Primordial, mysterious, obscure: These words perhaps describe the most common Western view of the culture of the Australian Aboriginal people, the oldest continuous cultural tradition on earth, dating back at least 50,000 years.
For the thousands of years of its existence, Aboriginal art has largely consisted of tribal practices involving sand, rock, and body painting. Even the name Aboriginal (Latin for "from the beginning") reflects the close relationship of the 400,000 remaining indigenous Australians to their homeland and a way of life that was forever disrupted by the arrival of the British in the 18th century.
Traditional Aboriginal artworks, at the mercy of the elements, left little permanent cultural record. They also represented only half of Aboriginal society, as this art was created almost exclusively by men.
But to the surprise of the international art world, Aboriginal women artists recently have been creating paintings that marry traditional symbols with contemporary methods, resulting in compositions that have brought wide critical acclaim.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington has assembled the paintings of 33 of these female Aboriginal artists in the first exhibition of their work in the United States (through Sept. 24).
"Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters" features mostly acrylic paintings on canvas. Often bracingly modern in feel, many of these canvases rival Jackson Pollock's works for boldness of composition and Bridget Riley's for visual intensity.
Other works from regions across Australia, including more traditional bark paintings, are included in the show.
The focus of "Dreaming Their Way" and the subject of most Aboriginal artistic endeavors is the attempt to capture, map, amplify, and express "The Dreaming," a vast cultural-religious concept central to Aboriginal life but often difficult for the Western mind to grasp.
Fundamentally, "The Dreaming" consists of stories and beliefs about the time when the land of Australia was formed and humans were created.
In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a nonindigenous Australian, encouraged a group of male Aboriginal artists to experiment with acrylic paint in an effort to bring permanence to their art. The new methods took hold, and the birth of a new artistic movement was born.
About 10 years later, Aboriginal women painters began to take up these new materials and become modern artists in their own right. Previously, their role – at best – had been occasionally to fill in the backgrounds of art created by men.
The talent of the women painters quickly became evident, even though many were well past what is normally considered the ideal age to launch a new phase of an artistic career. Artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who started painting in her late 70s, soon came to the fore and gained wide praise.
"Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming)," 1995, by Kngwarreye has an arresting abstract-contemporary quality even as it depicts "Dreaming" associations to do with a basic Aboriginal food – the wild yam.
These artistic developments were continued in a different style by Pansy Napangati, who created "Kungka Kutjarra (Two Women at Kampurarrpa)," 1991. It is a symbolic rendering of a specific geographic locale of significance in "The Dreaming."
The concentric circles in the center of the picture indicate the location where the two women (Aboriginal ancestors) rested as they were creating the land and life forms of the area. String made of hair – a familiar Aboriginal art material – outlines the circles. The U shapes indicate the actual resting places of the women. In an almost pointillistic effect, the dots – scattered over the background of the painting – actually depict bush raisins (kampurarrpa), an edible berry.
"What distinguishes Aboriginal art ... is its basis in ancient tradition and the artist's relation to the land," says Britta Konau, curator of the exhibit. Most Aboriginal art is, literally, down to earth: The paintings are done with the canvas on the ground and the artist moving around – and sometimes even on – the painting.
Aborigines have long felt their culture might be lost as the result of the encroachment of the modern world, but these paintings represent the real possibility that their culture will survive. As Aboriginal artist Kathleen Petyarre observed, "You're holding onto your country by doing that painting."
Startling, vibrant, original. Perhaps these words better convey the state of Aboriginal art as we outside Australia are beginning to understand it.