Friday, July 12, 2013

Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Toledo Museum of Art


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.)





Remembering that the continent is slightly larger than the United States, we can understand that "aboriginal" is not a unitary term, but one that includes many styles within a broad culture. So where the communities of the Central and Western Deserts paint with designs created from dots made with acrylics, the northern painters from the Arnhem region do fine cross-hatch designs called rarrk and paint with ochre on eucalyptus bark.

Peter  Marralwanga, Namanjwarre, 1981. 55 x 17,"
ochres on stringy bark. Author photo.
Peter Marralwanga, a Kuninjku, made this image of a freshwater crocodile in 1981. To a Western eye, it is representational and decorative. The rarrk technique of cross-hatching, however, derives from traditions of body painting on ritual dancers. The marks convey power and spiritual significance. The crocodile can never be any crocodile—a zoological specimen—for it is bound to represent the original crocodile of The Dreaming, with the significance it continues to have and will always have, and which is effective at the moment the artist makes it. The painting, then, is not only an exquisite painting, but an object of active spiritual potency.                                                


As objects of great cultural significance, however, these contemporary paintings  meet our eyes—they meet our culture—in the middle. Painting for a commercial market is not a centuries old practice among the aborigines. It is an activity introduced by the government during a new era in which the former ruling colonial class has recognized the devastation it has always wreaked on the indigenous people, including stripping families of their children for reacculturation in white home and schools. Painting has been introduced as an activity now that most of their former land-based activities, like herding, have disappeared as means of livelihood. A global market for this art has developed; everyone is behind this enterprise and expression of cultural continuity.


Chief among the advocates are the aboriginal artists themselves. It's not for the income, but for the opportunity to present their unknown and forever-neglected people and culture to the world that they are satisfied with the commercial arrangements. The solution to the obvious question of the sacred content of their work is that the content is within their control They commit to canvas or bark only partial stories, disguised stories, or images lacking the marks or elements that would betray the sacrosanct.They can introduce themselves and their ways without revealing all.
George Tjungurrayi, Karrukwarra, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60."
Author photo.


George Tjungurrayi's Karrilwarra describes ridges of desert sand with snake tracks through it. A gallery note informs us, though, that this sort of pattern also appears on objects that are spun through the air on strings at adolescent initiation rites. They call ancestral spirits even as they dazzle the initiates. The connection between the landscape created during The Dreaming; the presence of the creators; and the unity between creation of the universe and of the painting; this is aboriginal reality, all packed into the painting and culturally legible.

Johnnt Yungut Tjupurrula, Malparingya, 2001. Acrylic on
canvas. 36 x 36." Author photo.
Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula did not intend for anyone to penetrate Malparingya. Apparently the design of this canvas copies three-dimensional designs made in the earth for the closed sacred ceremonies of aboriginal men's groups. Only those initiated to the group would understand anything about the symbols, which would never be constructed for permanence in the first place. This is true of most aboriginal art before the present era, when it would have been produced in the sand or earth for spiritual, not monumental or documentary concern. Tjupurrula's painting is a deep secret then, as its marks would be interpretable to very few people even within his culture, and even those would understand that this is a remote approximation of the real thing.


Most of the art, of whatever style, in Crossing Cultures, tells a story about the peoples' connection to the land. This is clearly a relationship far beyond "Go Green." The aborigines exist in order to care for the land, which is not only spiritual and animate, but the source of every distinguishing human characteristic and power. Human characteristics and much more closely bound in spirit and mind to what we consider non-living: They bridge the distinction because for them there is none.
Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, Kaningarra, 2000.
Acrylic on canvas, 59 x39." Author photo.


One of the paintings I found most breathtaking is Kaningarra, an image both topographical and expressive. Made in 2000 by Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, from the station of Balgo in the Western Desert, the 59 x 39" acrylic work describes a water hole ringed by the history of its floods and shrinkages. The water hole is one of the major topics in aboriginal painting, for obvious reason, and this canvas seems like a pinnacle of its celebration as the source of life. It's an image that is of course expressive: The colors, their mixture and their dispersal between cool and hot, the tiny dots of green tucked in between the blues, yellows and reds, all drink up water with the same joy the earth does. The painting is the flowering that results.


The dot technique feels to me like it tows the line between expressive and literal. It's like Mecca's Grand Mosque at Eid. It's the holy center of the universe with people from every end of the earth radiating to or from it.

