Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Fascinating Tale of Australian Aboriginal Art.

William Ernest Waites periodically reports on tribal art news and happenings. This report features information about Australian Aboriginal art.


I have recently come across an article that was written some time ago that covers the history of Australian Aboriginal tribal art and its emergence from the communities and stations of the outback onto the main stage of world fine art. The article, written by Carly Berwick, was published in It was based on a show of collector John Wilkerson’s 50 works of Australian Aboriginal art, which toured the US.

Entitled, Collecting the Dots, the article charts the history of Australian Aboriginal art in the commercial marketplace. In 1971, an English schoolteacher encouraged schoolchildren in the northwestern territory community of Papunya to paint on the walls of their concrete block homes.

In short order, the tribal elders became so excited about seeing their ancient dreamtime stories portrayed that they joined in. Soon, the paintings evolved to masonite boards and canvases. Palettes evolved from natural ochre, charcoal and chalk to acrylics and commercial colors.

The designs, which were not called “art” by the Aboriginal artists - there is no word for art in any Aboriginal language – began to merge into perceptions of modernism, although they were rooted in the timeless stories passed down from generation to generation telling of the Creation, or Dreamtime. Often called "Dreamings", the stories describe the arrival on the face of the earth by ancient ancestors, and of their interaction with the landscape and geography.

Captivated collectors, such as Wilkerson and Richard Kelton, began to acquire the works of the “mob”, as the desert painters were called. These works by the likes of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarla and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri became the core of a show that began to tour the US. "Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia" was shown in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in 1988.

Early paintings, for which as little as US$80 or less was paid, laid the groundwork for auction results which began to amaze the art world. In 2007, a work from 1977 by Clifford Possum has hammered down at US$2 million in a Sotheby’s Auction in Melbourne, Australia.

Granted that Clifford Possum had taken the genre to new concepts with that painting, “Warlugulong”, which portrayed the total of Possum’s Dreamings as a map seen from above in a huge canvas.

I encourage you to visit ArtNews Archives to read the entire story.

But first, a side trip to a tale of two collectors who were active in Australian Aboriginal art at about the same time. Susanne and I began our collection in the late 1970s, traveling to Alice Springs to acquire a few pieces. Then back again in the mid-90s, when we ventured back to Alice, up to Darwin and to the Yirrkala community at Nhulumbuy (Gove). We also revisited our former home in Adelaide where several Aboriginal resources were available. Our last trip to Australia was in 2001 (September, to be exact; a very memorable time). On that trip we visited Darwin again, the Tiwi Islands, Maningrida, Oenpelli, and down the Sturt Highway to Alice, Adelaide, then flying to Sydney.

But this is not about our travels. It is about our relationship with the art.

In the meantime we had moved to Chicago. About the time the “Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia” was touring the US, we moved to Fort Myers, Florida. We opened our gallery, Aboriginals: Art of the First Persons, on Sanibel Island. By the late 90s, we had two shows featuring works from our collection. One at the Museum of Fine Art in Owensboro, KY, and one at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers, FL.

Little did we appreciate that we were in the vanguard of Australian Aboriginal art’s growing world-wide popularity. All we knew was that we had several paintings by outstanding Aboriginal artists, works that bring beauty and grace to our lives and home.

We include all the paintings, desert paintings and bark paintings and artifacts, on our web site at TribalWorks. We invite you to enjoy them with us.

Shown here are works (l) by Gabriella Possum, Clifford's daughter, & (r) Pansy Napangati.

Of possible additional interest is this video that discusses the care and storage of these valuable works of art.


PS: Shortly after Hurricane Charley smashed into Sanibel and Captiva Islands, we closed our Sanibel gallery, deciding to exhibit and sell exclusively online. Nothing was damaged in the storm; not us or any of the art. But we took it as a sign that it was time, after 16 years into a 15-year project, to do things differently.

1 comment:

John Lovesey MPhil said...

A very useful launch pad from which to begin an exploration of several different aspects of the Australian Aboriginal art phenomenon