Trevor Nickolls, Dreamtime-Machinetime 1988, acrylic on canvas, UTS Art Collection, on loan from the UTS Union Collection.

Trevor Nickolls
1949 – 2012, Adelaide, South Australia. Ngarrindjeri people

Dreamtime Machinetime 1988


Dreamtime Machinetime is the title of Nickolls’ painting and the major theme of Nickolls’ work as an Indigenous artist. He is a city based artist that explores points of intersection between traditional Indigenous ways of living and contemporary urban existence. Nickolls was dubbed the ‘father of urban Aboriginal art’ by artist Brenda L Croft.

My life revolves around painting and drawing. I incorporate Aboriginal and Western techniques and symbolism to make contemporary art that relates to both cultures today. My paintings are to share with everyone. I look to bridge the gap between Western and Aboriginal art. My work is a balancing act, like walking a tightrope between my dreams and my life when I’m awake ‘from Dreamtime to Machinetime’.

—Trevor Nickolls, 1990

Nickoll’s was a prominent painter in the 1970s and ‘80s when Australian Aboriginal art, particularly from the Central Desert, was reaching international prominence. Nickolls’ work, in contrast to the dot paintings and storytelling of that region, depicted urban themes paving the way for future urban Indigenous artists.

For Blackfellas like me, the work of Trevor Nickolls, in the 1970s and ‘80s was a visual language that gave voice to the confusion and complexity around the identity politics of the times. As a visual artist, he gave voice to our frustration and anger at our powerlessness and our invisibility like no artist before had.

He had arrived on the scene at a good time. As happens sometimes, when as artists, as a people, we really need someone to point us in the right direction, a direction of substance, Trevor Nickolls turned up, brush in hand. On the back of the Civil Rights era in Australia and in an era of much political change for Blackfellas his ‘Dreamtime-to-Machinetime’ works were like nothing any of us had seen before. And Nickolls is rightly known and remembered for these paintings more than anything else in his canon.

—Vernon Ah Kee

Nickolls represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale alongside Rover Thomas, the first Aboriginal artists to do so. In 2013 he posthumously won the Blake prize for Religious art. The prize money will go towards establishing a scholarship for Indigenous artists to study art at tertiary level.