Aboriginal Art at SAM
By Deloris Tarzan Ament
Artists who work in the oldest continuing tradition on earth, twice as old as the celebrated ancient cave paintings of Lascaux, do not have painting studios. They sit cross legged on the Australian desert floor, in community, their canvases on the sand in front of them.
They tell stories; sing Dreamtime songs which tell tales of ancestral beings who shaped the world. Often, the painting tells the story of a sacred site for which the artist is the designated custodian, keeping its water holes cleaned out, memorizing its history and lore. Custodians of a sacred site are living archives, who pass on the songs, stories and rituals associated with their site, keeping alive tribal history and myth, and the knowledge of where to find food. Walk the third-floor main hallway of the Seattle Art Museum to see Australian Aboriginal paintings on loan from the collection of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, who have been collecting this work for 16 years.
Ancient as it is, Aboriginal art was not discovered by the outside world until the 1970s, when some artists who traditionally painted directly on bodies or sacred rocks began to make “wall art” on bark and canvas. Their earliest paintings were done in the earthy palette of the desert, in tones of brown and ocher. Within a few years, they began to explore the use of bright acrylic colors.
Their exuberant paintings, with pointillistic fields of color and a vigorous sense of pattern, appear to be purely abstract. Yet to those with understanding, each is an age-old story which shows tribal land, complete with its animals and plants. Called Dream Paintings, they are nothing less than coded versions of the Aboriginal world view; conceptual maps of dreaming sites, with symbols for landmarks and water courses.
Concentric circles may stand for water holes and encampment sites; ovals show where yams were dug. Animals are represented by the pattern of their tracks. Black lines may show paths traveled between water holes.
The paintings can be appreciated as pure abstractions, with a sensuous feel for paint and color. But the stories are as intriguing as the paintings which carry them. At SAM, look for a painted carving by James Iyuna which depicts "Mimih." Mimih are said to be spirits live in caves of the rocky Arnhem Land plateau. Shy and benign, Mimih spirits avoid intruders by blowing on rocks that open and allow them to enter inside. Mimih leave their rocks to hunt only on windless days, because they are so thin that a stiff breeze could be fatal to them. Clever men have been known to befriend the Mimih and learn their songs and secret places.
They are but one of many kinds of spirits known to the Aboriginal people, who have been hunters and gatherers in Australia for some 40,000 years, since the Stone Age. In the 18th century, a recent time in their long history, their lives began to change when Australia became a British penal colony. Aborigines were dispossessed of land which was both their source of sustenance and the basis of their religious and ceremonial life. They were trucked to remote settlements, and reserves far from the sacred landscapes of their ancestors.
One such forced settlement station is called Utopia. The name is pure irony. Utopia is a flat, windswept expanse of red dirt. That, however, is a superficial view. Utopias aboriginal inhabitants see it as a rich place, because they see beyond its surface.
In 1988, the women of Utopia began to paint. Four "Women of Utopia" are featured artists at the Seattle Art Museum this year. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who died in 1996, did not begin to paint until she was 82. As a senior custodian of Yam Dreaming, she was responsible for maintaining knowledge about how and where yams are found, and when they are ready to be dug. One of her painting, "Anooralya," means Wild Yam Dreaming. The painting shows the underground network of overlapping yam vines. Another of her paintings depicts a yam ceremony. Its loose quivering lines refer to the designs women paint on themselves to enact Yam Dreamings, which direct their moral and ethical behavior.
Emily was accustomed to painting bodies in preparation for storytelling and singing. In 1988, when she discovered acrylic paint, she approached a canvas in much the same way she did a body. Her earliest painting at SAM shows a top dusting of dots that float across the surface like wind-driven seeds.
Gloria Tamerre Petyarre, 62, has three paintings in the show. Their splatters and drips bear kinship to the canvases of Jackson Pollock. But unlike Pollocks paintings, Glorias pictures are filled with exacting references to place. Wavering lines refer to shrubs which are burned to clear walkways in sandy areas. Splashes of bright color refer to their flowering regeneration. Her "Bush Medicine Story" features medicinal leaves used as remedies for colds and the flu, and made into pastes to treat boils or scabies.
Kathleen Petyarre devotes many of her paintings to the journeys of a mountain devil lizard, depicted by his tracks and the dots of his skin, and by his favorite food, green pea seeds.
Dorrie Petyarre, still in her twenties, is the youngest of Utopias noted women painters. She is learning the obligations to take over her father’s role as ritual leader for the hill depicted in her painting "Two Sisters Dreaming." Elder women gather inside the hills caves to sing songs about two sisters from the Dreamtime who found the caves during a wild thunderstorm. A red dotted line shows the sisters path as they danced, sang, and used potions to attract the attention of Rock Wallaby Man.
In Dorrie's painting "Women's Ceremony," rondels connected by red dots represent the shelters that hid Rock Wallaby Man as he listened to the sisters singing for his attention.
Along with the paintings from Utopia, SAM displays 13 bark paintings by Aboriginal artists from other parts of Australia, plus a didgerdoo, a puberty belt made of human hair and feathers, a snail-shell rattle, a string bag with feathers, and several carvings, one of which depicts spirits notorious for capturing the spirit of babies. Called Balangjalngalans, they are a kind of spirit police whose mission is to make certain that humans live in alignment with the will of spirits. Balangjalngalans sometimes disguise themselves as trees. They are known to capture babies who are left alone. The elder artist who depicted the Balangjalngalans at SAM, Paddy Fordham Wainburranga, made a film called "Too Many Captain Cooks," which recounts Australian history from the Aboriginal perspective. Allow time to see a videotape of "Too Many Captain Cooks" in SAMs Educational Resource Room adjacent to this exhibition.
DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.
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