Aboriginal Prints Portray Sacred Stories

`New Tracks - Old Land,' an exhibition of works by native Australians, depicts their tradition-rich culture - from religion to folklore to dreams

TRADITIONAL Australian Aboriginal art is usually thought of in terms of bark painting, rock art, sculpture, weaving, and ceremonial tools.

In recent times, however, printmaking has become a contemporary means of expression for native Australians, largely because of increased access to arts education and facilities.

``New Tracks - Old Land'' is an exhibition currently at the Portland Art Museum (Portland, Ore.) that showcases 80 contemporary limited-edition prints by 30 Australian Aboriginal artists.

Lithographs, linocuts, etchings, screenprints, and woodblock prints depict various aspects of Aboriginal culture - from contemporary life, religion, and political concerns to nature, folklore, and ``dreamtime'' tales handed down from generation to generation.

The featured artists range from jet-setting Aborigines who, for example, travel to Paris to exhibit and teach or give lectures at universities, to those who currently live on Aboriginal homeland and are directly connected to their culture.

The prints in ``New Tracks - Old Land'' are striking in their patterns and depictions. Some are black-and-white while others employ brilliant color.

The exhibit, organized by the Aboriginal Arts Management Association in Sydney and the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, is considered the largest show of prints by native Australians ever shown in the United States.

For the viewer, the art serves as a window into traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture: Stories of creation, sacred places, land-rights struggles, visits to metropolitan cities.

The exhibit is significant for several reasons, explains Jeffrey Keough, director of exhibitions at Massachusetts College of Art and one of the organizers of the exhibit. First, it serves to continue the celebration of the ``International Year of Indigenous People'' (1993), and second, it gives pause to the social and political struggles common to many indigenous groups.

The quality of the work itself is also significant, Mr. Keough says. ``There's a real kind of spirituality to the content.''

He remembers asking one Aboriginal artist to explain a particular piece of work, and the artist politely refused.

``It was sacred. He would be betraying his heritage,'' Keough explains. The attitude was ``I can depict it, but I can't talk about it.... You'll just have to imagine.''

This summer, in an effort to show relationships between indigenous people, The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., will host ``New Tracks - Old Land'' alongside a collection of contemporary prints by American-Indian artists.

``There is a tremendous effort to connect the works of native peoples, which is why it's coming to Santa Fe,'' says Gary Hood, curator of exhibits for IAIA.

Mr. Hood notes that works by native peoples have several common denominators, including a ``high spirituality in content'' and an emphasis on cultural and environmental concerns.

* `New Tracks - Old Land' continues at the Portland Art Museum through March 20; it will be shown at the Seafirst Gallery in Seattle from April 28 through June 17; and The Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., July 1 through Sept. 25.

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