Women’s Art in Washington: The Reviews are In

It’s been just over four weeks since the art of Australia’s Aboriginal women went on view in Washington, DC with the opening of Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and a companion show, Painted Stories: Contemporary Paintings by Australian Aboriginal Women, at the Embassy of Australia. I was a bit disappointed that the first major review of the shows came from the Sydney Morning Herald, but the American press has caught up now. Apart from early notices from ArtDaily.com, and the U.S. Department of State’s Washington File, the Washington Times and the Christian Science Monitor have published reviews, and a pair of thoughtful essays in the Washington Post on Friday and Saturday have curator Britta Konau reporting increased traffic through the galleries this weekend. That’s good news for both Aboriginal art and American audiences. As John McDonald said in the Sydney paper, “Today’s audiences tend to visit museums to learn rather than look,” and the press coverage over here offers the context that will certainly help Americans to appreciate this art on multiple levels. (When available, links to these reviews on the Web are provided at the end of this post.)

The reviews all present the basic concept of the Dreamtime as a period of creation whose stories are of continuing importance to modern Aboriginal people. Most likewise offer a brief history of the contemporary painting movement, beginning with Geoffrey Bardon’s work at Papunya in 1971. The special contributions to the tradition that women have made, and the changes, especially in the acrylic painting movement, that have resulted from women’s participation are highlighted. An attempt is made to give the reader and potential attendee a primer in reading the symbols in the desert paintings. In doing so, they manage to convey something of the importance of land to these women and to suggest the primacy of connections to country. It is a little disappointing that although both the Times and the Post mention Linda Syddick’s ET Going Home, they both fail to pick up on the theme of dispossession and removal from country that gives the painting its poignancy. To be fair, Michael O’Sulllivan, writing in the Post, does make explicit the sense of connectedness to home, and suggests that therein lies the possibility of an emotional connection to this art on the part of American audiences. He is also clearly responsive to the emotional overtones of Rosella Namok’s That Day: painful day.

In that same piece, O’Sullivan begins his interpretation with an anecdote about his three-year old son’s fascination with maps that will also help the newcomer to these works engage with them. Describing how the boy would intently scrutinize maps during family road trips, turning them this way and that, he says “there was something compelling about the information contained on the page — for information it was, even if it was unintelligible to him — that kept him in its thrall, even beyond comprehension.” 

While acknowledging the obscure narrative content of the paintings, O’Sullivan also makes another point common to most of these reviews: that the paintings are visually stunning and aesthetically accessible to American audiences, even if they choose not to engage in the “background reading” of the Dreamtime stories themselves. In suggesting that Washingtonians in particular will find the works in Dreaming Their Way accessible for their similarity to those of the artists of the Washington Color School, he is not far off the mark. When I first saw Aboriginal paintings in New York at the Dreamings exhibition in 1988, the comparison to Kenneth Noland’s early circles or bulls-eyes certainly sprang to mind, as the “Stripe” and “Floral” paintings of Morris Louis and similar works by Gene Davis did on first encounters with Emily Kngwarreye. (One work of Davis’s, Banjo, from 1981, bears a spooky resemblance to Evelyn Pultara’s prize-winner in last year’s Telstra show.)

My only real disappointment with the reviews to date have been the absence of attention to the bark paintings. This is perhaps understandable on several accounts. The paintings from the desert communities dominate the show in terms of both numbers and placement: they fill five of the eight rooms in the show (plus the Balgo works in the Kimberley room) and are the first paintings one sees upon entering the exhibition. In the context of the show, the works from Arnhem Land are the odd lot: even an elementary grasp of the iconography of desert art does nothing to prepare the viewer for the complexity and the relative austerity of the work from Maningrida, Ramingining, and Yirrkala. 

As a further introduction to the background of the art in the exhibit, NMWA has posted a podcast on their website of an interview with Franchesca Cubillo of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. One of Cubillo’s interesting observations is the comparison she draws between the varying levels of non-indigenous educational systems–primary, secondary, university, post-graduate–and the degrees of learning about Dreaming stories that Aboriginal people acquire or possess. Cubillo also addresses issues of the art market and droit de suite, and she makes the important point that Aboriginal people have always used the materials available to them to express their relationship to the ancestors. In doing so she manages to convey both the extensive history of these art forms and the unique and contemporary difference on view in the exhibition, and to link the two as equally valid forms of artistic expression. 

(podcast link removed 08/11/2006)

While it seems a shame that nearly twenty years after Dreamings, Americans are still being introduced to Aboriginal art at this elementary level, one must take heart that NMWA and curators Britta Konau and Margo Smith have committed to presenting the art so effectively, on its own terms, and with great seriousness. The superb catalog of the exhibition is a welcome addition to the literature on indigenous art in general, and on the contributions of women in particular. 

A Brief Bibliography of Reviews:

Australian Aboringinal Women Exhibit in Washington DC,” ArtDaily.com

U.S. Exhibit Showcases Australian Aboriginal Women’s Musing: “Dreaming Their Way” exhibit tells ancient stories through modern media,” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of international Information Programs, The Washington File, July 3, 2006.

“Living canvases blossom abroad,” by John McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald, July 8, 2006, p. 16.

“Origins of the Outback,” by Joanna Shaw-Eagle, Washington Times, July 15, 2006.

“Aboriginal women bring a new look to an old art,” by Katherine Stephen, The Christian Science Monitor, July 17, 2006.

“Aboriginal Women in a Dream State,” by Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post, July 21, 2006, p. WE23.

“Painting a New Visual Vocabulary: Aboriginal Women Break With Tradition,” by Jessica Dawson, Washington Post, July 22, 2006, p. C02.

“Discovering Dreamtime,” by Paul Ghosh-Roy, DCist, August 30, 2006

New Reviews (posted July 29, 2006):

“National Museum of Women in the Arts,” The InTowner, July 2006, p. 16. “The show works wonderfully well on several levels. First the exhibition presents lush and colorfully complex compositions with have geometric, patterned, and free form abstractions that will entrance both the sophisticated and the casual art museum and gallery visitor alike. There is a joyous beauty to these works, whole styles seem both unique and universal at one and the same time. Their stippled dots and dashes form picture elements and all over patterns that are stunningly engaging. Energy in the paintings is infectious to the viewer. And many of these paintings are of such ‘show-stopping’ quality that one becomes all the more eager to search out more of these individual artists’ works.”

“Wide-Awake Dreams: Aboriginal women artist combine myth, spirit and tradition,” Washington Post Express, July 20, 2006, p. E8. “After centuries of oppression Aboriginal culture has made an astonishing comeback. With ‘Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters,’ the National Museum of Women in the Arts foregrounds artists who span beliefs and esthetics both traditional and modern. … There’s always the danger of Western viewers finding what we’re familiar with rather than what’s there. If the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye nearly steals the show, it’s because her work can evoke the post-impressionistic flurries of Seurat and Vuillard or the concept-based bushwork of Robert Ryman.”

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