To anyone I'm in the position to gently advise on writing, public speaking, or self-presentation, I insist that one must never lead with an apology. If rules though, are made to be broken, my own is hereby reduced to smithereens: I am very sorry, dear readers, that I failed to make it to the Toledo Museum of Art's Crossing Cultures in a timely way so that my review could lead you to this astonishing show. Alas, this rich survey of contemporary aboriginal art from Australia closes on July 14. All of the material in it comes to Toledo from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, however, so I warmly exhort you to include Hanover, New Hampshire on your next New England itinerary.
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi (Tiwi people), Parmajini (Armband), 2000. Ochres on canvas. 45 x 21." Author photograph.
One enters this dazzling show and is immediately thrilled by the graphic beauty of the galleries aglow with art in one of two palettes. Works like Armband are painted with earthen, ochre pigments, the colors of the world of inhabited by indigenous peoples of the continent's northern margins, areas called Kimberly, Arnhem Land, and the Cape York Peninsula. Those living in the Central and Western Desert have received rainbows of acrylic paints from government agencies promoting aboriginal art through the founding of art centers in isolated "outstation" communities. This 2007 painting by Shorty Jangala Robertson, Water Dreaming at Puyurru, is typical of the vibrant choices made by the painters with access to a full spectrum of commercial materials.
|Shorty Janagala Robertson, Ngapa Jukurrpa Puyurru|
(Water Dreaming at Puyurru), 2007. Acrylic on canvas,
72 x 48." Copyright 2013 Artist Rights Society (ARS)
New York/VISCOPY Australia
Encountering art from a non-Western culture can be as easy as this work makes it. Beautiful in design and color, even its organic shapes invite us to relate to it comfortably—however blank we remain about its meaning or history. There's not a contemporary decor it won't fit: From Pier One to your dining niche!
Crossing Cultures, however, keeps the viewer's feet on the floor. While we can appreciate every detail of the beauty surrounding us in these galleries, the curators have so artfully shaped and installed the show that the viewer comes away with more than redecorating ideas. Neither do we cling for very long to any preconceptions we brought in about who Australian aborigines are or fantasies we had about their primitive culture. The ethnographic, so hard to avoid in shows of art from non-industrial societies, arises only by way of its relevance to the circumstances under which artworks were produced. I was grateful that we did not have to deal with images of dwelling, costume, lifestyle, nor physiognomies that appear strange or exotic to us. What we learn (it's a good deal) about the aborigines comes to us as knowledge of what is important to them and what preoccupies them. Those are the things people make art about.
It's wonderful that the photography in the first gallery makes clear what might otherwise be lost to us: that this is a contemporary art show. Images like the two above are—just like the photographs below—twenty-first century work.
It's in the first gallery that we learn that most aborigines live in Australia's cities; that on top of their racial and cultural outsider status, they struggle with the concerns of any urban economic and social underclass. Their ties to their ancestral lands and mores are attenuated; their identities are often confused, challenged and conflicted.
Here we get the only image that might confirm the usual idea of "what aborigines look like," if we have enough imagination to grant them the dignity and durability of their claims to ancestry literally in and of the land.
|Ricky Maynard, Wik Elder, Arthur, 2000. Gelatin silver print, ed. 3/15, 22 x 18."|
©2013 Artist Rights Society(ARS) New York/VISCOPY Australia.
If one pointed to ancestry only in skin color, nose width, depth of eye sockets and the like, one would miss every important detail of Ricky Maynard's portrait of a man whose age appears not to diminish him, but to render him more permanent. As sand becomes rock, so time and experience appear to have treated him, to have condensed and hardened him: In time he will become diamond, one feels. The sharpness and clarity of this photograph are so perfect, that the refining pressure of time is felt to happen even as we look on. For any group of people, this would be an inspirational ideal.
Christian Thompson's color photograph presents an urban aboriginal person to be as hooded and ambiguously identified as the Wik Elder is solid and unmistakable. The two portraits were no doubt chosen as emblems of the poles of contemporary ethnic identity. This man/boy/woman wears not only the urban uniform, but a mask of flowers from the gum tree, vivid, sensual, and graceful.
|Christian Thompson, Black Gum #2, 2007. C-Type print, ed.1/10,|
39 x39." Courtesy of Christian Thompson and Gallery
Gabriellle Pizzi, Melbourne, Australia
To aboriginal Australians, time is not divided into past, present, and future, but all time coexists. Aboriginal spiritual context is called by English speakers, "The Dreaming." In this cosmology, the world was created not only by human beings, but by communicating natural forces, animals, and plants that travelled all over the earth, shaping it with their movements. The significance of place, of geographical features, and of the elements are probably beyond our power to imagine. The Dreaming is also the Law for aboriginal people.
On the simplest level, Thompson's arresting portrait—shocking for its beauty as it is for its weird menace—can be read as a portrait of a displaced or uncertain person; or of one who is quite the opposite, knowing and wearing well the disguises that are useful in a society where (s)he won't find an uncontested home.
The Dreamings provide the basis for all indigenous Australian understanding of the world's creation, its natural laws, mutually caring relationships among its inhabitant plants, animals, structures, and mankind. As a result, there is a sense in which any aboriginal painting, whatever its named subject, is a portrait, for the human connection to nature and place is profoundly personal, both through the individual and related peoples. This is information the show makes accessible, without which it would be a mysterious but gorgeous abstract design show.
Likewise, aboriginial paintings will strike most of us as primitive, abstract, and ancient without our concluding through well-produced guiding notes that they are, to their artists, literal, realistic, and narrative or descriptive. A map of Australia pinpoints the areas of rural aboriginal cultures, which produce a variety not only of palettes in their paintings, but of characteristic designs and subjects. (Map courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.)