Meaning Behind Animals in Aboriginal Art

Animals in Aboriginal art hold many diverse meanings and may be depicted for a number of symbolic and communicative reasons. As hunter gatherers with a deep connection to land and Country, Aboriginal communities across Australia all share a profound respect for — and relationship with — the native animals in their area.

OzBid works with local artists and communities to offer a broad selection of Aboriginal animal artworks available at online auction. These artworks capture the depth and breadth of the traditions in Aboriginal art, in which animals are used for symbolic and metaphorical purposes — as recurring motifs that speak to the culture of a community, and as part of a wider story carried through dance, song, and visual artistic mediums.

Aboriginal animal painting

In Aboriginal art, animals can be depicted as a food source, as beings with whom the land is shared, as characters in Dreaming that depict certain events and behaviours, and also as avatars for spirits. Their figures may appear in representational styles, or in dot painting and other more symbolic works, or their presence may be implied by their tracks or contextual place in a particular story. Perhaps most often, animals are featured in artworks in order to tell the songlines of the Dreaming and creation, in which animals played a major part. Animals in Aboriginal art may be creatures which exist today, or mythical figures such as the Rainbow Serpent of Dreamtime.

Indigenous animal art across Australia

In Western Arnhem Land, artists depict both the inside and the outside of the animal in a style also known as X-ray art. These pieces often feature the figure of the animal curved within the canvas, with signature cross hatching used to fill the interior of the animal and evoke the enlivening power of spirits.

The area a particular artist comes from is much more vital to their work than a sense of individual self expression. Painting in Indigenous culture is a sacred right which must be earned, along with a series of stylised techniques which are taught to the new generation. These techniques form the basis of each clan or community’s distinct style, and connect each work produced to a larger narrative of story. Dreaming and Country acts as a tool of communication and an illustrative mode of meaning.

The symbolism of different animals in Aboriginal art
Depending on where an artist comes from, an animal depicted in their work may have a radically different meaning to the same animal found in another painter’s work. Nonetheless, some animals feature prominently across the art of many regions, and have a well defined role to play in the telling of the Dreaming.


Snakes are found in all parts of Australia, and thus have a rich tradition within Aboriginal animal art. Snakes are linked to both the earth and underground, but also have a strong connection to water. Their fluid, flowing body shapes mimic that of serpentine rivers and waterways, and this connection is often made explicit in Dreaming creation stories. Their role in the natural world is one which must be respected.


As a large and imposing figure, the emu is both a dominant life form on the Australian continent and within Aboriginal art. Many creation myths from different clans describe how the large flightless birds lost their ability to fly. As a species, male emus take responsibility for the protection and hatching of eggs, and raising chicks. For this reason emus are often related to male initiation rituals and ceremony.


Kangaroos have been a reliable and abundant food source for Indigenous people for centuries, however they are also deeply respected as part of the land and play a part in the broader understanding of life cycles. In the Dreamtime story of creation, animals existed on the land before humans, and some of these animals were then imbued with human spirit and became the first people. In some art, kangaroos may represent a human figure within a story or larger context.


Turtles play an important role in the Dreaming for many different peoples across the

Maningrida, Ramingining and Ngukurr peoples of Arnhem Land, and artists from the Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory’s Daly River, the Torres Strait Islands and the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland all feature turtles heavily in their art. As a feature of artwork from Arnhem Land, turtles are often depicted with that region’s iconic cross hatching known as rarrk.


The goanna ancestor plays an important role in many creation stories of the Dreamtime, known for being wise, fast and strong. In particular, the goanna has an instrumental part to play in the creation myths of many desserts and sand mounds which now populate parts of central and northern Australia.


The use of barramundi in Aboriginal artwork is documented as far back as thousands of years, with rock paintings of its form still in existence from that period. Barramundi are often depicted in the X-ray style of Arnhem Land peoples. In the Kimberley region, the barramundi ancestor escaped a trap set for it in the river, scraping its scales against the rock face and leaving behind the diamonds that come from that area.


Represented by artists from the north of Australia where crocodiles can be found, these prehistoric saltwater and freshwater hunters play an important part in art from the Kimberley, Queensland, Arnhem Land, the Northern Territory and the Torres Strait Islands. One creation story from Daly River tells of a talented fisherman who was hunted by other jealous members of his tribe. They trapped him in a net and drowned him, after which his wife wrapped herself in his fishing net and drowned herself in despair. The two came together to form the saltwater crocodile, and their bulging skin through the nets can be seen in the pattern of the crocodile’s scales to this day.


