Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Robert Hughes, the esteemed art critic and historian, who died two months ago, claimed that Aboriginal art was “the last great art movement of the twentieth century.” But where can you see it? According to Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can walk in any direction among the Met’s galleries and see works of art from almost any culture. But there is one glaring exception. Where is Aboriginal art from Australia, one of the most exhilarating, lively, and fascinating artmaking traditions?
Currently, you have to travel to Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire, to see a startling mix of contemporary Indigenous Australian art. Go to see the leaf changing colors in New England and plan a side trip to Dartmouth as the exhibition, “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art,” is a knockout.
The Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection of paintings and photography at the Hood demonstrate that the work of Indigenous Australian artists continues to play a significant role in today’s art world. Perhaps it is still somewhat under the radar in this country, but certainly not in Australia where it is finally getting the recognition the artists deserve.
About 100 works representing the last 50 years of work by Aboriginal artists are in the exhibition at the Hood, ranging from sculpture, photography and acrylic works on canvas to earthen ochre paintings on bark. Almost all are based or inspired by a one of the oldest cultures in the world: Aboriginal people have lived for roughly 50,000 years on the continent now known as Australia.
Today both rural and urban-based artists are unpacking their ancient stories of the the Dreaming when their ancestors sang their world into existence. The term encompasses the eternal nature of the Aboriginal belief system. Think of the Dreaming stories as the Aboriginal equivalent of Genesis. One major difference is that in the biblical story God created the world whereas in the Aboriginal Dreaming stories, the Ancestors created themselves. Some of the best insights in the Dreaming can be found in Bruce Chatwin’s “Songlines,” where he explains the importance of singing in creating the world.
The acrylic paintings in this show can be traced back to the early 1970s when an art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, gave some paints, brushes and other materials to a group of Aboriginal men living in a remote government settlement whose purpose ostensibly was assimilation. Eventually, the men formed an art cooperative, now one of many hugely successful enterprises. Today, not just men but also Aboriginal women are telling their own stories in acrylics on canvas.
According to an essay by Francoise Dussart in the show’s catalog, the lines, circles, and semicircles in these works seem quite abstract, but they have many layers of meanings. By way of example, a circle might represent a waterhole, a campfire, a tree, or a ceremonial site. Dots radiating from the circles could be a way to emphasize that all life is supported by water. A series of squiggly lines might relate to tracks in the desert or a metaphysical landscape map.
The symbolism in these works is not easy to interpret. To the trained eye, they represent the Dreaming when Ancestral Beings created life and sacred places. The contemporary works in this show defy classification as tribal, ethnic or primitive art. Instead, they are exuberant, highly visual, and compelling examples of modern art.
Will Owen and Harvey Wagner, professors at the University of North Carolina, first discovered Aboriginal Australian Art at New York’s Asia Society’s landmark 1988 “Dreamings” exhibition. They were captivated by the largely non-representational images and traveled periodically to Australia. Their collection includes roughly 600 works that are promised to the Hood Museum. They have already gifted more than 500 works and incredibly there is more to come.
On view through March 10, 2013. Hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu.
Other exhibitions: The Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi Collection of Aboriginal Art is often on view and is promised to the Seattle Museum of Art. The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. has sponsored exhibitions of Aboriginal Art. There is also a collection at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Collection at the University of Virginia.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.