It is not often that I have the opportunity to see an art exhibition twice, less often an Aboriginal art exhibition, and never before now to see a show in two different venues under the hand of two different curators. Such has been the case, however, with Dreaming Their Way, and the lessons it has taught me about both the paintings in the show and the possibilities of museum presentation have been a surprising and delightful part of being involved with this exhibition.
In writing a few months ago about the reception of Aboriginal art in France in the late 20th century after visiting the Musee du Quai Branly in June, I was repeatedly confronted with the controversy over the proper presentation of the work in museums. To one side stood the aesthetic perspective, which called for viewing it as fine art, in the same context and given the same presentation as contemporary works by any other artist and perhaps best exemplified by the exhibition L’ete australien a Montpellier in which indigenous artists shared the walls and the manner of presentation with their non-indigenous contemporaries, and were identified only by name, date and place of birth, and the title of the selected piece. To the other side stood the champions of context, who insisted that the ethnographic context of the work was essential to an appropriate appreciation of the paintings, and that without wall texts to explain the critical function of the Dreaming in Aboriginal society, we at best risk impoverishing the audience’s ability to comprehend the paintings’ richness of meaning and at worst bring inappropriate standards of judgment to bear upon them.
These twin perspectives have become much in evidence in the brief history of Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, which debuted late in June at theNational Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC and has lately opened at its second (and regrettably final) venue at the Hood Museum of Art on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Britta Konau, the exhibition’s curator, focused squarely on the tension in her address, “Dreaming Their Way: The Making of an Exhibition,” delivered at the conference which accompanied the show’s opening in Dartmouth last week. (A report on the conference itself is coming in my next post.) Having been exposed to indigenous Australian art and infected with an enthusiasm for it, Britta along with Margo Smith of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum undertook an enormous effort to mount a major American exhibition. (It may be the largest if not the first such exhibition in this country to be curated in America, rather than traveling from Australia). Britta faced equally enormous difficulties in finding a second venue for the show. She contacted over fifty American institutions before the Hood expressed interest and before the deal was sealed shortly after the arrival of Brian Kennedy, formerly of the National Gallery of Australia, as the new Director of the Hood. Predictably, art museums found the show too ethnographic; “natural history” museums like the Field in Chicago found its content too closely allied to the fine arts. And yet the success of the show, in its two venues, shows how much the two perspectives complement one another, and the few of us lucky to see it in both locations with their differing installations have been treated to the best of both worlds.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, as its name suggests, has a strongly didactic mission that is reinforced by its physical location in America’s capital city, not far off the grand central Mall that houses, along with the White House and the grand historical monuments, the constituent museums of the Smithsonian Institution, most of which function as centers of education as much as collections of artworks and artifacts. Perhaps the most intensely traveled center of tourism in America (outside the confines of the Disney Empire), the Mall excels at instruction in the history of America, but also delivers a hefty dose of world history and culture in the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Asian art), the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of Natural History, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. NMWA benefits from its proximity to these famous attractions, but must also compete with them for a share of the visitor traffic and for the opportunity to enrich the cultural awareness of visitors to the nation’s capital.
In a fitting manner, then, the installation at NMWA was rich with wall texts and chronologies explaining keys concepts in Aboriginal art and history. One aspect of the didactics in Washington that I especially appreciated was the inclusion on the wall, along with the artists’ biographical information, of a small full-color portrait of each of the thirty-three women whose works featured in the show. In its physical layout, the show at NMWA was organized primarily by geography, leading the visitor on a circular path through galleries beginning with works from the Central Desert, and then moving on to the Top End before reaching the Kimberleys. (In this respect it was reminiscent of a walk through the indigenous galleries at the Ian Potter Centre.) It concluded with the works of three artists coming out of non-traditional backgrounds (Judy Watson, Rosella Namok, and Julie Dowling) in a manner that complemented the somewhat historical development implicit in the geographical organization, i.e. among Desert painters, Pansy Napangardi and Linda Syddick Napaltjarri’s works featured in the first galleries, before the room devoted to the women of Kintore. The historical element was also served by Britta’s decision to select at least two works by each artist in the show, including early and late examples from the artist’s career when possible. (This might be seen to best effect in the contrast of Dorothy Napangardi’s 1996 Bush Plum Dreaming, a work very much in the style of her artistic tutor Eunice Napangardi, with the 2005 Mina Mina that presents a black-on-white variation of the white-on-black paintings that brought Dorothy to international attention when she won the NATSIAA award in 2001.)
The Hood Museum of Art, which I had never before visited, is like any college art museum a teaching museum, and so in this respect it shares with NMWA an educational mission. Unlike many college art Museums, the Hood has spectacular ethnographic collections. It houses more than 10,000 Native American artifacts, and a recent show originating at the Hood and curated by Dartmouth anthropologist Robert L. Welsch, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea, is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Museum’s opening night reception for the conference on Aboriginal Australian art was held in a gallery that displayed the Hood’s amazing collection of monumental Assyrian wall reliefs.
