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Art as Life and Identity: Dreaming Their Way

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2006
Brian Kennedy, Director

Very few exhibitions of contemporary Aboriginal art have been organized or hosted by civic museums in the United States. While admirable private collections have been established, most public museums have struggled to understand how contemporary Aboriginal art fits into the story of world art. For museums with an emphasis on social and cultural history, Indigenous Australian art can be considered too aesthetically based and market focused. Conversely, art museums often categorize the work as ethnographic and anthropological.

Moving ahead of museum curators, a small number of American collectors have been especially active in their pursuit of the best contemporary Indigenous Australian art. Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., is significant in that it demonstrates the strength of several American private collections while also including works lent by Australian public institutions and private collections.

Dartmouth College, which has a well-established interest in indigenous Australian culture, welcomes the opportunity to present this exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art. The Hood has long celebrated the role of art in historical and cultural heritage. “For Indigenous peoples, art expresses all aspects of life and identity. Art is a major way of passing on culture to future Indigenous generations,” explained Indigenous rights lawyer Terri Janke.

The contemporary Australian Aboriginal art movement of painting for the general public began around 1971 at Papunya in the Northern Territory and now embraces a network of art-producing communities across the country’s vast expanse. The government subsidy of Aboriginal art centers began in 1973 and has expanded to support a great number of centers across Australia today. A web portal links many of these centers and provides access to information about them and their artists.

All over Australia, Indigenous culture continues to be a cause for celebrating the power of human creativity and imagination despite poverty and adversity. It is, however, a matter of deep concern when people are pleased to own wonderful works of art but fail to associate them with the circumstances of those who made them. Indigenous peoples in Australia will remain in relative poverty until there is a nationwide realization that their situation is simply unacceptable. The challenges for Australian Aboriginal artists in isolated communities include avoiding commercial exploitation; protecting individual and community copyrights and moral rights to their stories, designs, and other intellectual property; and maintaining their culture for succeeding generations. At the same time, these artists are the major and often only nongovernmental source of income for their families.

Huge tracts of land, mostly in remote regions, have been returned to Aboriginal people and carry importance as tribal lands, native country, and home. According to the last Australian census (2001), there are 458,000 Indigenous people, 2.4 percent of the total population. There are 1,216 self-managed Indigenous communities in Australia, and 1,139 of them are located in isolated and very remote regions. Many of the painters represented in Dreaming Their Way live in communities with populations of less than a few hundred people. While the relative isolation of many Aboriginal communities offers a buffer to some outside influences, it also increases the cost of the provision of basic infrastructure and services. This creates a huge governmental challenge to break the cycle of extreme poverty.

Of course, it should not be thought that remote Aboriginal communities live immune from international media and popular culture. There has been a major effort in the past decade to “network Australia” with digital communication services, and Indigenous people are exposed to television, film, and international music culture. The youth in remote communities are more likely to be found playing instruments or listening to contemporary, popular, rap, rock, or techno music than they are to be painting in an arts center.

Women painters from Aboriginal communities have worked hard to win their much-deserved acclaim within the international art market. These women have shown tremendous resilience and courage in the face of challenging circumstances. It has been an honor and a privilege to travel to their communities throughout Australia, to witness their traditions, to speak out publicly on their behalf, and to acquire their works of art for the national art collection in Canberra.

There is a growing awareness in Australia of the political imperative to address the situation of its Indigenous people. The exhibition Dreaming Their Way, with its splendid range of magnificent works by many of the most admired women painters, is as eloquent a proclamation of the importance of land, story, and tradition as its visitors are ever likely to see. It focuses attention on one of the most remarkable art movements of the late twentieth century, one that continues to thrive and to renew itself. May these works provide a source for visual delight, transmission of stories, and recognition of the strength of these women and their culture.

This essay is published in the catalogue for the exhibition Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Painters (Scala 2006).

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