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Photograph: Ratno Sardi/Griffith University


If for any reason you find yourself on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, climb up a particular dusty, meandering track on the edge of a steep hillside. Scramble around the rocky outcrops close to the top, negotiate a bamboo ladder, and step into a cave system that was once underwater as part of an ancient coral reef. Welcome to the world’s oldest art gallery.

Look above your head. In the rough, uneven surface of limestone rock, splintered with age and masked by mineral deposits [affectionately known as ‘popcorn’ by geologists], you will see the faint lines of a painting created at least 40,000 years ago. To date, this is the oldest known painting of figurative art anywhere in the world. There are many paintings in this cave, and many more still in similar locations nearby, all thought to be around a similar age.

Some depict simple human outlines, carrying what appear to be hunting tools, others show distinct animal forms, and others still show the silhouetted shapes of human hands, presumably belonging to the artists themselves. Their relative simplicity takes away none of the thrill of knowing they are the earliest examples of creative art made by humans.

Whatever the reason they were painted - to glorify a hunt, to express spiritual or early religious sensibilities, or made just for fun like an archaic graffiti – it’s compelling they were not made out of necessity but for the sake of creativity itself, using our imagination to tell a story.

These paintings are an extraordinary snapshot of our distant past, demonstrating that creativity and artistic expression have been part of what it means to be human for a lot longer than we previously realized. We humans have been making tools for around 2 million years, and since this in itself is an expression of creativity, perhaps the artistic expression that drives us to create art today is equally old.

We may never know exactly when our creative flame was lit, but the next time you start a new painting, sketch out ideas for that new bathroom, or even dream up a recipe for ‘omelet ice cream,’ remember – we’ve been doing this kind of thing a very long time.

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We all know what to expect when we go to an art gallery. Hushed rooms, white walls and low lights; the sound of the polite murmur of us humans sharing opinion. Written text is small and subtle, giving snippets of information without disturbing the eye. And punctuating this serenity, unique pieces of art, carefully created and presented for our pleasure. But there are other art galleries with an altogether different atmosphere. Loud voices, louder music, bright lights, and large words. The art is everywhere - stacked up in quantity, like supermarket shelves. In fact, like supermarkets themselves.


When we are there, we rarely think much beyond the food we need to buy. But look past the hard sell and the production line surroundings and take a moment to do something different. Stop amongst the pickles, pause at the soups, or take a moment at the cereals and take a closer look. Suddenly there’s a new world of imagination to behold - the art of packaging is creative and intriguing.


In a conventional art gallery, each artwork is uniquely created, drawing you in and sparking your emotions to tell you a story or take you on a journey. The artist works hard to convey their feelings to the viewer. This gallery is perhaps no different - with each bottle, tin, and box trying to convey many of the same sensations, albeit with different objectives.


Look at them as a piece of art. The materials are pleasing and familiar, their shape sculpted in a multitude of satisfying forms. The typefaces are enticing and exotic, suggestive of another time or place. The drawings, paintings, and photographs take you further still – somewhere desirable or captivating. And an endless palette of colors and shades unite everything into a single work of art.


This is not to say supermarkets are somehow superseding the art gallery, or packaging designers replacing the artist. Still, there’s no harm in enjoying all forms of artistic expression, even when we discover it in unlikely places. So next time you are grocery shopping, assume you’re in an art gallery and enjoy what you see for its own sake. Andy Warhol did.

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It is often said of an artist that making the first mark is the hardest thing to do. The first stroke of the brush across a fresh, blank canvas, the first impression of the chisel on an untouched stone, or the first sentence on a new piece of paper. The lack of any guide or direction at that moment has been described as intimidating, stressful, or even a suppressant to the creative process.


The anxiety to get it right, make the first mark count - to commit to a direction; the endless and open possibility of the blank medium – presenting the opportunity to create without constraint. You can do anything, but what…? With any number of possibilities available it’s easy to see how starting a new piece of work can lead to the unavoidable urge to clean the bathroom again - rather than actually make that first mark.


Many artists may be familiar with this. But to extend the idea a little, perhaps this is also what stops many of us non-artists from being creative. Even before buying a brush, or chisel, or a writing pad - we cannot decide where to start. It’s fair to say that if a talented and professional artist has trouble starting, what chance do the rest of us have!


So perhaps the trick is to look at the situation differently. If, instead of fearing that moment of endless possibilities and unrestrained options, we embrace it, then maybe it works in our favor. After all, none of the marks we make at the beginning will be seen at the end; they start the journey but that’s all.


It is also often said that the solution for an artist to overcome this fear of making the first mark is simply to begin. Make that brushstroke, mark the stone, write the sentence – see what happens, and see where it takes you. Eventually, through trial and error, dedication [and an immaculate bathroom,] ideas emerge.


There is something wonderfully rewarding about creating something yourself. Finding your inner artist and making something unique is a very personal thing. Whether you’re a talented artist or an enthusiastic novice, only by starting the process can the creativity properly begin.

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