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Yellow Case: Form, space, design

Mary Oliver

Music sticks

Mary Oliver Music sticks 1997, Wood and acrylic paint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Mary Oliver Music sticks 1997, wood and acrylic paint, National Gallery of Australia enlarge

About the artist
Mary Oliver's mother was relocated at a young age from Arltunga in the Northern Territory, 100 km north-east of Alice Springs, to Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte),
75 km east of Alice Springs. Oliver, who belongs to the Eastern Arrernte language group, was born and grew up in Santa Teresa. After completing her formal education at Alice Springs High School, she returned to Santa Teresa to work in a bank. In 1987 she became one of the first artists to be employed at the Art Centre - Keringke Arts.

She began working with stencil painting and lino printing before moving on to silk painting, which she learnt by watching other artists at work. She has since been involved in many workshops and exhibitions throughout Australia.

How do people use music sticks
In Aboriginal culture, music sticks have long been used to accompany songs and dances during ceremonies. They have been made for an 'outside' or non-ceremonial audience since missionaries, anthropologists and collectors began arriving in central Australia early this century. Today music sticks are among the cultural items produced by communities for sale to the growing tourism trade and art market.

Both men and women make plain and decorated wood carvings of animals, bowls, clubs, digging sticks and music sticks. The patterns decorating these items are derived from traditional designs, but new techniques allow artists to be innovative in their interpretations. The designs on these music sticks are indicative of the Santa Teresa style, depicting distinctive patterns of dots and line work in vivid colour. Mary Oliver has used traditional Aboriginal symbols as a basis for developing her own style and patterns. The designs on the music sticks have been inspired by nature and are purely decorative — unlike traditional Aboriginal symbols, they do not tell a story.


  • Make your own music sticks from natural or industrial materials
  • Decorate your instrument with patterns and symbols. Do the symbols have any meaning? Does your decoration tell a story?