In this context, Brian Kennedy made a radical decision to hang Dreaming Their Way in a manner that insists upon the aesthetic excitement and value of the paintings in it. The walls are hung with the paintings, and nothing else. No explanatory texts tempt the viewer’s gaze away from the canvases. In fact, even the artists’ names have been eliminated from the walls: there are only paintings to be seen, and along the baseboard well below each canvas a large number, easily legible from a distance of fifteen or twenty feet. This number refers the viewer to the appropriate location in “A Walking Guide to the Exhibition,” a 72-page booklet (in very large print) containing the wall texts and photographs from the NMWA installation, maps showing the layout of the galleries, and very brief introductory essays which highlight the differences among the communities represented in the exhibition. So while explanatory material has not been banished entirely, it has certainly been relegated to second place to allow the paintings to speak for themselves. Brian’s curation of the show at the Hood is the most dramatic and radical statement of the value of Aboriginal art as art that I have seen to date.
The physical layout of the galleries themselves encourages the visitor to concentrate on the paintings. The individual galleries are generally smaller than the rooms at NMWA, and the effect is heightened by the shades of color, some intense, with which the walls have been painted. Two of the galleries are further subdivided by a free-standing wall which limits the number of paintings that can be taken in at a single glance and obstructs an end-to-end vista of the five galleries, which are otherwise aligned along a single axis. From almost any angle, your gaze is limited to four or five canvases or barks, and they command your total attention.
A first-time visitor to this show at Dartmouth, on a walk through the galleries, receives an initial sense of dramatic and intense color, much like a first-time traveler to the Australian deserts is shocked by the rich redness of the earth, the deep brilliant greens of the vegetation, the blinding flash of stringybark piercing a rocky hillside. This is a different kind of geographical immersion and organization for the show. The central gallery to which one first arrives is given over to the works of Emily Kngwarreye, flanked on one side by a room of paintings from Utopia and Yuendumu and on the the other by artists from Kintore, Haasts Bluff, and Lajamanu. From the “Utopia room” one proceeds north and east to Arnhem Land and the Queensland Coast; at the other end of the gallery one travels from the central deserts on to the Kimberleys and the west coast.
By placing Emily’s works front and center, and making them the first encounter in the show, the installation also subordinates the historical approach of presenting the earliest painters to an art historical approach of presenting the first woman painter to achieve international recognition for her artwork. The literal centerpiece of Room 1 is a 1996 Untitledsuite of five canvases (each 121 x 91 cms) by Emily in which broad, horizontal white brushstrokes on black–body marks–rush from stretcher to stretcher with a vigor and force that reveal the action of the painter in a way that makes Jackson Pollack’s “arm” seem almost effete by comparison, and thus invites the viewer to contemplate the relationship of these paintings to other aesthetic traditions almost at the moment of first contact with them in this show.
The more limited hanging space at the Hood also prevented the inclusion of approximately twenty works that had been on display in Washington. With some artists now represented by only a single work, Brian chose to de-emphaisze the historical difference in technique and development in a single artist by often separating remaining pairs. The early work by Dorothy Napangardi is missing from this show, and the two Mina Mina paintings from 2003 and 2005 are hung back to back on one of the freestanding walls. Likewise, with the two paintings by Ningura Napurrula, a simple black and white work that exemplifies the early style of the Kintore women hangs apart from the 2005 depiction of the women’s birthing site at Wirrulnga whose bold linear composition contrasts with the circular organization of the early work. Separating the two paintings from one another highlights the unique qualities of each work in its own right rather than encouraging considerations of style and questions of artistic progression.
Supplementing the paintings but somewhat distanced from them spatially is a slide show of photographs from Australia (many taken by Brian Kennedy) and a film room off the end of the Top End gallery that will present a rotating series of documentaries about Aboriginal art to provide a fuller context for viewing the work. In this approach, the verbal is once again subordinated to the visual experience of Aboriginal culture.
Dreaming Their Way has been an extraordinary opportunity for American audiences to appreciate an in-depth look at the genre of Aboriginal painting. The quite different approaches adopted at NMWA and at the Hood, given the differences in space and in the presumed audiences for the work, made it fascinating and instructive and highly enjoyable for me in both venues. It is a beautiful show, and its superb catalog will remain a touchstone for indigenous art exhibitions wherever they occur. I am grateful to Britta for her inspiration and dedication in bringing this show to life, to Margo for connecting us with NMWA and allowing us to take a small part in its creation, and to Brian for inviting us to Dartmouth to continue our participation and deepen our appreciation of the entire project.
Installation shot of works by Emily Kngwarreye in the central gallery of Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, October 11, 2006. From the left, Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming), 1995 (Seattle Museum of Art, gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan); Untitled, 1996 (Ann Lewis); Soakage Bore, 1995 (The Wolfensohn Family Foundation). Note the numbers on the baseboards.