- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Dreams can be illuminating and even can tap deep into another world, as the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ new exhibit “Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters” can attest.

Australian “Dreamings” are the dreams or ancient stories of Australia’s earliest Aborigines — who migrated to the continent some 50,000 years ago — who tell their creation story through body paint, rock art, sand sculpture, dance and song. Connecting with the spirits through their land has always been crucial, and they do this by painting signs for rain, stars, women, rainbows, fire, blood and water.

These 70 colorful contemporary canvases and intricate bark paintings are the first to visit the United States as a group and also the first to be painted by Australian Aboriginal women.

It’s true that similarities of visual language could overwhelm at first, although subtle differences quickly appear.

But, not to worry. For example, consider Pansy Napangati’s “Kungka Kutjarra at Kampurarrpa” (“Two Women at Kampurarrpa”) for which the exhibit label tells the work’s meaning. The story goes like this: “Here, the artist has depicted the Two Women resting during their travels as they created the land and life forms of the region.

“In this aerial depiction of the site, the concentric circles in the center represent the site, and the sinuous lines are ceremonial hair string made by the women. The U shapes are indentations of the seated women, with their coolamon dishes and digging sticks. The clusters of dots throughout the painting are the kampurarrpa (bush raisin), which is an edible berry.”

Another exercise in even more colorful signage is Linda Syddick’s “Spirits at the Gap.” Again, the label enlightens us: “‘Spirits at the Gap’ shows the Kangaroo (right) and Emu (left) ancestors who created Lake Mackay, a large salt lake in the desert where the artist was born.”

The artist’s “ET Going Home” shows a highly individualistic, humorous interpretation of the popular film figure.

Artists in the northern part of Australia have painted with natural ochers for the foreign art market since the early 20th century.

However, painting for export also became popular in central Australia during the 1970s and was led by non-indigenous teacher Geoffrey Bardon. The artist persuaded local elders to use boards and acrylics for holding “dreaming” designs when before they had used ephemeral materials.

Because of Mr. Bardon, the many art communities of central Australia — as well as those across the country — emerged. Central Australia, however, still holds the most centers, with:

mPapunya, considered the birthplace of the so-called dot-and-circle style, painted in acrylics.

mYuendumu, the homeland of female painters who initially took their designs from body painting and those on dancing boards.

mUtopia, where women also flourished, first learning their art from Indonesian batik textiles.

For example, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre’s impressive “Emu Ancestor” typifies art from Utopia in the Northern Territory and reveals the weeks-long preparation for the women’s emu ceremony through stylized symbols. Pointed shapes and footprints zoom across the canvas with a circle at its center.

Her “Untitled (Leaves)” shows a similar rush of propelled motion but with larger, acrylic strokes.

Art from the Kimberley region in western Australia is among the exhibit’s most colorful and forms the most attractive room.

One Kimberley artist, Queenie McKenzie, who painted “Horso Creek Massacre” and “Limestone Hills Near Texas Downs,” is quoted as saying, “I like a do country. What you know country. And where you go to Sunday road, somewhere walkabout, you look hill like that. You take notice.” She paints dotted, earth-colored ancestral spirits.

The northeast region of Australia, largely covered with rain forest, holds the “Lockhart River Art Gang,” which includes Judy Watson — who painted ” Waterline” with pigment on linen, one of the show’s most magical and beautiful works.

The museum divided the show’s art into different geographical locations, and the division is at once clarifying and confusing. It clarifies by boxing smaller locations of certain art areas into a larger map of Australia, but it also confuses with its many divisions.

Overall, however, this is an extraordinary show and well worth the extra effort for appreciating it. Don’t miss it.

It’s the next best thing to — and a lot cheaper than — going to this faraway continent.

WHAT: “Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters.”

WHERE: National Museum for Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 24.

TICKETS: $8 for adults, $6 for visitors 60 and older, $6 for students, free for members and anyone 18 and younger.

PHONE: 202/783-5000.

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