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ART FROM THE OUTBACK. Paintings from Australia's dwindling aboriginal population are finding their way into American galleries and museums

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Gradually, a handful of collectors began to bring Aboriginal art to the attention of a wider public. Australian financier Robert Holmes `a Court amassed a warehouse-size collection and exhibited the work around the country. The international audience for such Australian films as ``The Last Wave,'' which dealt with Aboriginal rituals, convinced some Australians that the Aboriginal art adds up to a cultural gold mine in their backyard.

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There has been some controversy about whether some of the older Aboriginal paintings should be allowed to leave the country, and there is legislation pending to prevent the sale of cultural artifacts. The Caz Gallery sidestepped the question by importing only works done since 1950.

As the art is more widely seen, a movement begun in 1971 by Australian art teacher Jeffrey Bardon to get the Aborigines to use acrylic paints and canvas is gaining some momentum among the artists. Also Ms. Bennett has mounted something of a personal crusade to get Aboriginal works into the world's museums and galleries before the artists are gone. She and a handful of others comb the continent's Aborigine settlements to learn and record what she can and to buy, and later sell, paintings.

``These are the hottest items in the Australian art world right now,'' says Bennett. ``It has meant a tremendous boost in income for these painters. Some have become wealthy.''

``Wealthy'' for an Aborigine means an annual income between $35,000 and $45,000, and there are only a handful of those.

For a number of reasons - the largest being opportunities for Western education - fewer and fewer young Aborigines are following ancestral traditions, and the artists among them are dwindling drastically. In the Western part of central Australia's Arnhem Land, Bennett has seen the number of artists fall during the last decade from 35 to about seven. ``It's tragic, because we're losing not only the great visual beauty, but all the mythology and religion,'' she says.

Ms. Lopes, an American who lived in Australia for 18 years before she began collecting the paintings, says, ``The elders want this art to be taken abroad so more people can learn about the culture and so the young might be persuaded of its importance. They also look at ```Crocodile'' Dundee' and say, `No, no, that's not it,' because this is their life.''

For many who attended the opening, a question arose: If the art has a religious and cultural significance, doesn't commercialization taint the process?

``All change has effect on art,'' says the museum's Mr. Tuchman, who recently spent two weeks in the outback studying Aborigines and their art. ``Life is change. ... To imagine that you can retain a culture in some paternalistic way, by sequestering it from the ebb and flow of life, is a new paternalism that many people in the late 1900s are prone to.

``But I think the more important tendency is for the more enlightened to understand that something vital is happening - of world consequence. I think the enlightened leaders I saw in the Caucasian world as well as enlightened Aborigines see it in proper perspective.''

Lopes says, ``They don't mind selling the paintings, because it enables them to come out from under the thumb of government assistance. Then they don't have to rely on a stipend which allows them to be pushed around from land to land at the government's whim.''