Cultural Warriors

This once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of recent Australian aboriginal art—the largest collection ever shown outside of Australia–has only one American venue: the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, where the exhibit is on loan from the National Gallery of Australia. When the exhibit originally opened in Canberra in October 2007, it marked the fortieth anniversary of the Aboriginals Referendum of 1967, which approved the inclusion of the continent’s traditional peoples in the census—recognition of the citizenship status of the country’s first peoples.

In the catalog for the exhibit, Ron Radford, the Director of the Canberra gallery, contextualizes the importance of the 1967 Referendum: “Of the thirty indigenous artists represented in the Triennial, twenty-one were not formally considered citizens of Australia, nor counted in the national census until 1967. Nor was the exhibition curator, Brenda L. Croft.” Croft herself prefers the term “bi-language peoples” to Aboriginals. The exhibit includes work from the entire continent, including several very remote areas and Tasmania. I note this geographical spread because one of the most playful paintings in the collection by Daniel Boyd (born after the Referendum) is of a colorful map of the country, showing “the 300-plus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups in the country.” But—and this is the kicker—layered over the map in bold, cursive script, are the words “Treasure Island.”

“Treasure Island” might also be an appropriate title for the exhibit itself. Walking through the Katzen Arts Center, I had the feeling that I had opened a secret door and entered a world of hidden treasure, with little similarity among the thirty artists’ works other than their concern for expressing their cultural visions.

The artists work in a variety of materials: acrylic, oil, vinyl, bronze, canvas—of course–but also earth materials: bark, wood, reeds, raffia and other natural fibers, natural pigments, even parts of animals (Kangaroo paws and ears). There is also the amazing inclusion of ancestral stories, creation tales, historical patterns, and, of course, occasional social/political commentary. But all these forms (and others, such as video and photography) and influences are so eclectic that no description of the exhibit can indicate more than a fraction of its variety—the visual explosion unleashed on the viewer. Do whatever you need to do to visit Washington to experience the collection, unless you intend to spend a few months in Australia, traipsing from one remote gallery to another.

Highlights? Well, these remarks aren’t fair to the artists I will not be able to mention, since each and every one of them has had individual showings of their work in Australia. Although it would be more equitable to visit thirty individual shows, that’s probably impossible for anyone but the inspired curator herself. Instead, let me mention half a dozen, simply to suggest the extraordinary variety of the works (and therefore of the artists) themselves.

John Mawurndjul (Kuninjku, eastern Kunwinjku, born 1952). Mawurndjul’s lorrkon (hollow-log coffins) fuse function and aesthetics by reclaiming tree trunks that have been hollowed out by termites and which he then paints with intricate earth-tone patterns. Often ten to fifteen feet tall, the decorated trunks are intended to hold the bones of the deceased and then be planted upright in the earth. The result is a breathtaking funerary object to connect the living with their ancestors.

Danie Mellor (Mamu/Ngagen/Ngajan, Queensland, born 1971). Mellor sculpts life-sized kangaroos, using ceramic and transferware, often in non-earthly colors: blue, pink, purple. Actual ears and paws from kangaroos are incorporated into the sculptures, resulting in a whimsical, almost comic, view of the country’s macropod population. His much more serious paintings also depict kangaroos, while hauntingly juxtaposing naked aboriginals against the background of the outlines of European buildings. The intent is clear: Europeans ignored the original owners of the land. Instead, for Europeans, the island’s curious icon became the kangaroo.

Kura Ala by Maringka Baker

Jimmy Baker and Maringka Baker (Pitjantjatjara people, Malumpa and Kampi, South Australia, born 1915 and 1952). Both of these artists—distantly related by marriage—fill their large canvases with intricate, colorful, Dreamtime patterns. According to Graeme Marshall in an essay in the catalog, Jimmy’s paintings encapsulate stories that identify “significant sites or paths etched in the landscape by ancestral beings. These sites are multi-layered, with physical, geographical, spiritual and ceremonial connotations.” Maringka is a known custodian of her people’s stories. From a distance, her large, bold paintings look as if they are gigantic photographs from Earth from Above, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. However, these paintings are more striking than photographs.

Target by Christopher Pease

Christopher Pease (Minang/Wardandi/Balardung/Nyoongar peoples, Perth, Western Australia, born 1969). History re-envisioned is at the center of much of Pease’s work. Juxtaposing images from the past—often from iconic European paintings of the “exotic” settings and people of Australia—Pease reconceptualizes them, adding his own distinct iterations. Thus, “Target” shows an Australian landscape at the time of British settlement (aboriginals and English working “happily” together) over which Pease has superimposed a large target. His painting gives the impression that Australia had taken on the semblance of a large inflatable continent about to be sunk by British occupation. Clotilde Bullen, also from the catalog, illuminates that hunch with her observation that “not only the Indigenous people but the land itself at the time of settlement in Australia was the target of greed, ignorance and, as represented by the single Indigenous female figure in the work, lust.”

Jean Baptiste Apuatimi (Tiwi people, Tapatapunga, Melville Island, Northern Territory, born 1940). Her extraordinary rich designs are often in bright ochre, and—according to Judith Ryan—patterns which oscillate “between figuration and conceptual abstraction.” The canvases are filled with spiritual objects from the ancestors, with “hatched squares, circles, and rectangles,” jumping boldly out of darker backgrounds. At the celebration for the exhibit’s Washington opening, Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, elegantly attired in a full-length fur coat, closed the ceremony with a buffalo dance to the measured clapping of the members of the audience. What an incredible treat!

Finally, a note on the exhibit catalog produced for the Canberra opening. Not only does it reproduce most of the work in the American exhibit, but it includes—in addition to an illuminating introduction–a lengthy biography of each artist, a list of all works (including details describing medium, dimensions, date of composition); a map of Australia, identifying each artist’s location; a chronology of important events in the continent’s history (beginning, ironically, with Captain Cook’s survey of the eastern coast in 1770, but nothing about the pre-history of the original peoples); a glossary of relevant anthropological and artistic terms; a bibliography of the written commentaries on each artist’s work; and finally—and this is worth the price of the catalog itself—at least one photo of each artist. The faces of the artists (of almost every possible color: black, brown, yellow, white) reveal the extraordinary range of ethnicities of the peoples themselves, their pain, their turmoil, their joy.

If you can’t get to Washington to view the exhibit, order the catalog or have your library order it.

Cultural Warriors: Australian Indigenous Art Triennial
National Gallery of Australia, 218 pages, $60.00 + shipping.

Available from:
Katzen Arts Center
American University Museum /
4400 Mass. Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20016-803l

CHARLES R. LARSON, CounterPunch’s Fiction Critic, is Professor of Literature at American University, the location of the exhibit.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.