Saturday, February 05, 2011

Australian Aboriginal Art redux

Last week, Susanne Waites, my co-proprietor of our Australian Aboriginal art gallery, and I made a presentation to about 30 people who showed up at the Captiva Memorial Library Cultural Fest to learn about the art of the Australian Aboriginal people.

I'm happy to say the crowd was rapt. There were lots of questions afterwords. And no one left early, which always is a good sign. (As a frequent public speaker, I can attest there are few things more debilitating than having an audience member get up and leave during your presentation - even if it just to visit the bathroom).

Anyway, preparing for the presentation and revisiting many pieces of Australian Aboriginal art in our collection, reminded me of how special this genre of art is to us. It was our first love in the field of Tribal Art. It happened to us when we were living in Australia and we first became aware of these talented people and their fascinating culture. We began to acquire pieces of Central Desert art, Tiwi art and Aboriginal art from the Top End.

At the time, exchange rates were much more favorable for the US dollar. Today, the Australian dollar hovers at about par with the US greenback. So Australians who want to repatriate native art to Australia have a much easier go at it.

The trigger for this blog has been the realization that, as we became so caught up in African tribal art, Arctic/Inuit carvings and Native American art, jewelry and pottery, we have put our Australian Aboriginal art in the back of our minds.

That is a shame. So here are examples of some outstanding pieces, and a link to an entire section of our web site devoted to the native art of the antipodes.

To the left is dot painting on an Australian Aboriginal coolamon, a wood bowl used for gathering and holding bush tucker. Bush tucker is a term for foodstuff that grows in the wild. The dot pattern represents a map of a sort, through which is told the stories of the tribal group's arrival in this world and where important sites are located for food gathering and ceremonial purposes.

Carrying on with the theme of dot paintings, on the right is large canvas painted in the same technique by Anmatyerre artist, Gabriella Possum. It is one of our favorite paintings. It is filled with vibrant color and is busy with symbols that the tell the story of Gabriella's country. It is the same country as her father's, the Master Australian Aboriginal artist, now deceased, whose work has sold for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. (Australian Aboriginal traditions require that the name of the dead not be stated.)

The fact that these images are even available for outsiders to see is credited to an English art advisor in Papunya, a central desert settlement, not far from Alice Springs. Geoffrey Bardon convinced the tribal elders to paint images, previously restricted to viewing by Aborigines only, to paint the images on the walls of the buildings that had been erected to shelter these nomadic people.

The results were so electric that a movement was launched. Australian Aboriginal desert art has since enlivened the aesthetics of a quasi-barren land and provided income and sustenance to the natives. The title of this painting is "Bush Tucker Dreaming".

In a different genre, the people of the north, who live in a land of "the wet" for a large part of the year, learned to harvest eucalyptus bark, scrape and cure it and paint on the clean side. It was a natural evolution since the bark panels frequently were used for structures to protect families from the rain. Materials used for these paintings were natural ochres, ground into powders and liquified, charcoal, and chalk. They were mixed into paints, using sap or ant honey as binder. The image to the left is of one such painting. Dots are generally not used in these paintings. Rather, cross-hatch designs are stroked onto the bark using twigs and small branches. These designs are called "rarrk". They have deep symbolic meanings for the groups that "own" them. Only the owners are allowed to paint a certain rarrk or to permit it to be painted.

These are some of the most secret/sacred designs in Aboriginal art. During one encounter with an artist, we asked her to explain the painting. She started out straight-forwardly but then lapsed into speech that was so faint we coul dnot make out what she was saying. At the conclusion of her explanation, she returned to normal speaking volume. We were told by the white art advisor that she was too polite not to respond to our question, but she could not reveal the information. This gentle stratagem served her purpose and ours.

This blog posting, which started out modestly, has taken on a life of its own. Out of respect for the reader, we will continue it in another posting later.

Thank you for your attention.

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