| art & architecture | books & cds | dance | destinations | film | opera
| television | theater | archives
Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Gantner Myer Collection
Art lovers are familiar with the Paleolithic cave
paintings of animals and hunters in Lascaux France, which are thought to have been created
ten to fifteen thousand years ago. Even older, though not as widely known, is the art of
the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, dating back perhaps as much as an astonishing 40,000
Since the early 20th
century, there has been a renaissance of the traditional art of the Aboriginal people,
which, belatedly, is achieving recognition in the west for its richness and diversity. For
the Aboriginal people, art is a sacred expression. On the vast continent of Australia,
where over 200 languages were once spoken, art was and still is the language that bridges
the diverse Aboriginal cultures.
Australian Aboriginal Art from the Gantner Myer Collection, curated by Jennifer
Isaacs, former Aboriginal Arts Project Officer for the government of Australia, is an
exhibition of some 125 pieces of contemporary Aboriginal art. Spanning the past 30 years,
these works come directly from Aboriginal communities and major Aboriginal artists. The
collection includes works done in traditional media, such as bark painting and wood
sculpture, as well as modern media.
Even to those
unfamiliar with this artistic tradition, it offers a great deal of purely aesthetic
appeal. There is a superficial resemblance to modern abstract expressionist, minimalist or
even op art. Many of the works make use of dot patterns over colored lines, creating a
shimmering effect. The paintings vibrate with color and pattern. Some works use
traditional pigments of ochre, black, white, and red ochre, but many employ a more modern
pallet including a brilliant range of colors from blues to pinks to bright yellows. The
resemblance to modern art is partially responsible for an increased appreciation of
Aboriginal art in the West in recent years.
Beyond the purely
sensual appeal of these paintings and art objects, each may be appreciated on
a deeper level. Abstract works of art and design to the western eye, in the Aboriginal
tradition they are depictions of landscapes, traditional stories, and forces of nature.
These people are very closely tied to the land and they express these ties through stories
about the supernatural beings and ancestors who they believe created and shaped the land.
The stories connect distant tribes to common social and religious customs and provide an
ideological framework for the universe. The Aborigines believe that these creative
spiritual forces are still present in the land and people, and exert influence over daily
life. Bruce Chatwin writes: Aboriginal myths tell of the legendary totemic beings
who wandered across the country in the Dreamtime . . . singing the world into
in the current exhibition are modern dreamings on this traditional theme that
has been depicted and reinterpreted by artists for thousands of years. Patterns may denote
particular tribes, or forces of nature such as water or lightning. A traditional
pattern of lines may represent the boundaries of ancestral lands, or the path walked by an
ancestor. These symbolic stories were originally designed for ceremonial purposes and only
created by those initiated into the religious traditions. Often they were created in
temporary media, such as sand painting and body painting. In transferring these works to
canvas, the artists not only allow us to appreciate their art, but also give us a more
permanent record of their spiritual traditions.
The focal point of
the collection is an enormous canvas commissioned especially for this exhibit. Liwirringki
(Burrowing Skink) Jukurrpa, is 118 x 197 and was created in 1998 by a group of
28 Warlukurlangu artists. The canvas is a kaleidoscope of pink, red, blue, orange, yellow
and white dot patterns over colored line drawings, depicting men hunting the
liwirringki, first using fire to flush them from their holes, then spearing them. Beyond
the story itself there is a political message in this work as it represents the ancestral
lands occupied by the skink and the concern of these artists for preserving this land.
The challenge of Spirit
Country is to see beyond the seductive beauty of color and pattern and composition to
the intended perspective of an exotic, non-Western culture - to see art that is profoundly
spiritual and integral to the day-to-day life of a people engaged in a struggle for the
very survival of their culture.
- Jerry Becerra