Sunday, September 20, 2009

Aboriginal artist Jean Baptiste Apuatimi wears the art of her ancestors on her skin. The dots and dashes painted on her face are repeated on her patterned canvases in modern versions of ancient imagery and techniques.

The 69-year-old painter traveled thousands of miles from her home in Australia’s Tiwi Islands to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. Last weekend, she joined nine other artists from her country to talk, sing and dance about the largest display of Aboriginal works to travel outside Australia.

“Culture Warriors” provides a magnificent introduction to this native art through a contemporary lens. For Americans who know little about the land Down Under, the wildly diverse exhibit expands the view of Aboriginal artworks from ethnographic curiosities to up-to-date creations. All 90 pieces on display, including videos, photography and installations, were made between 2004 and 2007.

The transition of native art from the mediums of sand and rock to paint and canvas took place about 40 years ago. Today, the artworks by indigenous Australian talents are hot commodities. They generate about $400 million to $500 million in sales every year, according to Australian Arts Minister Peter Garrett, who opened the exhibit.

Organized by curator and educator Brenda Croft, the triennial exhibit signals a commitment to Aboriginal art on the part of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It debuted at that museum in 2007 to mark the 25th anniversary of the institution.

Originally comprised of 180 artworks, the exhibit is only half that size at the Katzen, the only American venue, but still represents the same roster of 30 artists from every Australian state and territory.

“Culture Warriors” sounds like the exhibit was dreamed up by a right-wing scold like Bill O’Reilly, but Ms. Croft uses the title to draw attention to the fierce creativity of the Aborigines. “Art is a way of showing the strength and endurance of indigenous peoples,” she says, noting that some of the older artists are healers within their communities.

Native Australians have only been part of the nation’s census since 1967 and now make up about 2.5 percent of the population. Like American Indians, they have endured the loss of their lands, language and cultural practices.

“Not an animal or a plant,” a text work by artist Vernon Ah Kee, is a direct reminder of how Aborigines went from being in the same category as kangaroos and eucalyptus trees to being counted as people only 42 years ago.

Sprawling across two levels, the exhibit veers from traditional cross-hatched and dotted paintings on bark and logs to edgier pieces addressing racism, alcoholism and oppression. Wall texts are lengthy but worth reading to discover personal stories about the artists and their works.

At the core of the show are works by five “big guns,” senior artists like Ms. Apuatimi, who have kept Aboriginal traditions alive. To outsiders, their paintings may look like modern abstractions, but they are grounded in native cultural legends, ceremonial rituals and creation stories.

Particularly striking is a row of paintings by Maringka Baker, an artist from the northwestern corner of Australia. Her rich tapestries of colored dots resemble aerial views of verdant landscapes far removed from the continent’s barren desert.

The logs and bark painted by Gulumbu Yunupingu, a ceremonial leader in a Northern Territory community, are filled with dense patterns of stars, representing nothing less than the entire universe.

Real and mythical creatures from the outback also emerge. Trevor “Turbo” Brown paints charming scenes of koalas and wombats while Dennis Nona sculpts bronze manatees covered in expressive tattoos.

“Yawkyawks,” mermaidlike spirits, are represented by Owen Yalandja in tapered wood sculptures and by Anniebell Marrngamarrnga in turtle-shaped, woven fiber pieces. The different interpretations reflect the variety of Aboriginal art even when addressing the same mythology.

One of the achievements of the exhibit is to reveal the variety of indigenous art and culture from both city and countryside. That diversity is summarized in artist Daniel Boyd’s “Treasure Island 2005.” Painted within his map of Australia are multicolored shapes representing the more than 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups. The work represents both the richness and loss of native heritage since 1788, when the British first settled New South Wales.

The collision between colonists and indigenous nations is examined further by Mr. Boyd in a portrait of King George III, who claimed Australia for Britain. The postcard image lampoons an 18th-century painting now held in Russia’s Hermitage collection by depicting the monarch as a pirate wearing a necklace of skulls. Mr. Boyd includes his self-portrait as a decapitated head in a jar, a symbol of the Aborigines killed by the British.

Hanging nearby, a trio of paintings by Christopher Pease similarly references history. Mr. Pease combines diagrams and symbols with scenes inspired by 19th-century French lithographs of the first contacts between Aborigines and colonists. Concentric circles are superimposed over one landscape to convey the idea that indigenous people and their land were targets of exploitation by Europeans.

Among the most moving images in the exhibit are black-and-white photographs by Tasmanian Ricky Maynard. Influenced by American photographers such as Ansel Adams, Mr. Maynard documents the landscapes where Aborigines were exiled, massacred and buried “to correct misrepresentations of our people,” he says. “We owe the truth to the dead.”

His photos reflect the strong ties between Aborigines and their native soil, a connection also made through the earthen pigments used by Ms. Apuatimi and the other “big guns.” These artists paint their land with their land, inviting visitors on a rewarding journey through an unfamiliar Oz.

WHAT: “Culture Warriors: Australian Indigenous Art Triennial”

WHERE: American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW

WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; through December 6


PHONE: 202/885-1300


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