There are an enormous range of native Australian birds that feature in Aborginal animal art from all over the country. From the waterbirds of coastal areas to eagles, cockatoos and lorikeets, birds feature heavily in many art styles from around the nation. In some Aboriginal cultures, carved bird sculptures form the top of ceremonial burial poles to honour the deceased. They can symbolise release and freedom, the life cycle of Country, and as totemic spirits.

Rainbow Serpent

The immortal ancestor and creator spirit in Aboriginal Dreaming, the Rainbow Serpent is depicted as a powerful water being of creation and life giving energy — but it’s also shown as a destructive force within Aboriginal animal art. As a protector of the land, the Rainbow Serpent acts as a force for fertility and abundance, but must be respected in order not to draw its anger and potential for destruction. The vivid imagery of water, a spectrum of colours and the twisting form of the Rainbow Serpent can be found in many art styles from different regions.

An affordable piece of Aboriginal art history

At OzBid, we make it possible for anyone to own a piece of artwork from the planet’s oldest continuous culture — no matter what your budget or space limitations. From small works starting from $50 to striking pieces that are perfect for boardrooms and corporate spaces, our range has it all. Most of our pieces come stretched and ready to be hung, however in order to offer competitive shipping quotes for our international customers, we may also package it unstretched.

Our Aboriginal art auctions are timed, online only events that take place over several days, and you can take part in from anywhere in the world! Our transparent pricing guides make it easy for you to track the expected price of our artworks and place a competitive bid. Our collection of Aboriginal art contains stunning examples of some of Australia’s most distinctive styles and has been carefully curated to feature highly sought after artists for a long-term investment. Whether you’ve fallen in love with the fluid movement of a bush medicine leaves piece or want your own original Aboriginal animal artwork, you’ll find it at OzBid.

Quality artwork from the trusted Aboriginal animal art dealers

As well as offering more affordable artwork than commercial galleries or other retailers, at OzBid, we maintain strong relationships with our artists and their communities. All of our pieces are ethically sourced, so when you purchase an Aboriginal animal artwork from OzBid, you can be sure that the sales revenue from your purchase goes directly to supporting these artists and communities further. We’re tremendously proud of our relationships with a number of emerging talents and established artists all across Australia. If you have questions about the artists we work with, or want to know more about a particular art style, our team can help you with all your enquiries. Contact us today and we can help you find the perfect Aboriginal animal art piece for you.



Why are animals used in Aboriginal art?

There are many reasons why animals appear in Aboriginal Art. As a tool for communicating both story and practical knowledge, Aboriginal animal art follows specific stylistic features according to the region which produced it. Through the use of these regional techniques and styles, artists communicate messages about Dreaming and creation, continue song and dance lines of their people, and pass on information about their cultural practices and way of life to future generations.

Artworks with animals also speak to an inherent respect for these animals within Aboriginal culture. As protectors of the land and people with innate connection to Country, Aboriginal people use animals as a source of food and valuable resources, while protecting them and their habitat. Through symbolic use of animals in Aboriginal art, the relationship between people and animals, their value and cultural significance, and their place in the Dreamtime story are all expressed and explored.

What animals are used in Aboriginal art?

Native animals in all regions of Australia are depicted by their local Aboriginal artists. Serpents and snakes can be commonly found in all areas of Australia, as can kangaroos, emus, turtles, lizards, stingrays, birds, goannas, crocodiles and fish. The use of these animals will depend on whether they are found in a particular region, and their depiction may vary based on their ancestral role in Dreaming, their uses by the people of that region, and their tracks.

How are animals used in Aboriginal art?

Animals are used to communicate both practical and spiritual ideas in Aboriginal art. As ancestral spirits, they are characters in the Dreaming and its many stories. Certain behaviours and traits of animals may be used as totems for a group of people within society — new mothers for example, or men coming of age. In more abstract forms, animals may not be depicted as recognisable forms, but rather represented by their tracks or their impact on the environment around them, and in the story being told through the artwork.

What artists create Aboriginal art?

Creating Aboriginal animal art is not merely a matter of deciding to pick up a brush. The highly ritualised and cultural practice of painting has to be taught by artists to the new generation, in order that they might properly grasp the distinct features and details of a region’s specific art style. This means that a carefully curated birthright of painting is passed down through families to preserve an ongoing story and culture. Every one of the artists featured in the collection from OzBid are a part of their community’s storytelling through visual expression.