Today’s Australian Aboriginal Artists Uproot Ancestral Stories

REVIEW: The exhibit 'Ancestral Modern' reveals a deep reverence for a richly layered culture’s elders, its complex sacred stories and its artistic traditions.


With new and easy access to DNA testing, finding out about one’s ancestry is all the rage right now. The work in “Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan and Levi Collection,” organized by the Seattle Art Museum and on view at the Blanton Museum, reflects not just a general curiosity about one’s family lineage, nor even an intense interest in genealogy. Instead it represents a deep reverence for a richly layered culture’s elders, its complex sacred stories, its relationship to nature and its artistic traditions.

[su_pullquote]”Ancestral Modern” is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through Sept. 9.[/su_pullquote]

Works in this exhibition are from the 20th and 21st centuries and continue a remarkably uninterrupted 50,000- year practice, although the earliest Aboriginal artwork was made within the context of ritual and ceremony and was not intended to be viewed by the public.

Modern Australian Aboriginal artists, raised in indigenous communities and possessing an intimate knowledge of ancestral traditions, draw heavily on the culture’s visual vocabulary but use more modern media. They expose traces of something called Dreamtime, a term invented by early anthropologists to describe the worldview and beliefs of Australian Aboriginal people, to the a wider, yet often uninitiated, audience. They also shed light on the effects of British colonization on their people and culture.

Visitors quickly realize label reading is pretty crucial to experiencing and understanding the work in this show. If you miss something though, rest assured there is an e-catalog available on the Blanton’s website.

Well organized, the show is divided into geographical regions and themes like “Portraits that Cross Boundaries” or “Water,” and “Death,” with an education room with books, videos, a map of Australian territories and a timeline of Australian Aboriginal Rights and Art History.

Entering the exhibition you are introduced to the section “Landscapes from the Western Deserts,” abstract paintings of tightly arranged linear arrangements of dots in geometric patterns and an earthy palette, which represent elements of Australian ancestral lands. As the wall text points out, “while many of the sacred symbols and stories in the paintings may be explained to audiences outside the community, some remain accessible only to the individuals, kinship groups, or peoples who share a particular Dreaming, an ancestral realm comprising spiritual beings, governing laws, and their narratives.”

Symbols may vary from person to person and clan to clan, but basic ones include an arch shape (signifying windbreaking), caves, human steps or animal tracks and a U-shape meaning a person or ancestral being in human form. Concentric circles could indicate a watering hole, a camp or ceremonial ground. Soon these motifs may emerge more readily to exhibition goers.

Opposite works from the Western Deserts are “Women Painters of Utopia.” These walls reveal some spectacular works that visually deviate due to their gestural strokes. One synthetic polymer painting on canvas, called “Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming)” from 1995 is by Emily Kam Kngwarray. Stunningly beautiful, it boasts brilliant pink, fuchsia and red string or vein-like forms tangled into a web against a dark background. The densely knitted rosy ribbons represent yams as they grow in the ground of the artist’s homeland in a visceral, more than optically truthful way.

Visually as bold as anything I’ve seen in abstract painting, the artist was 84 when she painted it. She drew on decades of experience making similar designs, body painting womenfor certain ceremonies. Many of the forms seen in modern Australian Aboriginal art cross over into other media and into ritualistic practice.

Another Utopian artist whose practice began doing batik painting, Gloria Petyarre, is inspired by nature. Her “Leaves” (2002) is a large monochromatic canvas full of relatively uniform in size yet curved white dashes on a dark background. The careful positioning of the marks creates a sense of movement and illusionistic depth reminiscent of Op Art, but overall the image shapes are more organic. Like scales on an undulating fish, or leaves rustling in unison on a bending branch, they come alive. Wall text recounts the artist’s “memory of sitting for hours under mulga bushes, helping elder women prepare seeds for small cakes while learning about the leaves’ medicinal properties, which are held in high regard.”

Tommy Mitchell’s painting “Walu” (2008) contains many of the formal bells and whistles of Australian Aboriginal style. Cylindrical shapes loop around and inside of each other creating patterns made from colorful linear arrangements of dots. Much more than eye candy, Mitchell’s work tells the story of a boy who is guilty of stealing, and the misunderstandings and punishments that ensue. A tornado and the boy’s eventual shape shifting into the wind are reflected in the rhythmic circling of the painting, like his actions reverberating outwards into space and time.

The last half of the exhibition moves into figuration, both human and animal, and painted and sculptural. For example, there’s a filament suspended three-dimensional fish made of native woven spiny sedge grass by Yvonne Koolmatrie. The Murray River cod, or Pondi, is thought to be a supernatural presence with great strength, that in myth, made the bends in Australia’s longest river by whipping his tail back and forth. After European colonization, Murray cod populations suffered due to factors like overfishing and habitat degradation. Today they are endangered.

View of “Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection” at the Blanton Museum of Art, The
University of Texas at Austin, June 3 – September 9, 2018. Photo: Blanton Museum

Five standing painted eucalyptus hollow logs round out the exhibition. These are connected to “sorry business” a mourning process. In ancient funerary custom, logs are filled with bones of the deceased then decorated, buried and left to the elements. More recently, painted logs are displayed upright and used as educational tools for future generations and as memorials, especially for those who died defending their indigenous homeland.

Next to the grouping of standing logs, a painting of bark by Narritjin Maymuru depicts “The Marawili Tree Rangga (The Possum String Story)” (1968). This sacred story involves very specific animal characters and images are built in layers. A Koel Cuckoo eats from a cashew tree, on which cicadas cling along with St. Andrew’s Cross spiders. Flanked by possums making garments, a large kingfish sits in the middle of the vertically oriented work. Like a ladder it bridges elements of the story, and different realms of life and death.

These modern works reveal the intractable bonds between Aboriginal people and place. And sure, it’s incredibly easy to enjoy the graphic image qualities and exuberant use of color of the Australian Aboriginal moderns.

But with a bit more effort, the real reward comes in deciphering their iconography. The Australian Aboriginal moderns do their ancestors a great service by reminding the world of their regional diversity, multi-faceted lives and their endurance.

Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

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