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Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art

Will Owen and Harvey Wagner at the opening of Crossing Cultures

Will Owen (left) and Harvey Wagner at the opening of Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art in 2012.

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2012
Stephen Gilchrist, Curator of Indigenous Australian Art

For Aboriginal people from Australia, the land has always been the symbolic bedrock of cultural knowledge. The shapeshifting Ancestors who created the land, named it, and passed down the laws of social behavior on epic journeys eventually metamorphosed into the earth and vested it with their power. These narratives are reconstituted through ceremonial performances and cultural art production to ensure the wellbeing of the Ancestors, their sites of residence, and the people who are forever connected to them. Within these portraits of “country” (a colloquialism of Aboriginal English meaning culturally inherited tracts of land) are incredible systems of knowledge that have contributed to the physical and spiritual survival of Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years. However, following the colonization of Australia in 1788, this knowledge was largely devalorized by people who chose not to learn its cultural significance or sophistication. It was not until 1971–72, when senior men began painting at Papunya using an iconography that had never been seen by uninitiated men, that Aboriginal material culture began to be acknowledged as having both artistic and intellectual value. Art has provided the crucial public platform with which Aboriginal people can make legible certain aspects of their cultural inheritance and demonstrate that we need to see ourselves as not distinct from the natural world but an inextricable part of it. This exhibition celebrates not only the gifting of a significant collection of Aboriginal art by our generous donors Will Owen and Harvey Wagner but also the gifting of ancient knowledge that is remade anew by contemporary artists.

John Mawurndjul is one of Australia’s greatest contemporary painters and one of the few to have had a solo retrospective in a European art museum. He is a Kuninjku artist from Western Arnhem Land who lives with his immediate family at Milmilngkan, an outstation on a tributary of the Tomkinson River. He predominantly uses sheets of stringy bark from the eucalyptus tree to create metaphysical landscapes that resonate with the ancestral narratives of the region. In recent years, the figurative elements of Mawurndjul’s earlier works have receded into the background and have been replaced with a signature style that invokes sacred ceremonial body designs called Mardayin. Still embedded within these abstracted forms and gracile lines are important tenets of Kuninjku law that can only be known by those with the appropriate cultural standing. The great Ancestral Being Ngalyod (the Rainbow Serpent), who created the sacred lands of the Kuninjku people, resides in the waterhole at Milmilngkan. Ngalyod has both creative and destructive powers and manifests itself through the annual monsoonal rains and in the spectacular rainbows that follow these downpours. In Milmilngkan (2001) Mawurndjul showcases his expert handling of raark (crosshatching), which has become his artistic and cultural hallmark. Using a brush made from his own hair and locally mined earth pigments, Mawurndjul paints fine linear markings that suggest the writhing of Ngalyod’s powerful serpentine body, light reflecting off bodies of water, and, as a visual metaphor, the ancestral power that radiates from this site.

Water is also used by Shorty Jangala Robertson to visualize the power of ancestral presence and to demonstrate his knowledge of where it can be reliably found, an essential skill for life in the Tanami Desert. With a graphic fluidity, his painting depicts the transformative power of water as it courses through a dry riverbed in the desert. The fields of colored dots, applied with a gestural vigor, animate the surface of the canvas and allude to the latent spiritual presence of the Ancestors who shaped and walked through this landscape in the creation period. The painting recalls the culturally important narrative of two Ancestral men who belong to the Jangala subsection and “sang” down the rain. They unleashed a great thunderstorm that would ultimately create the large wells that are fed by underground springs and provide both physical and spiritual sustenance to the region’s Warlpiri people.

In a cultural model that values knowledge, seniority is often highly prized. But when Samantha Hobson first broke onto the Aboriginal art scene in her early twenties, it was her commitment to documenting her own experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional community on the West Cape of Cape York Peninsula that set her apart. And rather than using an iconography that had been passed down for generations, Hobson instead decided to forge her own. On monumental canvases, she throws and sweeps paint into place to document her concern for the Lockhart River community in which she grew up. Many of the Lockhart River residents were relocated to its present site after World War II, and the lack of access to the ocean is one of the community’s principal discontents. Hobson revels in the opportunity to spend time on the beach, and her experiential canvasses transport the viewer to the surreal beauty of the waves breaking off the reef at night.

Christian Thompson is a photographer, sculptor, and performance artist whose interdisciplinary approach is emblematic of his resistance to easy categorizations. In his significant series Australian Graffiti, Thompson photographs himself wearing sculptural wreaths and headpieces that are made entirely of Australian native flowers, playing with the double-hinged designation “Australian Native.” This term once encompassed both Indigenous people and the flora and fauna of Australia, and Thompson’s work speaks to the history of referring to Indigenous people under the Commonwealth’s Flora and Fauna Act. Although deeply critical of these dehumanizing classifications, Thompson nevertheless acknowledges affinity with these flowers, and the series suggests a deeply symbiotic and sensorial, rather than fraught or competitive, relationship. As insignia of Australia, these flowers are used on the coat of arms, as emblems of states and territories, and to celebrate the centenary of Federation. Thompson’s photographs, however, refuse to be coopted as colonial trophies and rearticulate the flowers’ central associations with Indigenous ways of caring for the land.

In the forty years since the Papunya boards first appeared in the public domain, Indigenous artists have transformed the way in which the landscape can be read and experienced. The land is a rich archive of ancestral presence and cultural memory that continues to inspire generations of Indigenous artists, who are indelibly connected to the places where these stories first emerged.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by Kate and Yaz Krehbiel, Class of 1991, Thayer 1992, Hugh J. Freund, Class of 1967, the Leon C. 1927, Charles L. 1955, and Andrew J. 1984 Greenebaum Fund, and the Philip Fowler 1927 Memorial Fund.

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