Arnkerrthe, or Mountain Devil Lizard, 2001 by Kathleen Petyarre, is a large and mesmerizing painting on linen (47 x 47") which seems, like Kaningarra, to offer a bird's eye vista at once literal and symbolic. Again, land, creatures, plants, and spiritual qualities are all portrayed simultaneously. Petyarre's marks and designs carry multiple meanings individually and together as an integrated artwork.

Arnkerrthe, or Mountain Devil Lizard, 2001 by Kathleen Petyarre, is a large and mesmerizing painting on linen (47 x 47") which seems, like Kaningarra, to offer a bird's eye vista at once literal and symbolic. Again, land, creatures, plants, and spiritual qualities are all portrayed simultaneously. Petyarre's marks and designs carry multiple meanings individually and together as an integrated artwork.

Without reading any text about the work, it is, like everything in the show, fulfilling on its own merits. Its subtle, muted palette and its gently interrupted geometry strike me as calmly reassuring and stable. Yet the grid-like design seems to contain a puzzle, too, in its careful conversion by unregimented routes. This is one of the works I find most pleasing on aesthetic grounds alone, where the trails of marks and shifts of colors lead my thoughts and feelings.
Kathleen Petyarre, Arnkerrthe (Mountain Devil Lizard), 2001, acrylic on linen, 47 x 47."

The background about the Mountain Devil Lizard offered in the notes only enriches the painting's impact though. It is explained that Arnkerrthe, the lizard, arose during the Dreaming and created dances that women perform today. In the desert, the lizard now travels across sand dunes, eating seeds but surviving thanks to the spines by which its covered, making it indigestible to predator. In the painting, then, one sees sand dunes, the erratic paths of the lizards, the seeds, the spines, the dances and the ancient spirit of Arnkerrthe. I find it deeply satisfying that the cultural crossing is performed so seamlessly here. A work of art I'd embrace spontaneously also performs precisely the task the aboriginal artists envision: It bridges the chasm between their culture and mine. It displays and explains in a way that is surprising, refreshing, and clear.
Paddy Bedford, Doonwoonan (Old Bedford Downs), 2000. Ochres on
canvas. 53 x 48."

Lest we believe, though, that aboriginal life is consumed only by The Dreaming, though, we are reminded by several paintings that the injustices dealt with primarily in the art of the urban-dwellers is the same kind felt by those living on stations in the deserts and remote areas of the continent. Old Bedford Downs (Doowoonan) is another work that represents a real situation, in this case a cattle ranch in East Kimberly in which Aboriginal Australians worked among European Australian but under unequal circumstances and with unequal accommodations. The tensions between them resulted in labor violence during the early twentieth century. Paddy Bedford's painting depicts the separate living quarters of the two racial groups and the narrow trail that holds them together.

I think these works that focus on the suppression of aboriginal cultural, on racism and genocide, place into powerful perspective the works that focus on identification with and guardianship with the natural world. Paintings like Arnkerrthe, above, or like Parwalla, below, invoke landscape and natural elements in ways so fresh and untutored that they seem to arise from awareness beyond conscious observation.

Parwalla, painted in 2000 by Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, refers to an area of the Great Sandy Desert where a type of grass native to Australian deserts grows. Spinifex grasses grow in hummocks and put down roots of extraordinary (nine feet) depth to capture what little water there is. The painting illustrates the white grasses and their blooms when it rains.

 Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, Parwalla, 2000. Acrylic on
canvas. 59 x 39."

All of the work included in Crossing Cultures has been collected by Harvey Wagner and Will Owen since 1988. Their interest in contemporary Australian aboriginal art—originally aesthetic—resulted over the years in many trips into the heart of aboriginal culture and vast appreciation of the traditions and significance of the many modes of their work. Crossing Cutures is composed of work Wagner and Owens have donated or promised to the Hood Museum.  

The catalogue that accompanies the show, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art, published by the Hood Museum, ISBN # 978-0-944722-44-2, doesn't replace the heady experience of the art itself, but its essays about aboriginal life and art are readable, fascinating, and highly informative. The reproductions are excellent. A checklist provides an image and details on every work in the show. It really is the next best thing to being there. 

The trip to this extraordinary culture is more than worth it. That the aboriginal desert flower blooms at all after a history of genocidal assault is remarkable. That its roots are so deep as to support such blooms bears testimony to a durability both magnificent and profoundly poignant.

5 comments:

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