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Water Buffalo by d j a m b u b a r r a b a r r a / r e b e c c a h o s s a c k g a l l e r y

A U S T R A L I A

A R T T H A T C O N N E C T S

O

H, YES — ABORIGINAL A r t ; i t ’ s a l l those do ts a n d c irc le s , is n ’ t i t? ” M a n y c ritic s , w h e n faced w i t h th e b ro a d f ie ld o f A b o r ig in a l p a in t in g s u ffe r f r o m a fo re sho r te n e d c u l tu ra l perspective. T h e y assume a h o m o g e n e i ty am o n g s t th e peoples a n d w o rk s o f a b o r ig in a l A u s t ra l ia . D i f fe re n c e s a re f la t te n e d o u t and e v e r y t h in g is m e rg e d to g e th e r . O f course th e re are e lem ents o f shared b e l ie f a n d c om m o n ic o n o g ra p h y . B u t i t is th e d if fe re n c e s th a t are m o re te l l in g .

A u s tra l ia is a c o n t in e n t , and the

MATTHEW STURGIS

A b o r i g i n a l a r t c a r r i e s t h e v i e w e r i n t o t h e h e a r t o f a la n d s c a p e t h a t is a t o n c e p h y s ic a l a n d s p i r i tu a l .

a b o r ig in a l peoples w ho made i t th e i r hom e f o r o ve r fo r t y m i l le n n ia be fo re th e a r r iv a l o f E u ro p e a n settlers, de v e lo p e d w i t h a l l th e d iv e r s i t y th a t m ig h t be fo u n d am ongst th e peoples o f E u ro p e o r Asia. T h e re are over 400 d i f fe r e n t a b o r ig in a l languages, a n d even m o re d is t in c t peoples. Each g ro u p has its ow n c u l tu ra l t r a d i t io n s , fo s te red o ve r tens o f th o u sands o f years — t r a d i t io n s o f music, dance, ce rem o n y a n d p a in t in g . Each people evolved its ow n ic onography, its own fo rm s o f re p re s e n ta t io n fo r p a in t in g s th a t w e re m ade o n ro c k shelters, on bare torsos and on the s h i f t in g sands.

W i th th e d e v e lo pm e n t o f th e conte m p o ra ry A b o r ig in a l A r t M o vem en t d u r in g th e second h a l f o f th is centu

1 6 Resurgence No. 195 July/August 1999 r y these tr a d it io n s have fo u n d a new o u t le t a n d have d e v e lo p e d a new v ig o u r . Paintings are now made f o r sale a n d p e rm a n e n t d isp la y . T h e y a re made in m u l t ip le m e d ia — in p a in t o n b a rk , b o a rd , canvas a n d paper.

THE W ORK PRODUCED by con te m p o r a r y a b o r ig in a l a r t is ts , f a r f r o m c o n fo rm in g to a s ing le style, re fle cts th e d iv e r s i t y o f th e c u l t u r e f r o m w h ic h i t springs. O v e r the course o f th is s um m e r th e re is a ra re o p p o r t u n i t y to see — in L o n d o n — somet h in g o f th is s tre n g th and d ive rs ity . O n show at th e Rebecca Hossack G a l le ry w i l l be w o r k f r o m th re e o f these v e r y d i f f e r e n t a r t is t ic t r a d i tio ns. T h e re w i l l be b a rk p a in t in g s f r o m A r n h e m L a n d , d o t - p a in t in g s f r o m th e G ibson Desert, and some o f th e r ic h ly id io syncra t ic a r t f r o m the w e t la n d s o f N g u k u r r in c e n t r a l n o r t h e r n A ustra lia .

A l th o u g h i t is a c om m o n assum pt io n th a t b a rk p a in t in g is somehow th e a u th e n t ic m o d e o f a b o r ig in a l a r t is t ic e x p re s s io n , th is is n o t th e case. T h e Yolnu people o f A rn h em L a n d have, i t is tru e , always d e c o ra ted th e i r b a rk shelters. B u t th e g re a t t r a d i t i o n o f A r n h e m L a n d b a rk p a in t in g is m o re re cen t . I t has its o r ig in s o n ly in the 1950s.

