Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College presents Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, a groundbreaking exhibition of paintings by thirty-three indigenous female artists from across the Australian continent. On view October 7-December 10, 2006, Dreaming Their Way is the first-ever exhibition of its kind in the United States. Featuring intensely colorful canvases and intricate bark paintings, this exhibition demonstrates these women's bold and often experimental interpretations of their cultural heritage. Works from renowned artists such as Dorothy Napangardi and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, as well as emerging painters such as Abie Loy and Regina Wilson express the Indigenous relationship to the land, understanding of the world and how it came into being, and sense of obligation to their culture. While Indigenous art is difficult to characterize as a whole, similarities in palette, dotting styles, use of symbols, and themes do appear in certain geographic areas. Many artists have developed distinctive personal styles as well, together contributing to one of the greatest contemporary art movements of the age.

Linked to the spiritual realm,
Indigenous Australian art is rooted in ancient stories-or Dreamings-as well as each artist's deep connection to the land. Simply interpreted, the Dreaming is the period of creation, when spiritual ancestors created the land and the life upon it, including humans, while establishing the moral code known as the Law. These all-encompassing religious and spiritual beliefs govern the lives of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. For thousands of years, Dreamings have been ceremoniously communicated through painting, dance, storytelling, and other artistic expressions, creating a strong, living bond between the people and their homeland. Rendered mostly on ephemeral materials, such as sand, these sacred images were intended only for private, initiated eyes. During the last thirty years, however, this has changed, to the manifest benefit of the international art world.

While artists in the northern part of the Australian
continent have been painting with natural ochres for audiences outside of their culture since the early part of the twentieth century, this represents a more recent development in central Australia. In 1971, a non-Indigenous teacher named Geoffrey Bardon encouraged Papunya community elders in the central Australian desert to use boards and acrylics to represent Dreaming designs that had previously been used in ceremonial contexts with ephemeral materials. Today a network of art-producing communities crosses the continent's vast expanse.

Painting was initially a male occupation in a society in
which the roles and responsibilities of men and women are clearly delineated. In the 1960s, however, women started painting in northern Australia, and two decades later, in the central deserts. Over the last decade women artists have received ever more attention and are often a major financial support for their families and communities. What distinguishes Indigenous Australian art from other contemporary work is its basis in ancient tradition and in the artists' relationship to the land. In their depiction of Dreamings, artists are stating their position in the world using a prescribed repertoire of imagery. Within these well-defined limits, women artists have become resourceful and imaginative in creating new ways to represent their peoples' ancient stories. The diversity and variety of the paintings in Dreaming Their Way is as remarkable as their array of colors and motifs.

At the 1997 Venice Biennale, the three artists chosen to
represent Australia were all Indigenous women. In 2005, the winners in all five categories of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA)-the most prestigious Indigenous art award-were women. This marked the first time in the twenty-two year history of the awards that the entire field of winners arose from one gender.

Dartmouth College has a well-established interest in Indigenous Australian culture, and the Hood Museum of Art has long celebrated the role of art in historical and cultural heritage. Dreaming Their Way illustrates the extraordinary variety of Indigenous artistic styles and the diversity of the land that inspires these pieces, from the arid desert regions of the central terrain to the plush tropical landscapes of the north. This exhibition also gives insight into the separated gender spheres that still exist in these societies and highlights the important contributions female artists make to this unique contemporary art.

This exhibition was organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, is generously funded by the George O. Southwick 1957 Memorial Fund, the Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund, and the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund.

A full-color illustrated catalogue features essays by BRITTA KONAU, curator of the exhibition and Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; MARGO W. SMITH, Director and Curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and BRIAN P. KENNEDY, Director of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, and former Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The catalogue includes statements by and biographies of the artists and is available through the Hood Museum of Art Shop.
Tribal Artery is the periodic blog about tribal art from
Aboriginals: Art of the First Person, an online gallery with 25 years of experience in collecting and selling Australian Aboriginal art. Additional web sites include African, Arctic, Navajo folk art and other tribal art at,, and

The painting below is NOT part of the exhibition at the Hood
but is typical of the genre and is one of several in
the collection of
and available from Aboriginals:Art of the First Person
Women's Body Painting, Acrylic on linen, 26" x 22",
Gabriella Possum Nungararrayi, daughter of deceased master, Clifford Possum