Ever since its inception in the early 1970s, the contemporary Aboriginal art movement in Australia has been continually developing and expanding to embrace an ever widening group of artists, communities, and artistic styles. Focused almost exclusively on works created during the past ten years, the installation Contemporary Aboriginal Painting from Australia, on view through June 27, presents a selection of fourteen canvases by both well-known and emerging indigenous artists from Australia's central desert, where the movement originated, as well as from the Kimberley region and the Tiwi Islands, exploring some of the work that artists in these areas are producing today.
Although frequently compared to Western abstract art, contemporary Aboriginal painting emerges from a completely different cultural and artistic milieu. To their creators, all of the works in the installation are representational. Whether employing shared or individual aesthetic conventions, the paintings represent aspects of the Dreaming, a concept that embraces the supernatural beings and events of the primordial creation period when ancestral beings formed the landscape, where their power endures today, and gave rise to humans, animals, and plants. All but one of the works in the show are, in a broad sense, landscapes, depicting specific places and the particular Dreaming phenomena (such as waterholes, plants, or the tracks of ancestral beings) associated with them. Each one, such as Anatjari Tjakamarra's (ca.1930–1992) Sons and Orphans Near Kurlkurta, which, in part, depicts a portion of the Dreaming journey of a father and his two sons, represents an episode, or episodes, from the sacred history of the land, part of the innumerable local Dreaming events that, together, shaped the whole of Australia.
As with the Dreaming narratives that underlie them, the creation of contemporary Aboriginal paintings also follows indigenous rather than Western models. None of the artists whose works are on view received any formal Western artistic training, with the exception of Daniel Walbidi (born 1983), who took some art classes in elementary school and, at twenty-seven, is the youngest painter represented in the installation. Instead, these artists initially learned to paint in connection with ceremonial activities, which often involve the painting of the human body and the decoration of ritual paraphernalia. With the emergence of the contemporary painting movement, older or more experienced painters often give younger or novice artists informal instruction in painting on canvas or, in some instances, begin by allowing them to assist in labor-intensive tasks such as the dotting of larger works.
Contemporary art in the West is primarily an urban phenomenon, and Australia has a thriving contemporary art scene involving both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists who live and work in the country's major cities. However, the Aboriginal painters of the central desert, Kimberley, and Tiwi Islands regions represented in this installation predominantly live and paint in small communities of a few dozen or a few hundred people in some of the most remote areas of Australia. The artists primarily work through art cooperatives owned by the local Aboriginal group, which provide them with canvas (as well as acrylic paints, in some cases), together with a place to work and market their paintings to commercial galleries, private collectors, and museums. Some artists, however, prefer to paint at their homes or other locations. Painting is often a highly social activity in which a group of painters will sit near each other and converse while they work. The painters do not use easels, but instead lay the canvas flat on the ground or, for some smaller works, on a table. With rare exceptions, artists make no preliminary sketches or under drawings, conceiving the finished composition mentally and immediately applying the paint to the canvas.
The works that Aboriginal artists create are often strikingly beautiful from a purely visual point of view. However, to the painters, the true value and beauty of their works lies in the Dreamings they portray. East Kimberley artist Hector Jandany (ca. 1925–2006), whose work Rock Overhang Tragedy in Ngarrgooroon Country appears in the installation, often began his paintings by singing the song or songs that relate their Dreaming narratives before making a single brush stroke. To convey a sense of the vibrant supernatural power of the Dreaming, central desert artists often seek to create compositions, such as George Tjungurrayi's (born ca. 1947) Soakage Water of Kirrimalunya, whose optical qualities give them a shimmering effect. Thus, while it is possible to admire Aboriginal paintings solely for their remarkable visual imagery, a fuller understanding of the enduring cultures and beliefs from which they spring provides a deeper appreciation of the achievements of the artists of this unique movement within contemporary art.
Eric Kjellgren is the Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
Contemporary Aboriginal Painting from Australia
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Australia, 1900 A.D.–present