Home > Art, Museums > Australian Aboriginal Art, 2

Australian Aboriginal Art, 2

Waarlla, Billy Thomas, 1998, Natural pigments on canvas

A month ago, Gail and I attended the opening of Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection at the Seattle Art Museum. I wrote about the exhibition at the time, quoting from the website:

With more than 100 works created from 1970 through 2009, the exhibition showcases what has been called the artistic renaissance of the world’s oldest living culture.


Welcome to visions of the long haul and big picture of our existence on Earth. Finally, after over 50,000 years of making art, we are able to see what the oldest continuous culture on the planet has in mind. Isn’t it about time? This art takes us into immense deserts and shimmering billabongs, into night skies and underground.

It is an aesthetic pleasure unlike any other. Utilizing contemporary mediums, these artists adapt visual languages that evolved over centuries. What may look abstract is full of symbols and stories that take on common human dilemmas—greed, desire, the search for nourishment, and punishment of deceit. Most often, this art offers veneration of the lands that are in their care and the founding ancestors who continue to provide direction.

I wrote that “we didn’t go through the galleries in any systematic way or read the signs. We simply got an overview, examining a few pieces that we especially liked, and happily anticipated an extended return visit.” When offered the opportunity to join curator Pam McClusky for a tour, we accepted.

Yes, this is the same Pam McClusky whose tour of the Central Asian ikat exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum we went on just a week earlier. She’s been busy, serving as co-curator of the Gauguin show at SAM a few months ago, the ikat show at SAAM, and the aboriginal show, each overlapping with one of the others. We’ve been dutiful followers, hearing her speak at all three openings, visiting the Gauguin show before regular opening hours as she led a high school group through the space, and most recently taking these tours with her.

At the outset of the aboriginal tour, I followed Pam’s narrative closely, as we spent 35 minutes in just the first three rooms. She provided valuable background on aboriginal art, specific artists, their paintings, and what the paintings represented. I realized, as somehow I had failed to on opening night, that many of the paintings were dream representations. This is hardly news. It’s prominently highlighted on the exhibition website:

The Dreaming encompasses the cosmologies and belief systems of Aboriginal societies, and it also provides the great themes of their art.

Regarding the painting at the top of the post, we learn from the exhibition website that

Billy Thomas paints a warning sign filled with impasto circles about Waarlla. He calls it a very significant sacred place where rockholes are abundant and serve as burial or Dreaming sites. It is set apart from the country which he says is “flat like an airport” and when big rains come, they fill the rockholes with fresh water. If you are traveling in this area, however, he warns that you should go “right around” this convergence of rockholes.

And then there’s this example,

Wati Kutjarra (Two Brothers Dreaming), Tjumpo Tjapanangka, 2004, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas

[Susan Cole]

about which the website tells us:

Two brothers created land forms and models of behavior that appear in many narratives of the Western Desert. In this painting, they have created a vast salt-encrusted lake known as Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). Tjumpo Tjapanangka reminds us of their presence by gently inserting two vertical lines at the top and bottom to indicate where the brothers camped. Across the middle is a white line where they built a protective windbreak. His formal symmetry reflects the ordered nature of ancestral creation. Known for walking vast distances himself, the artist’s work is committed to his custodianship of these epics and the sites that he grew up in.

Pam didn’t actually discuss these two paintings. I include them because they are available on the website, and because they give a sense of what we learned. What they don’t do is represent the work of aboriginal women, on which Pam focused in the first rooms.

As striking as the art is and as wonderful as Pam is, about halfway through I began to lose my focus. I don’t know what my problem was. The format? By which I mean, here are twenty or twenty-five of us (the numbers would continually shift, with uninvited interlopers joining for a room or two) walking from room to room, and time and again I was forced to squeeze past tour members who first entered a room and planted themselves just past the doorway because that’s where Pam stopped, ending up at the back as a result, only to find myself in front of the next painting on Pam’s itinerary, requiring a circling maneuver to get out of the way. Standing and more standing and more standing, staring at those who grabbed a free bench and wondering whether to join them. Glancing at the painting at hand while Pam talked about the one twenty feet away, wondering whether to go off and see more of the exhibition without guidance.

Before I knew it, my mind was elsewhere. At one point I was thinking through a revision to a book I’m working on, looking forward to getting to the office to carry it out, taking a peek ahead to see how many more rooms there were, estimating how long we might spend in each.

Maybe a half hour overview from Pam would have been sufficient, followed by touring on our own. An extended return visit is still in order.

Categories: Art, Museums
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