Henry Skerritt Visits “Crossing Cultures”

I’ve been struggling to find a way to write about this past weekend’s opening celebrations for Crossing Cultures at the Hood Museum of Art.  Luckily, Henry Skerritt, one of essayists for the superb catalog that accompanies the exhibition has resolved the problem for me.  Even better, he’s given me permission to republish his essay here.  I’ll have a few words to add at the end, and then I can return to processing the many photos I took of the galleries, which I’ll publish this coming weekend.  Here’s what Henry had to say:

More from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum

Clockwise from left: Crossing Cultures at the Hood Museum; Henry & Harvey Wagner with Shorty Jangala Robertson’s Ngapa Jukurrpa – Puyurru 2007; Lydia, Gabriel and Henry with Maggie Watson Napangardi’s Ngalyipi Jinta Punta Jukurrpa 1996.

Lydia, Gabriel and I returned yesterday from a truly magical weekend in Hanover, New Hampshire. We were there for the launch of Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Artat the Hood Museum of Art.

The exhibition is, quite simply, stunning. Curator Stephen Gilchrist should be commended for his tasteful hang, which achieves the rare balance of giving every work space to shine while speaking lucidly to those around it. Likewise, Stephen has kept the sense of tradition and place that informs these works at the forefront of the exhibition, while still allowing their individual mastery and inherent contemporaneity to shine through. In short, Crossing Cultures offers a perfect illustration of why Australian Aboriginal art is at the vanguard of international contemporary art; better than any other single movement, Aboriginal art reveals the connective fibres that allow us to maintain and communicate our unique identities in a world of accelerating difference. Stephen also edited the very impressive 169-page catalogue, which has important essays from established and emerging scholars (including a humble essay by yours truly – see post below).

While Stephen’s achievements cannot be underestimated, credit must also go to Will Owen and Harvey Wagner for amassing such a fine body of works. While many institutions and private collectors clamour for over-sized ‘major’ works, Will and Harvey’s collection shows that quality always trumps size. While most works in Crossing Cultures are ‘domestic’ in scale, they are all expansive in their aesthetic achievements. Although modest in size, works like Patrick Tjungarrayi’sIllyatjara 2001 (121 x 91 cm) or Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 are stunning examples of the artists’ work. More importantly, every piece fits within an extraordinarily coherent vision, allowing each piece to tease out rich parallels across the collection.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

Amongst the activities during the weekend, on Saturday afternoon Will Owen gave a passionate floor talk in which he made a compelling case for the rich traditions and aesthetic innovation across the regions displayed in Crossing Cultures. Will has such a broad knowledge and deep empathy for the work, it was a wonderful experience to hear him speaking to an audience that ranged from uninitiated New Englanders through to established experts in the field (such as Professor Howard Morphy and Dr Margo Smith). It is to his enormous credit that he managed to find a way to sharing his knowledge and passion across such a broad audience.

In contrast, the previous evening, Stephen Gilchrist chaired a panel discussion consisting entirely of Indigenous voices, featuring curator/artist Brenda Croft, artist Christian Thompson and Sonia Smallacombe from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Entitled Together Alone: Politics of Indigeneity and Culture in Australia the panel was focused less on art than on questions of Indigenous identity politics in Australia. All speakers spoke eloquently and passionately about the discrimination and prejudice facing Indigenous people in Australia today. Again, Stephen Gilchrist deserves enormous credit for creating such a powerful forum for the articulation of Indigenous voices. My only criticism (and it should be considered a minor one – because overall I thought the panel was an important and well executed statement), was that the connection between these identity questions and the dialogic space of contemporary Aboriginal art was only tangentially touched upon in the panel discussion. This is an issue of enormous complexity, and one that is difficult to elucidate to audiences unfamiliar with the history of Aboriginal art in Australia. Nevertheless, in my mind at least, this connection is vital to understanding why Aboriginal art stands at the forefront of contemporary art practice. Aboriginal art is not simply a defense mechanism against the onslaught of colonialism, it is a nuclear scale weapon that forcefully exposes the contradictions and antinomies inherent in the modernist imperial project. This is something of global significance, which is why Aboriginal art speaks as eloquently in Hanover, New Hampshire as it does in Sydney, Melbourne, Kintore or Yuendumu.  It is also why Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art is a must see exhibition for anyone interested in contemporary art, or simply just understanding the contemporary world in which we live.

Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art, runs from September 15, 2012–March 10, 2013. For more information, visit The Hood Museum website.

Thanks, Henry.  I (literally) couldn’t have said it better myself.

Stephen Gilchrist’s curation of this show is indeed inspired, sensitive, and thought-provoking.  I do want to call out some of the other people without whom this event would not have achieved such a high degree of luster.

It all started with Brian Kennedy, who came to the Hood Museum in 2004 from the National Gallery of Australia, and who championed the acquisition of the collection from the first.  Brian has since moved on to the Toledo Museum of Art, where the show will travel next year, opening in April and running through July.  When Brian departed, he left planning in the skillful hands of the Museum’s Associate Director, Kathy Hart.  Among Kathy’s many achievements were the hiring of Gilchrist as Curator of Indigenous Australian Art for the Museum, and the recruiting of the outstanding slate of essayists who wrote for the catalog.  She has continued to provide support and direction up to the present moment, under the direction of the Hood’s new Director, Michael Taylor, who came from the Philadelphia Museum and who has embraced the collection and this exhibition with nothing short of fervor, calling it “transformative” and “perhaps the most important exhibition in the Museum’s history.”

Patrick Dunfey was Stephen Gilchrist’s partner in designing and presenting the works in the exhibition; I’ve seen his masterful touch in many other shows at the Hood Museum, and I do believe that he’s outdone himself this time.  He was ably assisted by two modest souls, John Reynolds and Matt Zayatz, Hood’s preparators and superb artists in their own right.  Juliette Bianco and Lesley Wellman have extended the show’s reach into the communities of Hanover and Darmouth College.   The exquisitely beautiful catalog was designed by Dean Bornstein and edited by Nils Nadeau.  Throughout the entire process Kathleen O’Malley, the Museum’s registrar, has guided the works from North Carolina to New Hampshire, cataloging and inventorying, shepherding physical preparations and photography and becoming a dear, dear friend.  If there is a better Museum staff in North America, I don’t know where they are to be found.  Wherever you are reading this, get up out of your chair and give them a heartfelt round of applause.

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4 Responses to Henry Skerritt Visits “Crossing Cultures”

  1. Congratulations Will and Harvey…. You must have been very proud and elated to see the collection hanging at the museum….it has been a fascinating journey so far……
    Suzanne

  2. Pingback: American Eyes on Aboriginal Art | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  3. Pingback: Arts at Dartmouth: Stephen Gilchrist and Black Arm Band | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  4. Pingback: Aboriginal Academy | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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