Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Art in Aboriginal Australia

In honor of the closing of Inside Tracks: Alone Across the Outback, Photographs by Rick Smolan, we are doing a segment on contemporary art from Aboriginal Australia on the Art School Blog. 

Contemporary Aboriginal art has the unique quality of being at once steeped in tradition and representative of individual artistic vision. In this way, the title of Ian McLean's book "How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art" rings true. Contemporary Aboriginal artists in Australia are expressing their ancestral culture with contemporary art supplies, creating works of an unironic brilliance rare in today's art market. Sales that have broken the $2 million barrier at international art auctions bring economic independence to marginalized communities with nary a tale of new found fortune gone awry.

Robyn Davidson's adventure, retold in her book and the recent film Tracks took place in the legendary desert wilderness of Outback Australia, known as the Bush to the country's natives. The incredible story, captured in the photographs by Rick Smolan and his book Inside Trackstells of the landscape and the hardships that befall a person alone in that challenging environment. The native Australians inhabited this land long before European contact, having developed a complex animist cosmology known as Dreamtime, with evidence in rock art dating back 60,000 years. Theirs is considered the oldest continuing culture, which has evolved with contemporary Aborigines into a vibrant contemporary art. 

As we celebrate the land down under, artistic excellence and boldness of vision, please take a moment to look at a few images collected here that received the Telstra Art Award (National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award) for artistic excellence in 2014. They are shown here along with the Judge's comments.

Daniel Walbidi, Wirnpa & Sons, 2014

2014 General Painting Award
Uncommon in Aboriginal painting practices, silver and gold pigments are employed in Daniel Walbidi’s Wirnpa and Sons 2014 giving life to the stark bleached saltpans and the parched desert sand dunes of his homelands. The harsh nature of these lands is tempered by a delicate organic overlay that carries the stories of ancestral beings such as the jila (living water), rainmaker of the Great Sandy Desert. Daniel’s paintings are like satellite photographs that concentrate on typographical complexities while they also eloquently translate his people’s stories as told to him by elders. Daniel is a sophisticated colourist who utilizes both typical desert tones and saltwater hues to narrate the dual nature of the cultural heritage of Bidyadange with vibrancy and confidence.

Garawan Wanambi, Marrangu, 2014

2014 Telstra Bark Painting Award
Garawan Wanambi uses the expressive qualities of his clan’s geometric patterns as a medium for the representation of restricted sacred areas in Arnhem Land.  This work contains a narrative that involves the mosquito ancestor, a symbol of aggression, who fights with spears and who is known for creating spiritual danger. In Marrangu the designs represents a place at the mouth of a river where fresh water boils up underneath the salt water. Garawan focuses on the changing waters, from turbulent to calm, with an intricate weave of pastel colours that give great depth to his work. Viewers will be mesmerized by the distinctive patterns and the lustrous surface of the painting that imitate the idea of light on water. 

2014 Work on Paper Award
Nici Cumpston uses photography to convey a spiritual and cultural connection to her country, capturing a sense of mystery as well as the physical landscapes. Scar tree, Barkindji country straddles the line between the serene and the dynamic. Nici looks at degraded landscapes, which are surviving, and prospering, they become a metaphor for Aboriginal people and culture. She has transformed this black and white image through the colour that she vigorously applies, reinserting her presence into the landscape. With dynamism and spirit, colour bursts off the page and cannot be contained by the frame of the picture, similar to Indigenous culture and presence on country. 
Nici Cumpston, Scar Tree, Barkindji Country, hand-colored inkjet print, 2014