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Aboriginal Art at Dartmouth: Dreaming Past and Present


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.

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