Aboriginal “Art in America”

The lead-off article in the new April 2007 issue of Art in America is “The Dream of Aboriginal Art” by Richard Kalina. It is essentially a review of the exhibition Dreaming Their Way from the Hood Museum installation that ran from October to December 2006, after opening at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in June of last year. It includes reproductions of seven works from the show, along with a small Rover Thomas painting that serves to introduce the article. The opening paragraph tells the familiar story of Rover encountering a painting by Mark Rothko in the National Gallery of Australia and demanding to know “Who’s that bugger who paints like me?” That story, along with occasional references to color field and minimalist painting, serves as the hook to draw the American reader into a consideration of an art form still largely unfamiliar to audiences on this side of the Pacific.

Kalina’s review is remarkably well balanced, although he does have a tendency to equate Aboriginal art with art of the Western Desert, and to describe Aborigines as desert dwellers. He duly (and early) notes the work of non-traditional artists like Tracey Moffatt, and offers a critique of Judy Watson’s paintings from the exhibition. Likewise, he does not fail to note the work of bark painters in the show. But when speaking of the art in general, he tends to fall into the trap of speaking of Western Desert painting as though itwere Aboriginal art. 

In the limited space of eight pages, Kalina does sound all the important notes: the relationship of the art to country, the question of rights to stories and to subject matter, the distinctions between men’s and women’s business and thus between their respective styles of representation and composition. He surveys the place of Aboriginal art in Australian museums and galleries, as well as its use as a “national visual brand.” Kalina also notes the political ramifications. He mentions land rights in passing and gives a nod back to the Fry and Willis article published in Art in America nearly twenty years ago (“Aboriginal Art: symptom or success?” AiA, July 1989, 108-117ff.) that argued that “the drift towards cultural pluralism (and multiculturalism) can be seen not so much as enlightened accommodation of other world views but as a violent ripping of signs from the sites of their primary significance.” Happily, Kalina does not share that perspective, but welcomes an appreciation of Aboriginal art for its contributions both to indigneous society and to the world of fine art.

In keeping with one of the show’s understated themes, Kalina also addresses the stylistic changes in individual artists’ careers: curator Britta Konau deliberately tried to select at least two works by each of the artists included in the show and where possible, examples of both early and late styles. He is at his best in this regard in his analyses of Emily Kngwarreye and Dorothy Napangardi. (With respect to the latter, he provides another hook to Art in America‘s audience by pointing out that one of her recent paintings in the exhibition was loaned by the American minimalist and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.) 

In conclusion, Kalina offers this assessment: 

To eyes accustomed to postwar Western painting, Aboriginal art can seem overly familiar, and its distinctive characteristics therefore easily overlooked. It is true that it is an art of our time, but it is also profoundly art from another world. Aboriginal art speaks directly to the Western viewer in its formal beauty, and in its very contemporary tendency to layer meaning, to incorporate in a single work a multiplicity of references and modes of representation. An Aboriginal painting is a shifting, hybrid site, combining diagram, map, story and time line with pure esthetic appreciation. It is not clear and straightforward, not even in the sense of setting up orderly dialectical oppositions. Its ambiguity is structural, inherent in the work. … Aboriginal art has proved, by and large, to be an extremely positive force, providing money to remote and impoverished settlements, giving purpose and focus to many individuals, and allowing for the transmission of information vital to a stressed culture’s cohesion. All of this is valuable in itself, but there is also fact that the art is of extraordinary quality. Indigenous cultures all over the world produce art and artifacts; few have managed to create a modern art as rich and affecting (pp. 102-103).

In a footnote to the article, Kalina offers a brief sketch of the history of Aboriginal art exhibitions in the United States. Although it is not complete, it does provide some welcome information about upcoming events. The new gallery devoted to Aboriginal art at the Seattle Art Museum is set to open on May 5 of this year. Farther along, a new exhibition entitled “Icons of the Desert: Early Paintings from Papunya” is being organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. After opening there in January 2009, the exhibition will travel to the Fowler Museum at the University of California-Los Angeles and to the Grey Art Gallery at New York University later that same year.

Single issues of Art in America are available by contacting the magazine’s General Inquiries office.

Below, two of the works from Dreaming Their Way reproduced in Art in America. All of the works from the show are reproduced in the superb catalog, available in the US fromAmazon and in Australia from, among other places, the Gallery Store of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Alice Namiptjinpa, Tali at Talaalpi, 2001 Gabriella Possum, Milky Way Seven Sisters Dreaming, 1998

On another note, today’s issue of the New York Times has an Op-Ed piece by Richard Moe, president of the US National Trust for Historic Preservation, entitled “A Past Worth Preserving,” which makes the case for the preservation of indigenous North American culture in terms that would be familiar to most Australian readers. He describes several sites: the Chaco Canyon’s extensive complex of pueblos in New Mexico, the rock art in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, the archaeological sites of Agua Fria in Arizona and Gold Butte near Las Vegas. Each of these sites is under threat. Exploration by oil and gas interests threatens some, increasing penetration by off-road vehicles others. Many such areas in the United States are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged with the contradictory missions of preserving the national heritage and promoting land use for profit. The lack of funding for preservation is a threat of a different order, and Moe urges that some of the wealth generated by and for commercial interests be set aside to protect the heritage these sites embody. 

Most distressing and dangerous of all, however, is the lack of legislative protection. Moe writes, “The most important of these sites — the ‘crown jewels’ of the sites under the Bureau of Land Management — have been included in the National Landscape Conservation System to highlight their scientific, educational, cultural and ecological values. Unfortunately, this system has no official statutory basis and can be eliminated at the whim of the interior secretary.” One can almost hear the fat cats, pushing back from feasting at the table of the national heritage and, from behind a napkin, letting pass a discreet “Burrup.”

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