Spirit Country: Australian Aboriginal Art

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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. Spirit 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 years.

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.

Spirit Country: 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 existence.”

Contemporary works 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

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