Fleece-clad hikers on the Appalachian Trail munch beef jerky as they pass smack-dab through the center of rural Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College. With the opening of the $48-million Black Family Visual Arts Center on Sept. 14, the 50th-anniversary season of The Hopkins Center for the Arts, and the newly declared Year of the Arts, the university hopes to attract culture tourists too. What really puts the campus on the map for those seeking The Next Big Thing in art is an exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art.
"Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art" (through March 10, 2013) showcases for the first time a massive gift to the museum representing, according to the late critic Robert Hughes, "the last great art movement of the twentieth century."
What became a continent-wide upwelling of Indigenous art started around 40 years ago in the desert around Alice Springs with a group of men known as Papunya Tula Artists. Displaced by the government from their homeland (where their ancestors had lived as hunter-gatherers for 50,000 years), they grieved the loss of identity and knowledge linked to their land and traditions. Defying increasing marginalization, Aboriginal clansmen picked up brushes and acrylic paint, encoding secrets of their "Dreaming" cosmology on canvas, to transmit the oldest living culture on earth to new generations.
Many paintings employ familiar "dot" iconography to communicate to initiates knowledge essential to survival like the location of waterholes, as well as stories of shape-shifting ancestors who gave form to the earth. Yet even these optical, buzzing paintings have socio-political depth embedded in abstract, geometric styles.
Paddy Bedford's ochre-on-canvas Emu Dreaming at Mt. King (1999), for example, combines myth and harsh reality. In ancestral lore, the emu cries when someone dies. Around 1920 an encroaching rancher gave flour laced with strychnine to natives, an attempt at ethnic "cleansing." Bedford, a descendant of the few who survived the massacre, painted the wailing emu, its agony akin to Picasso's screaming horse in Guernica, to expose the atrocity. "It's about manifesting the past in the present," the exhibition's curator Stephen Gilchrist (whose mother is Aboriginal) says.
With contemporary materials and media, art school-trained Aboriginal artists in urban areas also protest injustices linked to racism. (Not until 1967 were Aborigines included in the official census. Before, they were referred to under the Commonwealth's Flora and Fauna Act.) Christian Thompson's photograph of himself wearing a hoodie (alluding to the criminalization of Aboriginal men), his face obscured by native flowers (Black Gum #2, 2007) suggests dehumanization by colonial powers.
Destiny Deacon's photograph Last Laugh (2004) features a multi-ethnic trio of women-one of whom carries a black Aborigine doll. Hip-looking and howling with laughter, the three women contradict the stereotype of indigenous people as primitive. In Deacon's tragicomic view, the doll suggests how European settlers viewed the native population as child-like, not quite real.
Several artists in the exhibition, which includes more than 100 works in painting, sculpture, and photography, react to an infamous 2004 case of police brutality, in which a man died after less than an hour in custody, his liver severed, ribs smashed. (The arresting officer was acquitted.) Tony Albert's blak'n'blue (2009) watercolors, rendered in hues of a bruise, depict blurry, blue figures harassing black ones.
Vernon Ah Kee's three unwritten (2009) portraits in charcoal consist of spiky black lines suggesting humanoid features that gradually become less human. Gilchrist interprets the images asking, "Have Australians lost their humanity" as a result of the politics of exclusion?
The two collectors who acquired the works over the course of 20 years, Will Owen and Harvey Wagner, expressed delight at the installation arranged by geographic region. "It's like seeing the work for the first time, going through different worlds as we move from room to room," Owen says.
Pressed to name a favorite, the two men pointed out John Mawurndjul's ochre on eucalyptus stringy bark Mardayin Ceremony (2003), a reproduction of which hangs in Paris's Musée du Quai Branly. Owen explains that white circles represent droppings of a giant snake, a divinity who brings needed monsoon rains then forms a rainbow, an emanation of the creative, vivifying power of nature in abstract form. Regenerative myths, and profoundly felt spirituality of the landscape coalesce in this art-at once both individual and communal in expression.
Moving from purely abstract dot paintings to stylized representations of creatures like fish or kangaroos to works that are as contemporary in style and feel as any seen in art fairs and biennales, these works are far from purely decorative. They transmit content and meaning-both celebratory and critical. "There's certainly anger," admits Hood Museum director Michael Taylor, "but also catharsis at letting it out. Art is a way of healing."
"That's one of the great revelations" of Aboriginal art, Taylor adds. "You look at a ravishingly beautiful abstract painting and then realize there's a specific cultural reference...a political message and also a message of survival, saying, ‘They can take away our children and our belief systems, but we're going to maintain our own identity'."
Taylor finds the art so moving, transformative, and universal that he believes it will no longer be confined to ethnographic institutions as artifacts rather than shown as fine art in museums. One aim of the exhibition is to increase its visibility on the international stage, which Gilchrist says is "less about cultural preservation than cultural reactivation."
Aborigine artists are already featured in international exhibitions, especially in Europe. The market is responding: a painting by Clifford Possum sold for $2.4 million in 2007. In the next 10 to15 years, Taylor predicts museums with global scope will add Aboriginal works to their permanent collections.
A symbol of both Aboriginal identity and its trajectory is found in Michael Riley's Untitled (2004), a photograph of a boomerang. The iconic form—aerodynamically pure and an efficient hunting weapon—is frozen in flight, transecting a wispy cloud in a blue sky. Contemporary Aboriginal artists are similarly hurling their culture out to the wide world, knowing it all comes back to them.