Contemporary Art by Australian Aboriginal Artists
In 1971, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri painted his first art work using acrylic on canvas. This was – except for a very few preliminary attempts – the beginning of the Aboriginal Art Movement, that spread in great leaps within just a few years. After only 15 years, that is in the mit-80s, all large art museums within Australia had built up their collections and had begun showing the works within the sections of contemporary art within the permanent collection.
The argument about whether the art is contemporary art or traditional handicraft, or about whether one should classify it together with Art Brut or together with ethnographical works – a much-favoured solution in Germany – was largely settled during those years in Australia, whereby large private collectors and the art museums of all the major cities decided in favour of the contemporary side.
Since the very beginning of the art movement, the artists create their art work for a broad public. The resulting works were therefore never intended for anything other than the presentation of art and culture. They reflect not past traditions, but rather present culture and ideas. They are not religious objects. The works are part of the contemporary art scene of Australia: one of its two supporting pillars.
The History of the Art Movement
A number of concurrent and serendiptious socio-political trends favoured the art movement, which spread out from Papunya, a settlement about 250 km west of Alice Springs in the heart of Australia.
The settlement of Papunya was created around 1960 as one of the last impulses of the assimilation policy of the white Australian government. The Aborigines should learn – whichever of them had survived the frightful repression and trend toward genocide which had continued well into the 20th century – to adapt to the european style of living. Other grounds for the forceful resettlement of various groups of Aboriginal peoples were the expansion of the Woomera Rocket Range (established in 1946) and the growth of the outback tourism industry.
Wantonly ignoring their different cultural backgrounds, about 1000 individuals from a number of different Aborigine peoples were thrown together in Papunya in the mid-60s. This inevitably lead to strong social tensions since usually they lived in smaller groups which only met to celebrate common religious ceremonies and otherwise maintained a respectful distance.
The restrictions and pressure which arose, also due for example to the forceful prevention of leaving the reservation except with the permission of the whites, as well as the realisation by the elders of the communities that their culture was suffering untold damage, made it essential to seek a way out.
The land-rights movement which began in the mid-60s had a further impact on the growing desire of the Aborigines not only to preserve their own culture but also to have it recognised and respected. It wasn´t until 1967 that Aborigines were recognised as citizens of Australia. And only a few years early had they won the fight in the courts to receive equal pay for equal work (compared to whites).
The art teacher Geoffrey Bardon acted at Papunya as the spark for the above volatile mixture and who set off the explosive development of the Aboriginal art movement. He simply asked his students (and later others who joined in) to paint in their own visual framework and language … and supplied them with acrylic paints and canvas.
The art movement spread rapidly from settlement to settlement, from reservation to reservation, along the old lines of family ties – which are quite different and more wide-ranging than purely blood-relations – and along the old paths of religious celebrations.
Today we find a great range of painting styles. Within just three decades, the art movement underwent rapid diversification in many directions.
The academic investigation of these styles has not yet, however, developed meaningful terminology or categories for them. There is solely a differentiation between Desert and City art. Within the Desert-Art styles, however, one can distinguish two main directions: dot painting and lines.
Another categorisation is equally simplified, namely according to the regions where the style arose. One speaks, for example, of art from Papunya/Kintore, from Yuendumu, from Utopia, Wirrimanu (also known as Balgo) or Warmun.
This can still in a way be justified, when for example the paintings from Warmun, a community in the Kimberleys in north-west Australia, are studied. They are always composed, using natural earth pigments on cotton canvas, in the form of a number of relatively large areas of solid colour. But even though the artists share a common use of materials, individual differences between their styles make their works immediately and uniquely identifiable.
Also the works from Wirrimanu make it very clear, that the categorisation of the art style according to point of origin is not a defining characteristic. The style of painting by the individual artists is simply too different to unite under one classification, although they may on occasion paint under one roof.
Misunderstanding is only increased by any attempt to compare the dot-painting from Yuendumu, Papunya or Utopia with French Pointilism, or to link works with terms such as Op Art, Abstract Expressionism or Fauvism. The art of the Australian Aboriginal artists has nothing to do with those themes, even though the basic techniques of Desert-Art (the dots, lines, monochrome areas, or multi-layering) are also found in modern western art and even though the works therefore often remind one of contemporary abstract (western) art.
On the other hand, it IS possible to consider aspects such as the iconography and symbolism in the works and to discuss their narrative content.
The Tjukurrpa and the Iconography
As previously discussed in the section on Tjukurrpa, the paintings recount events of long ago. The stories, which are can be explained in varying detail by the artist, are intrinsic to the works and are made visible in the form of symbols. It is important to note that, contrary to the practise in European art, the same symbol may not represent the same meaning from one work to another. Depending on the story, a set of concentric circles can represent for example a meeting place, a water hole, a religious site or something else. On the other hand, U-shapes usually always represent people.
The comparison of paintings with their stories shows a number of typical characteristics of the art of the first Australians. The story itself is often discoursed in only a rudimentary way. It is artistically translated, not directly represented in the work. This translation occurs as either symbolic ideograms, which is the case for many artists from the central part of Australia who work using the dot-painting technique, or else as very formal, highly stilised compositions of dotted structures or lines. The paintings often show a landscape, which is usually the country to which the artist belongs.
The stories recount events from the tjukurrpa, which are important to aboriginal law. They contain all the knowledge about animals, plants and sustenance, about medicine and also about moral law, which provides the basis for human co-existence and survival. The stories are not mystical; they serve to pass on important knowledge as well as history.
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