T h e i r p o s i t io n on the w i ld yet fe c u n d coast o f cen tra l n o r th A u s tra l ia has g iv en the Y o ln u people b o th an e n d u r in g ly s tro n g sense o f th e i r ow n c u l tu re and a lo n g t r a d i t io n o f i n t e r a c t io n w i t h ou ts id e peoples. I t was th e Y o ln u w ho , several centuries befo re th e a r r iv a l o f E u ro pean settlers, had come to an accom m odatio n w i th th e Malayan tre pang-gatherers w ho made seasonal visits to th e i r shores. As a re s u l t o f such contacts Y o ln u c u l tu re has lo n g developed a sense o f openness to ou ts id e in flu ences.

T h e images and stories dep ic te d in t h e i r b a rk p a in t in g s a re d ra w n f r o m t h e i r a g e -o ld t r a d i t io n s ; th e ic o n o g r a p h y a n d th e m e th o d o f p a in t in g are a n c ie n t too. T h e mater ia ls used a re p a r t o f th e m y t h ic landscape th ey dep ic t: th e b a rk i ts e l f is c u t f r o m th e Eucalyptus tetradnonta, o r s t r in g y - b a r k tre e ; th e p ig m e n ts used a re g r o u n d f r o m th e lo ca l e a r th ; and th e y are f ix e d e i th e r w i th o r c h id ju ic e o r w ood g lue . B u t the im p u ls e b e h in d th e w o r k a n d the fo rm a t a d o p te d are in c lu s iv e . T h e p ic tu re s were made — and c o n t in u e to be made — f o r sale o r g i f t , as p a r t o f an o n g o in g d ia lo g u e b e tw e e n a b o r ig in a l a n d n o n - a b o r ig in a l w o r ld s .

VERY DIFFERENT IN TONE, in style and in o r ig in is the w o r k o f W a r l im p i r r n g a a n d Walala T ja p a l t ja r r i , tw o artis ts f r o m a “ L o s t T r ib e ” o f a b o r ig inals w ho l iv e d — w i t h o u t w h ite contact — in the G ib son Desert o n the b o rd e rs be tw een W este rn A u s tra l ia a n d th e N o r t h e r n T e r r i t o r y u n t i l 1984.

T h e tw o artis ts w e re b o r n in the “ B u s h ” — p ro b a b ly in th e la te 1950s, o r e a r ly 1960s — a n d w h i le o th e r a b o r ig in a ls in th e a rea w e re b e in g fo r c ib ly settled on g o v e rn m e n t stat io ns fu r t h e r east, th e i r small fa m i ly

A b o r i g i n a l A r t is a t o n c e t h e m o s t a n c i e n t a n d t h e n e w e s t o f a r t i s t i c t r a d i t i o n s g ro u p escaped th e net. T h e y c o n t in ued to l iv e th e t r a d i t io n a l a b o r ig in a l l i f e o f n om a d ic h u n te r - g a th e r e r s , t r a v e l l in g th r o u g h t h e i r h a rs h b u t b e a u t i fu l e n v i r o n m e n t a lo n g t h e i r a n c ie n t “ s o n g l in e s ” , o b s e rv in g th e t im e - h o n o u r e d r i tu a ls a n d c e re monies o f th e i r c u l tu re . T h e y a v o id ed a l l contact w i th tw e n t ie th - c e n tu ry A u s tra l ia — u n t i l 1984. I t was th en th a t th e y were “ f o u n d ” by a p a r ty f r o m a re cen t ly re se ttle d a b o r ig in a l o u ts ta t io n a t K iw i r r k u r u .

T h e d is c o v e ry c re a te d in t e r n a t io n a l h e a d lin e s . I t a lso c re a te d a new l i fe f o r th e w a n d e r in g t r ib e . N e e d in g to f in d wives f r o m ou ts id e th e l im i t e d fa m i ly g r o u p , th e y m oved to K iw i r r k u r u , th e t in y settle m e n t o f some 180 people, fam ed as “ th e m ost is o la te d to w n in A u s t r a l ia ” .

I t was at K iw i r r k u r u th a t W a r l im p i r r n g a and Walala began to p a in t on canvas f o r the f irs t tim e , se ttin g d ow n th e stories and images o f an u n b ro k e n c u l tu ra l t r a d i t io n s tre tc h in g back tens o f thousands o f years. T h e i r w o r k was, f r o m th e outset, d is t in g u is h e d b y an e x t r a o r d in a r y i n te n s i ty a n d assurance. U s in g m o d e rn acrylic paints b u t th e l im i t ed re p e r to i re o f symbols and th e d is t in c t iv e a e r ia l p e rs p e c t iv e o f m ost a b o r ig in a l “ desert a rtis ts ” , th ey c re a ted p a in t in g s o f g re a t power. T h e s tre n g th o f the w o rk was re cognized a t once. I t ca rr ie s th e v ie w e r in to the heart o f a landscape th a t is a t once physical a n d s p i r itu a l.

T h is sense o f in te rconnectedness n o t o n ly betw een a l l th e e lem ents o f th e l iv in g landscape — p la n ts , peop le , anim a ls , rocks, skies, r iv e rs and the f i rm a m e n t — b u t also between the l iv in g landscape a n d its o r ig in s in th e g re a t c re a t io n m y th s o f the D re am t im e — is an e le m e n t th a t lies b e h in d a ll a b o r ig in a l a r t , no m a t te r w h a t its m e d iu m o r its o u tw a rd fo rm .

I t is f o u n d in th e p a in t in g s o f W a r l im p i r r n g a a n d W a la la , in th e barks and p r in ts f r o m Y ir r k a la , and also in the v iv id , c o lo u r fu l canvases o f D ja m b u B a r ra B a r ra . S ty lis t ica lly B a r ra B a r ra is one o f th e g re a t o r ig in a ls o f th e A b o r i g in a l A r t M o v e m en t . H is b o ld im ages o f c rocodiles, b u ffa lo e s , g ia n t l iz a rd s a n d “ D e v il D e v i l M e n ” a re e n g a g in g a n d i n s ta n t ly recognizable.

Yet his o r ig in a l i t y is ro o te d in t r a d i t io n . T h e an im a ls a n d th e stories he depicts are his to te m ic herita ge , and th e way he depicts th em owes m u c h to past p ra c t ice . H e t ra in e d as a b a rk pa in te r, and he s t i l l employs th e d is t in c t iv e t ro p e s o f A rn h e m L a n d b a r k - p a in t in g — c ross-hatchin g , m ix e d perspective a n d “ x - r a y ” v is io n .

H e has, however, c om b in e d th is t r a d i t io n w i th new media. L ik e most o f th e a r t is ts in h is c o m m u n i t y a t N g u k u r r , he has a d o p te d a c ry l ic p a in t and canvas, and he uses th em w i th e x t r a o r d in a r y exuberance.

H is p a in t in g takes one to th e h e a r t o f th e g re a t p a ra d o x o f A b o r ig in a l A r t : i t is at once the most an c ie n t a n d th e newest o f a r t is t ic t r a d i t io n s . I t d raw s on u n b ro k e n c u l tu ra l t r a d i t io n th a t s t i l l conceives o f L a n d , S p i r i t and People as a connected and balanced w ho le , and i t em p lo y s fo rm s a n d sym bo ls th a t have been sanctio ned b y m i l le n n ia o f u n b ro k e n use. A n d yet i t c o n s ta n t ly seeks new ways o f com b in in g its sym bols a n d o f e x p re s s in g its tru th s . •

These a rtis ts w i l l have e x h ib it io n s at th e Rebecca Hossack G a l le ry , 35 W in d m i l l Street, L o n d o n W1P 1H H (Tel: 0171-436 4899), between June 28th and O c tober 2nd, 1999.

Matthew Sturgis writes fo r the Daily Telegraph. He is the author o f Aubrey Beardsley: a Biography (Flamingo).

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