creative Learning. The new building now links George St in the Rocks to the Harbour with a large foyer for visitors, leading to the new galleries. The National Centre for Creative Learning is a major part of the redevelopment, together with specially designed digital infrastructure which allows students to visit and interact with the MCA from their computer.

The sculpture terrace and café give the visitor some of the best public views of the harbour to the Opera House across Circular Quay that can be seen from the Rocks.

…they’ve really “embraced” Circular Quay with the new design. I always had the feeling the MCA “just happened” to be at The Quay, whereas now it’s very much part of the environment. There’s a rooftop cafe, for example, which affords STUNNING views of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The MCA now looks like a “contemporary” art space.
James O'Brien

The MCA was one of the first museums in Australia to allow the public into its spaces during its exhibition installation periods – part of the new museology of transparency. Glimpses into the archaeology and historical fabric of the building are now possible in new ways. In addition outside sculptures by contemporary artists comment on the space.

Collecting is seen as a vital part of the MCA’s support for Australian art. Since 2003 the MCA has focused on building its collection, acquiring major works by Australian artists of the past ten years and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists; film and video; work of diverse cultural voices; and work for the Contemporary Art Archive.

MCA director Liz-Ann Macgregor says

We are the only public institution in Australia that's dedicated to both collecting and exhibiting contemporary art so we felt it was important to declare ourselves as an Australian asset, not just a Sydney asset.

The MCA reopened in 2012 becoming the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with a dedicated gallery wing for the rotation of works from its collection, and the yearly Primavera exhibition exhibits work recently purchased from young and emerging Australian artists.

Much of the MCA’s collection is now accessible online and the website forms a critical part of public interaction with the museum. As an extension of this, MCA tours many of its exhibitions regionally, nationally and more recently internationally, supported by education resources, staff and programs. Since 2000, entry to the MCA has been free to all but one exhibition per year.

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Print references

  • Current: contemporary art from Australia and New Zealand, edited by Art & Australia. acknowledges the assistance of the National Gallery of Victoria in providing many of the images for this article.

Last updated: 30 June 2012,
Creators: Kathryn Wells, Jo Daniell

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