In 1970 an Australian art teacher in the government settlement of Papunya introduced the modern materials of acrylic paint and canvas to a group of middle-aged aborigine men. For the first time, the dwindling inheritors of a complex but rapidly disappearing 40,000-year-old culture were encouraged to make visual records of the ''Dreamtime,'' the aboriginal concept of creation. A remarkable series of paintings was produced. Eleven of them are on view at the Van Buren/Brazelton/Cutting Gallery in Cambridge, and they are worth a look.
Art has been an integral part of aboriginal traditions for at least 10,000 years. Until the recent introduction of contemporary media, however, ground paintings - executed over large areas of sand and using crushed ochers, charcoal , down, and feathers - formed the crux of sacred religious rituals. Embellished by body painting and incised stone objects and complemented by extensive song cycles, these served as mnemonics for the stories that make up aborigine lore and law.
The white settlers' often ruthless dismissal of aboriginal culture and the inaccessibility of this art have kept it virtually hidden from the ''outside'' world. The contemporary paintings, first seen in the United States in 1980, appear to the Western eye as abstract pointillist designs of circles, arcs, dashes, and sinuous lines, in earthy tones and occasional pinks and blues. Each is a symbolic depiction of a mythological story. Although the gallery has provided helpful educational panels, the paintings' profound meanings remain elusive. Often, because of the sacred nature of the material, the artist feels unable to reveal his intent. Despite this enigma, a vision of a unified and unique world view emerges, allowing us to touch a radically unfamiliar way of life. Through July 28.