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Contemporary Aboriginal Art

This presentation is made possible through the generosity of the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Contemporary Aboriginal Painting from Australia

December 15, 2009–June 27, 2010

This installation features fourteen bold and colorful paintings created by contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists. Drawn from a private collection in the U. S., the installation provides an introduction to Aboriginal painting, which has become Australia's most celebrated contemporary art movement and has attained prominence within the international art world. The works on view—all of which have never before been on public display—were created primarily over the past decade by artists from the central desert, where the contemporary painting movement began, and from adjoining regions, to which the movement spread. On view are paintings by prominent artists, including some of the founders of the contemporary movement, as well as emerging figures. This is the first presentation of contemporary Australian Aboriginal painting to be held at the Metropolitan Museum.

More About the Exhibition

The origins of the contemporary Aboriginal painting movement can be traced largely to the remote desert community of Papunya in the Northern Territory. There, in the early 1970s, with the encouragement of a local Euro-Australian schoolteacher, a group of Aboriginal men began to paint images from their sacred narratives and ceremonial life, first on small boards and, later, on canvas for the art market. Following the success of Papunya, artists of both sexes in other desert communities, such as Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff), Walungurru (Kintore), and Utopia, started to paint. Typically they adopted—at least initially—the colorful, densely dotted style that is the hallmark of desert acrylic painting. At the same time painters from neighboring areas, such as the Kimberley in western Australia, began to produce works on canvas employing different regional styles.

Diverse in its imagery, virtually all Aboriginal art is united by the concept of the Dreaming, a term that refers collectively to the supernatural beings and events of the primordial creation period, when ancestral beings emerged from the featureless earth and created the landscape, humans, plants, and animals. The Dreaming remains an ongoing phenomenon, and its power endures at particular sites. While they often appear abstract to Western observers, most images in Aboriginal art represent aspects of the Dreaming—the landscape and its sacred history. At birth, each individual inherits rights to a specific ancestral homeland and the Dreaming stories associated with it, which almost exclusively form the subject matter of his or her paintings. Although artists usually work within the broader stylistic conventions of their communities, many have developed distinctive styles that set their work apart from that of their contemporaries.