‘Indigenous Australia': an expo on the craft of Australian Aboriginal artists

Art from the past “Meeting the White Man” by Tommy McRae   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In “Meeting the White Man”, an ink on drawing composition by Australian Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae, a viewer can see a tall man in a suit, wearing a hat and boots, approaching a group of indigenous people. The black silhouettes against the pale yellow hue of paper don’t reveal the expressions of the native tribe, but they appear to be scared of the stranger in their homeland. The Britishers are believed to have arrived on the Australian shores in the late 18th Century and this particular work reflects how the Aboriginal people reacted to their presence. In another work by the same artist, titled Victorian Blacks (1890), one could see the natives in their indigenous dresses engaged in a tribal dance, with a ship in the backdrop indicating the arrival of the Britishers. These two significant works record how the native landscape had started changing drastically in the Aboriginal communities.

These two works among many others are the starting point of the exhibition titled ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’, which features around 102 works of art from the Aboriginal Australian artists. Mounted at the National Gallery of Modern Arts, it gives a glimpse into the thriving world of the indigenous Australian art and the many art moments it witnessed since the 19th Century. “McRae’s works offer a unique visual record of contact between the two cultures which is seen through Aboriginal eyes, and they are a testament to the cultural foresight of these artists,” says curator Franchesca Cubillo.

Curator Franchesca Cubillo

Curator Franchesca Cubillo   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Another such work in the showcase is by William Barak who has intimately documented the traditional aboriginal cultural life so that the future generation would have a visual record of their unique heritage. In ‘Corroboree 1885’ and ‘Corroboree 1895’, Barak drew ceremonial scenes with participants painted with intricate body designs, other covered in possum-skin cloaks with clan patterns painted and engraved onto the leather. In the works, women and children can be seen sitting and watching the men perform.

The cultural practices of the aboriginal people across the world have seeped into mythologies or folklore. Their art is usually about the land, spiritual entity and are packed with symbolic meanings and totemic associations and often refer to ancestors or myths. In the Australian Aboriginal art, the reference point basically is the ‘ancestral realm’ or, as it is commonly described today, the Dreamtime or dreaming. It is believed that their ancestors in the dreams established laws of science, nature, religion and society. “The ancestors are malleable characters and can take the form of an animal of a human being in artists’ depictions,” says Franchesca. However, she is quick to add that “the dreaming is not restricted to the past and is, in fact, a constant reality which governs, informs and sanctifies people’s lives.”

Bark paintings

The presence of these ancestors and an incredible storytelling can be seen in a section where ‘bark paintings’ are mounted. As the name suggests, the bark of a tree has been used as a canvas by the artists to draw from the Dreamtime and pay reverence to their ancestors. These works come from the Arnhem Land and the surrounding regions in central Australia where the native tribe had divided the season into hot and wet. So, during the blistering summer, the Aboriginals created temporary dwellings using the tree trunks and the barks. They would then decorate these barks by drawing illustrations of their ancestors. “Just like many indigenous tribes do in India. The way they decorate their houses by depicting their folklore and myths. Same was the case with these people. These illustrations basically caught the attention of the Britishers who saw them as artefacts and showcased them at the museums in the UK. This is how a slew of anthropologists and ethnographers became interested in bark paintings. They still continue to be popular,” says the curator of the National Gallery of Australia.

Peter Marralwanga’s “The Rainbow Serpent Swallowing a Woman”

Peter Marralwanga’s “The Rainbow Serpent Swallowing a Woman”   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

One closer look at these bark paintings draws awe and surprise in equal measure. In Peter Marralwanga’s “The Rainbow Serpent Swallowing a Woman”, one could see a coiled figure with a crocodile head, the body of a serpent and a fishtail. “This shows the body is in a constant state of changing,” says Franchesca, adding the artist’s innovative style, using divergent spatial positioning of varied breadths of cross-hatched colour-bands, set the standard for subsequent generations of bark artists.

While the artists borrow the lexicon from their dreams, Franchesca says the clan also meticulously has to prepare their canvas, which in this case is the bark. She says that the bark is first collected during the wet season as it is easy to peel it from the trunk. The bark is then placed over the fire and ensured that the moisture comes out and the bark flattens. This then makes the bark available for depictions.

The lexica of graphic symbols, icons and designs of aboriginal art differ greatly from place to place. Each group or clan owns sets of specific designs, which are painted onto people’s bodies in ceremony and onto sacred objects. Pictorial elements are composed along conventional templates that identify specific dreamings. Take, for instance, the art that has its origins in the Western Desert, the settlement of Papunya. According to Franchesca, it was a non-Aboriginal outsider, Geoffrey Bardon who was an art teacher at the local school, who invited the senior men of the community to paint a series of murals on the school walls. Encouraged by the success of the mural, the men went on to produce portable paintings in acrylic and ochre. One of the works in this section by artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri is titled “Warlugulong”. It is the most expensive aboriginal Australian artwork as it had fetched $2.4 million at an auction in Australia in 2007. The artist in this huge painting has mapped his ancestral lands and nine distinct ‘dreamings’, and depicts the blue-tongued lizard Lungkata and his two sons at the Fire Dreaming place.

Pressure to preserve

For a flourishing and robust interest in the Australian Aboriginal art from within the country and internationally, Franchesca gives credit to the ‘missions’ set-up by the Britishers to encourage the natives to paint. Soon after the decolonisation, the Australian government too showed interest in preserving the craft and established offices across the Aboriginal settlements , with a coordinator to assist them. “Our government then made an effort to send their works to several countries and also gifted the works at several museums. By doing this, we were able to generate an interest in the international market. So, if you see the pressure to preserve and create has come from overseas. And the initial investment made by our government has created a way forward for the indigenous art to survive and flourish,” says Franchesca.

(Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia can be viewed at the NGMA, until August 26.)

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 4:47:07 PM |

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