World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia
An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000
- Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
- An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
- The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
- The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
- John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
- All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
- 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
- The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
- High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
- Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
- The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton
An introduction to Aboriginal art
Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art in Modern Worlds celebrates some of the highest achievements of Aboriginal artists. This exhibition focuses on the work of six artists: Nym Bandak, Fiona Foley, Emily Kam Kngwarray, John Mawurndjul, Tracey Moffatt, and Rover Thomas. It also includes two major collaborative works from Arnhem Land and Cape York: The Aboriginal Memorial, a magnificent set of painted hollow log coffins by 43 artists from Ramingining, and a group of ceremonial sculptures by Wik artists. While the work of these artists is based in age-old traditions, it embodies the realities of Aboriginal Australians living in the modern world: a world that has undergone great social, political and cultural upheavals since Europeans colonised the country over two centuries ago. These upheavals continue to have repercussions today. Aboriginal art is at the very frontier between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and reflects the contemporary realities of its makers.
Art, specifically Aboriginal art created in a European-dominated Australia, can be seen as a medium of negotiation between cultures, and of the exchange of ideas and beliefs; exchanges that are not always equal. The circumstances in which the paintings by Bandak and the Wik sculptures were made, involved the active participation of anthropologists and missionaries. Fiona Foley and Rover Thomas question the 'official' histories of Australia. A focus of the films and photographs of Tracey Moffatt is the definition of identity in a multicultural society. Emily Kam Kngwarray and John Mawurndjul, to varying degrees, have become favourites of the marketplace. The Aboriginal Memorial, on the other hand, was made specifically to register an Aboriginal voice in the clamour of Australia's celebration of two centuries of European occupation. These are but some of the contexts in which art by Aboriginal people operates. Simultaneously, this art expresses the complex of the relationships between the individual, the group, the land, the ancestral beings and the spiritual forces which have invigorated Aboriginal life for generations, past and present.
Aboriginal art is the oldest continuing art tradition in the world. While Europeans mark the start of their third millennium, Aboriginal Australians are marking (at least) their fiftieth. Archaeological research indicates that rock paintings in Arnhem Land in northern Australia date back 50,000 years and rock engravings in southern Australia at least 30,000 years, predating Palaeolithic rock paintings of Altamira and Lascaux in Europe. Graphic symbols and designs found in such rock art continue to be used by artists today.
Aboriginal art manifests in a wide range of forms and media: from ancient rock art to ephemeral body decoration, ground paintings and sand sculptures; from bark paintings and sculpture in wood to jewellery and woven fibres. In recent decades, introduced media such as synthetic paints and canvas, print making materials, textiles, photographic film and computer technology have extended the means by which Aboriginal artists express themselves.
There is not one but several traditions of indigenous art in Australia, each with a distinct visual language, its own vocabulary of icons and symbols. Designs usually have layers of meanings, determined by the context in which they are used - whether in a ceremony with a restricted audience of initiates, or in the public domain of the uninitiated. Artists distinguish between the different levels of meaning: the 'inside' stories for the initiated and the 'outside' interpretation. This enables them to make sacred images in the public domain without compromising the work's true cultural significance, nor the artist's integrity.
Traditionally, the great themes of Aboriginal art relate to the Ancestral Realm, commonly known as the Dreaming. The term 'Dreaming', however inadequate, is used by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. It does not mean a state of dreams or unreality, rather a state of reality beyond the mundane, incorporating the spiritual and physical worlds.
The Ancestral Realm refers to the genesis of the universe and to the supernatural and ancestral beings who created it - beings whose spiritual powers continue to influence and sustain successive generations of Aboriginal people. In the Dreaming these beings and creator ancestors travelled across the unshaped world in both human and non-human form, creating the landscape and laying down the laws of social and religious behaviour. Much Aboriginal art concerns stories (also known as Dreamings) about the epic deeds and activities of the creator ancestors. The entire Australian continent is covered in an intricate web of ancestral tracks. Some are specific to, and contained within, a region whilst others span across regions, connecting those whose land they cover.
The powers of the supernatural and ancestral beings are present in the land, in natural species and within individuals. Activated through ceremony, they continue to sustain their human descendants. An individual's links with the ancestral beings and the land, and his or her spiritual and social identity, are expressed through totems of natural species and phenomena, which feature in ritual songs, dances and through the creation of art.
Before European colonisation, more than 200 distinct languages and up to 600 dialects were spoken across the continent. Equally, there is a myriad of cultural practices, spiritual beliefs and art traditions and styles.
Simply, indigenous Australian art can be categorised according to a number of stylistic regions, in which artists share common visual vocabularies and specific media. Among those represented in this exhibition are the 'Top end' (Arnhem Land and its surrounds), the Kimberley, the desert and Cape York. In addition, artists such as Fiona Foley and Tracey Moffatt have been raised in the cities, outside traditional communities.
Arnhem Land, in the tropical north, is one of the richest art producing regions in the country. Covering some 114,000 square kilometres, it is renowned for hundreds of rock art sites, mighty rivers, freshwater lagoons, jungles, forests, mangrove swamps and sandy beaches.
At least 30 distinct languages and dialects are spoken in Arnhem Land, each as different as, say, Russian is to English; yet the region's clans (or extended family groups) have close associations through similar social organisation, spiritual beliefs and ceremonial activity.
The major forms of artistic expression are weavings in natural fibres produced mostly by women, sculptures and bark paintings. Painting on sheets of bark of the eucalyptus tree is the most distinctive form of art in the region. The tradition stems from painting on the inside walls of bark shelters, rock art and paintings on the human body for ceremonies (bark paintings are often considered to be reflections of the body). The tradition was stimulated during the twentieth century by the desire of Europeans to collect portable examples of local art.
The bark is best stripped from the stringy-bark tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) in the wet season of October to March, when the rising sap makes it easy to remove. It is then cured either on a fire and flattened under weights. The outer surfaces are cleaned by stripping excess bark, then the inner painting surface is made smooth.
The standard colours used in bark paintings are red and yellow ochre, white kaolin or pipe clay, and black charcoal. These powdery pigments are mixed with binders to make paint. Traditionally, birds egg or orchid juice were used but in recent decades artists have favoured commercial wood glues which have similar qualities and are readily available. The most common brush used to execute the fine cross-hatching on barks is a short stemmed brush with only a few long hairs attached. Other brushes are made from such things as the frayed ends of sticks. Today, commercial brushes are also used.
Cross-hatched patterns, referred to as rarrk or miny'tji, are common throughout Arnhem Land. These are achieved by building up layers of lines using the fine hair brush. The patterns are used to give the surface a visual vibrancy, which evokes the power of the ancestors. This can be seen, for example, in John Mawurndjul's paintings, which have direct references to body designs.
The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log coffins, of the type used in secondary mortuary ceremonies in Arnhem Land to keep the bones of the deceased clan members. This collaborative piece was made on the occasion of the Bicentenary of Australia's white settlement, in remembrance of Aboriginal people who had died protecting their land during conflict, but who were denied proper burial. It was the artists' hope that the bicentennial year would mark a transition of Australia from an unjust and racist past to a more egalitarian future.
To the west of Arnhem Land and Darwin lies Wadeye (Port Keats) in the Daly and Fitzmaurice rivers area, home of the Murrinhpatha and related peoples. This coastal area features sandy beaches, mangrove swamps, creeks, rivers and low hills. Bark painting was introduced to the area in the 1950s, following the commercial success of this portable collectable art form in nearby Arnhem Land. Wadeye bark paintings are distinctive, however, as artists commonly fashion them into an oval shape. The style of painting has similarities with the rock art of the area. Also distinctive is the extended palette, which included greens (a mixture of yellow ochre and black), purples (red ochre and black) and pinks (red ochre and white).
Nym Bandak was the pre-eminent artist of the Wadeye community; a prolific bark painter, he lived through a period of great social and cultural upheaval. Bandak produced the paintings in this exhibition in the late 1950s at the request of the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, who sought to investigate the artist's conception of his environment. The result was not only a unique group of works but a long encounter and friendship with Stanner, which lead to a better understanding of indigenous culture by European Australians.
The Kimberley area in the north west of Australia, ranges from monumental rock formations in the east to where the desert meets the sea in the west. This area has a great diversity of language groups and art styles. The Kimberley is home to the ancestral Wandjina (agents of procreation) whose images first appeared in rock paintings in the region about 3000 years ago.
The practice of making headdresses and other paraphernalia for ceremonial dances in the Kimberley lead to the recent use of painted boards which are carried across the dancers' shoulders. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a school of painting emerged in the eastern Kimberley of which Rover Thomas was the leading figure.
In contrast to the lush tropical north of Australia, vast areas of the centre of the continent are desert. This harsh environment of sandhills, mountain ranges, rock formations, plains, saltpan lakes, seasonal waterways and rare permanent waterholes is the country of several distinct but related groups who share systems of graphic representation and iconography.
