Last weekend we were again in Toledo, Ohio, for a series of events related to Crossing Cultures. The Toledo Museum of Art is now led by Brian Kennedy, formerly the Director at the NGA from 1997 to 2004 and afterwards Director of the Hood Museum of Art from 2005 to 2010. When Brian arrived in Canberra, Wally Caruana was the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Wally was then about to launch the landmark exhibition Painters of the Wagilag Sisters Story. That exhibition served as Brian’s introduction, up close and personal, to the world of Aboriginal art, for the gallery was filled with a dozen senior men from Arnhem Land who had come to help prepare for the exhibition’s opening.
The two NGA veterans met again this weekend, along with Katie Russell, the Head of Learning and Access at the National Gallery. Wally gave a lecture on Thursday night on “The Emergence of Aboriginal Australian Art in the Public Domain.” The hour-long talk traced the engagement of white Australia with varied manifestations of Aboriginal art, beginning with the early collecting efforts of researchers like Baldwin Spencer, who took an interest in the paintings he saw in caves and on bark shelters during his travels through northern Australia in the second decade of the twentieth century.
From that starting point, Wally examined the presentation of art—and the persistent tension between the work as fine art or as ethnographic artifact—over the succeeding decades of exhibitions and collecting. The overall structure of his talk was geographic: after examining the early interest in bark painting and proceeding through the changes in the genre over time as dialogue between the cultures matured, Wally turned his attention to the development of acrylic painting in the deserts.
Here his focus was again historical as he presented correlations between traditional ritual arts and the origins of the acrylic movement at Papunya with the transformations that have taken place in the decades since Geoffrey Bardon encouraged and facilitated the presentation of traditional iconography on permanent and portable material.
From there Wally took us to the Kimberley and the changes that were wrought in the wake of Cyclone Tracy. He drew out the implications of the storm’s devastation for the proper maintenance of Aboriginal culture as they were manifested in Rover Thomas’s revelatory dreams, recounted the beginnings of ochre painting on board that supported the Kurrir Kurrir ceremonies, and traced the subsequent development of the East Kimberley school of painting.
Finally, his lecture brought into focus the art created in the population centers where the vast majority of Aboriginal people live: the so-called Boomerang Coast that stretches from Adelaide to Brisbane. He selected Richard Bell as an exemplar of the urban artist who challenges notions of Aboriginal identity and the creation of Aboriginal art for white audience. There was a nod to Brian Kennedy here as well, for Brian was one of the judges of the 2003 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award who awarded Bell’s Scientia e Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) top honors that year.
The following afternoon I had the honor and pleasure of standing with Wally in the Crossing Cultures galleries before an audience composed of the museum’s docents. Rather than deliver a lecture on the exhibition, Wally suggested that we let the docents drive the conversation and give them a chance to ask us the questions that they are themselves frequently asked by visitors to the gallery. The first question, unsurprisingly, was a request to clarify the meaning of “The Dreaming.” The fact that it’s a common question in these settings doesn’t make it any easier to answer, but I must say that I thought Wally’s explanation worth saving for future occasions.
He likened the Dreaming to a vast reservoir that contains everything and everyone that has ever or will ever exist. The world that we know is one that draws particular instantiations out of that reservoir at any given moment. As someone suggested, it sounds a little like quantum physics, and we agreed that such an interpretation only reinforces the contemporaneity of Aboriginal culture and the modernity of the art we were surrounded by.
The hour flew by as one question raised another and the conversation went from the particulars of Crossing Cultures to a broader discussion of the future of the exhibition of Aboriginal art in the US. Brian joined in at that point to suggest that there is now a wealth of art in this country that can seed exhibitions; the challenge is to provide the intellectual frameworks and curatorial support to institutions that lack the background and experience to interpret the art to their audiences.
Brian’s comments highlighted for me the difference in the reception of Crossing Cultures at its original venue at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and now at the Toledo Museum of Art, where it represents only the second time a major exhibition of Aboriginal art has landed in the American Midwest. (The 1988 Dreamings exhibition traveled to the University of Chicago after its New York opening at the Asia Society.) At Dartmouth Crossing Cultures was the third exhibition of Aboriginal art in recent years and the community embraced the new show as a sort of homecoming: it brought back the vibrant art that was last seen in 2006 when Brian brought Dreaming Their Way to the Hood Museum from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Many people who came to the exhibition had also traveled to Australia at some point and were familiar with the geography of the Outback as well as with bark paintings or desert acrylics.
In contrast, audiences at the Toledo Museum of Art were, by and large, seeing this art for the first time, were unaware that a major modern art movement had been flourishing in Australia for decades, and knew little about the culture and the politics that lie behind the works on display. When Dreaming Their Way was installed at Dartmouth, Brian deliberately downplayed the cultural background of the work: there were no labels and no didactics on the walls. (A printed walking guide was available to those who wanted it.) The intent was to present the work solely as a visual communication of Indigenous aesthetics.
In Toledo, Brian took the opposite approach. He preserved the didactics that had been written by the exhibition’s curator Stephen Gilchrist and his students at Dartmouth College and augmented the display of the art with a slide show of photographs and facts about Australia. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, a video of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation played in a room that was hung with the works of Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, James Iyuna and Mick Kubarkku. In another room of the gallery, short films from the Canning Stock Route Project presented a complementary portrait of contemporary Aboriginal life and art.
These presentations in Toledo satisfied the desire to contextualize the works for an audience unfamiliar with either the art or the culture while their placement away from the broad central plan of the exhibition space allowed the art to speak for itself to those interested in a purely aesthetic experience. Given that from some spots on the exhibition floor one could easily take in art from Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Galiwin’ku, Milikapiti, Yuendumu, Utopia, Aurukun, and Kintore without turning one’s head, that aesthetic impact can be quite striking. Turning one’s head brings more work from Maningrida, Oenpelli, Kiwirrkura, Lockhart River, Haasts Bluff, Melbourne, and Sydney into view. It is unsurprising that visitors speak of being overwhelmed (in a positive sense), of feeling that the art “comes screaming off the walls” (again in a positive sense).
Back in 2006, I found it fascinating to see the differing ways in which the artworks in Dreaming Their Way appeared given the very different sensibilities behind the hangs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Hood Museum. This year, while the arrangement of works in Crossing Cultures is different, but far less strikingly so, at its two venues, it is the difference in the audience reactions to the art that has intrigued me. One thing is certain: the art has a strong, undeniable appeal, no matter whether it comes from prior exposure, a general interest in the world’s Indigenous peoples, or an appetite for new aesthetic encounters. Now all we have to do is figure out how to build on the momentum and maintain the interest in these kinds of museum shows of Aboriginal art in the United States.
Update, July 31, 2013: The full video of Wally’s talk is now available on YouTube: