Dreamtime: Art of the Aborigines

Modern Australian aboriginal art harks back to more than 50,000 years ago, to rock paintings that represents man’s early attempts to record events such as hunting, rituals and ceremonies that invoked the spirits.

An exuberant visual language has sprung out of Aboriginal artists across Australia. While this language occasionally looks extremely modern, this art is the oldest continuous tradition on the planet, harking back to more than 50,000 years ago in cave rock art. Vestiges of this ancient tradition lives in modern Australian aboriginal art. Whether on bark, canvas or in new media, aboriginal artists have used their distinctive artistic expression to convey the power and beauty of their culture, their endurng connection to the land, their creation stories. In so doing, this art sustains the continuity of  their identities and beliefs.

Selected Aboriginal Artworks

Maringka Baker, “Kuru Ala” 2007, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

In many of her works, Maringka Baker (1952-) of Kaliumpil, South Australia, uses vibrant, contrasting colour combinations to create mesmerising works that depict aspects of her country and its ancestral connections. In Kuru Ala 2007, Baker masterfully combines rich, vibrant reds that sit adjacent to shimmering greens, bordered by fine oranges and creams, reminiscent of the desert in full bloom.

Alma N. Granites, “Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa (Seven Sisters Dreaming)”, 2011. Courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation.

In this painting, artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites depicts the story of the seven ancestral Napaljarri sisters who are found in the night sky today in the cluster of seven stars in the constellation Taurus, more commonly known as the Pleiades.

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (1927 – 1998), “Tjakalpa (Desert Bandicoot) at Putjanya”, 1987. From “Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists” by Vivien Johnson.

Namarari’s work is distinguished by an extraordinary range of visual inventions. In his first couple of years of painting, he explored figuration of ceremonial performers. During the same period he also created hypnotic depictions of his birth-place, Marnpi, using white pulsing lines to draw the eye into the vortex of an ancestral wind at the site. From the mid-1970s, he occasionally explored minimal representation to imagine the topography of landscapes as in this work.

Michael Nelson Tjakamarra (born 1948), “Five Stories”. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Painted in 1984. £Photo: Sotheby’s.

Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s painting, Five Stories, is among the most iconic images of modern Aboriginal art, and is possibly the most published and exhibited work by any indigenous Australian artist. It was featured on the cover of the seminal exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia organised by the South Australian Museum and shown at the Asia Society Galleries in New York in 1988. The high profile of this exhibition and others introduced a new set of international collectors to Aboriginal art and initiated a debate as to its place in the continuum of contemporary art worldwide.

Rover Thomas, (1926–1998), “Home Country”, 1984. Natural pigments on canvas, 53 × 68 in. (134.6 × 172.7 cm). Private collection.

Throughout his distinguished career, Rover Thomas used locally mined earth pigments mixed with a resinous binder to create mood-soaked boards and canvases that conceptualize the rugged beauty of the expansive eastern Kimberley region. These material and geographic portraits of customary lands resonate with ancestral presence, cultural knowledge, social history, and the artist’s own personal narrative.

Painted in the early stages of Thomas’s career, Home Country prefigures the elemental abstractions that became his leitmotiv. The rectangular blocks of color, heightened with dotted outlines, suggest the changing topography of the Gibson Desert, characterized by shifting red sand plains, gravelly ridges, and stretches of windblown dunes. A meditation on the poetics of life and death, it is also a reverent declaration of the enduring essence of the land as a site of all that one sees, knows, and becomes.

Djambawa Marawili, born 1953, Northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. “Metamorphosis”, 2006. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 357/16 × 1031/8 in. (90 × 262 cm). Private collection.

The elemental forces that spread across this painting are almost palpable. It depicts a scene from an ancestral story about a man named Baru whose hut caught fire, burning the pattern of a crocodile’s skin into his flesh, whereupon he transforms into that mighty creature. Now the master of fire, he shares it among other clans with the aid of quails carrying burning twigs.

Finally, I juxtapose two paintings, one Aboriginal, and the other, a Western modern abstract work by Mark Tobey.

Kalipinypa Rockhole (above, top)) is a 2003 work by aboriginal artist Elizabeth Marks Nakamura (born 1959) depicting her vision of a rockhole, while the next picture shows American abstract painter, Mark Tobey’s “White Night’ (above, bottom). These canvases share the aesthetic vocabulary we associate with Western abstraction of the past sixty years and a casual museum visitor might not recognize any real difference. Yet, they are informed by different motivations and history. Nakamarra associated her lines with a specific site formed during a mythic storm, when lightning flashed, and floods rushed across the land to create rockholes and small creeks. By contrast, Tobey’s White Night was painted to represent something felt, not seen, in the energies of the modern city. Aboriginal art on its own terms will ultimately lead back to ancient myths we will never understand except through the visual landscapes that these descendants of the ancestors create.

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