The desert was the birthplace of one of the most important movements in modern Australian art, known as the Papunya movement. In the early 1970s senior men at the government settlement of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, began to make portable paintings in acrylic using the traditional symbols of their ceremonial sand drawings, ground paintings and body painting.
The developments at Papunya spread in time to other desert communities, including Utopia, north east of Alice Springs, where the Utopia Women's Batik Group began in the late 1970s. By 1988, the artists at Utopia had begun painting on canvas. They employed a range of styles, including naturalistically rendered landscapes and the ubiquitous symbols of the desert.
In the work of Emily Kam Kngwarray, symbols are used sparingly to transcend the narrative aspect of the Dreamings they evoke. Kngwarray's strong gestural marks and fields of colour express the resonance of ancestral power in the landscape, as does the cross-hatching in Arnhem Land bark paintings.
The areas of Cape York in far north Queensland and the islands of the Torres Strait, which form a bridge to Papua New Guinea, are home to a number of different groups.
West Cape York Peninsula is the country of the Wik people, whose art has some affinities with that of Arnhem Land across the Gulf of Carpentaria to the west. The Wik have intentionally limited their engagement in the public art world -most of their art continues to be made specifically for ceremonies - although in recent times, weavings and sculptures have been made more frequently for the public domain. The sculptures in this exhibition were made for a public performance of an initiation ceremony.
The influence of Queensland sculptural traditions is evident in some major 'urban' artists' work. Fiona Foley, for example, a southern Queenslander, references the forked stick form in her installation work.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live in rural and urban areas, away from traditional environments, have played a significant role in the resurgence of indigenous culture. Such people are not concentrated in one cultural bloc and often have grown up away from their homeland or language group, without the traditional upbringing often expected of Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal art practice in areas where indigenous people are a minority dates back to the nineteenth century, with artists such as William Barak (c.1828-1903) and Tommy McRae (1836-1901). Their distinctive drawings give us rare glimpses of life at the time through Aboriginal eyes.
Art by Aboriginal people in the city was neglected by the wider art world until the 1970s when Aboriginal social and political movements gained public attention. In 1967 citizenship rights were granted to all Aboriginal people and the first acknowledgment of their rights to land occurred in the mid 1970s. Such reforms provided indigenous artists with opportunities that were previously denied them.
An entire generation of artists has emerged in the cities and towns. Not restricted to stereotypical notions of Aboriginal art, they are able to freely use a range of materials, media and recent technology. Such artists articulate various subjects - notions of identity, the link to land, and other political issues concerning the indigenous view of Australian history. The so-called 'urban' movement has flourished to the point where such artists are now at the cutting edge of Australian art. The resulting work presents unique perspectives born of distinctive experiences.
The work of all the artists in this exhibition is intended to inform and educate its audience about the breadth and scope of art by Aboriginal people in recent years. It is also intended to challenge stereotypical perceptions of 'Aboriginality' based on notions of the 'authentic' and the 'primitive'.
Tracey Moffatt, for example, has consistently taken the stance that the categorisation of 'Aboriginal artist' is limiting. A maker of photographs and films, she regards herself as an Aboriginal person who makes art; she in fact spends most of her working time in New York.
From New York to Milmilngkan in Arnhem Land, this exhibition represents the broad diversity of art by Aboriginal people at the turn of the century.
In the nineteenth century, Aboriginal people were classified as primitive and their material culture often shared spaces in museums with 'strange' specimens of Australian flora and fauna. By the twentieth century, with the beginning of serious anthropological interest in Aboriginal culture and society, it became clear that the preconceived ideas were in fact 'primitive' rather than Aboriginal people themselves. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Aboriginal art in all its styles and media, and from every part of the continent, is recognised as a vital and dynamic expression of the contemporary world. Today, artists are no longer disregarded on the basis of race, gender, geography and the domination of classical European models.
The interest in Aboriginal art which has flourished since the 1970s has created new opportunities for indigenous artists, as their work leaves the communities to be shown in museums and galleries around the world. Meanwhile, the imperatives to produce art for traditional purposes continue, and the expanded environment in which indigenous art now operates has created further compelling reasons for artists to continue expressing the values of their culture to the wider world. In the public domain, Aboriginal art can be appreciated for its spirituality and aesthetic qualities, and as a reflection of the social and political achievements and aspirations of the peoples who create it.
Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane