Monday, April 26, 2010


For the first time, aboriginal art is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with fourteen works painted mostly during the past decade.
Developed in the course of 20 000, maybe 40 000 years of history, representing more than 600 groups, aboriginal art can be considered as modern. It is born the year 1971, in the community of Papunya in the Northern Territory where a young art teacher encouraged schoolchildren and Aboriginal men to draw tribal symbols on bark, walls, canvas. Till then, the signs had been traced in the sand with a stick and were a tool to communicate between aboriginal tribes who had different languages. They were also a mean to reach the Dreamtime.
Each symbol has a different level of interpretation and cannot be understood without some initiation. To quote the introduction to an exhibition of aboriginal paintings "Dot and Circle", 1985 in Melbourne, Australia:
"Andrew Crocker sees the paintings working effectively on at least four levels:
a) mnemonics for the stories which are depicted and which are also sung and which comprise Aboriginal lore and law;
b) cartographic mnemonics which inform and remind of topography and proprietary rights to land according to Aboriginal law;
c) religious expression. The paintings have scrupulously omitted esoteric subjects. Often, however, while the painting is ruled safe, the full story associated with it cannot be revealed;
d) the authentic artistic expression of a contemporary painter."
Since the paintings have been made with acrylic on canvas, aboriginal art has flourished and is shown in galleries and museums in Australia. The recognition of aboriginal culture in Australia is almost parallel to this art movement represented by several groups, some from the Northern Territory, others from Central Australia or Western Australia.

This did not happen without reservation by some members of the tribes who felt that these secret, sacred symbols should be viewed only by initiated tribal elders. Within the tribe, not all members were allowed to look at the signs, especially women. It is ironical that, according to an article in Artnews, "today some of the most sought-after aboriginal painters are women".
Prices are climbing with a triple digit gain since the 70s.

The anthropologists have lost, the art world has gained. The art viewer can be introduced to a secret world, inspired by this vast land. But could "aboriginal art" be considered neo-colonialism, or is it a natural adaptation to a new world?

photograph by the author

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