“Marking the Infinite”: Exhibition featuring 9 Aboriginal Australian contemporary women artists tours North America

Landmark exhibition highlights the female experience in Australia’s remote indigenous communities.

“Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia” is a major travelling exhibition featuring artists from remote communities across the continent. The exhibition originated at Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University in New Orleans in September 2016, beginning a three-year journey across the United States and Canada.

Wintjiya Napaltjarri, 'Women’s Ceremonies at Watanuma,' 2006. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Wintjiya Napaltjarri, ‘Women’s Ceremonies at Watanuma’, 2006. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

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The historical exhibition features nine Aboriginal women artists, presenting work depicting remote celestial bodies, native plants, local traditions and the ancestral land connected to indigenous history.

The exhibition started at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, which ended on 22 December 2016. It now continues its journey at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, opening on 28 January 2017. The touring schedule includes the following institutions:

  • Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum Florida International University, Miami, Florida [28 January – 7 May, 2017]
  • Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona [23 September 2017 – 21 January 2018]
  • Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada [17 February – 13 May 2018]
  • The Phillips Collection, Washington DC [2 June – 9 September 2018]
  • Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada [1 November 2018 – 24 February 2019]
"Marking the Infinite" installation view at Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

“Marking the Infinite”, installation view at Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

The exhibition features diverse mixed media objects, ranging from bark paintings, paintings on canvas and ceremonial poles to weavings and video. Debra and Dennis Scholl, Miami-based philanthropists, commissioned new works for the exhibition in collaboration with Henry Skerritt, US-based Australian curator and art historian, and William Fox, Director of Center for Art and Environment, with the support of the Australian Embassy.

Dennis Scholl, excited about exhibiting Aboriginal contemporary art, said

I was struck by the relationships of the artists to their ancestral land, each other and to their communities. Having found these artists so personally compelling, I wanted to help bring their work to audiences across North America.

The exhibition showcases the work of nine Aboriginal women artists who are well-respected members of their communities, with the majority from Arnhem Land. The artists featured are:

  • Regina Pilawuk Wilson
  • Angelina Pwerle
  • Carlene West
  • Lena Yarinkura
  • Nonggirrnga Marawili
  • Nyapanyapa Yunupingu
  • Yukultji Napangati
  • Gulumbu Yunupingu
  • Wintjiya Napaltjarri
Yukultji Napangati, 'Women’s Ceremonies at Marrapinti', 2015. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Yukultji Napangati, ‘Women’s Ceremonies at Marrapinti’, 2015. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

The development of Aboriginal art

Howard Morphy, Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University (ANU) who has authored several books on Aboriginal art, notes that Aboriginal art became part of Aboriginal cultural production and commercialisation (PDF download), leading to crafts and paintings being sold in the art market and as tourist art. In the early 1970s, many art centres originated in the Western Desert, which saw the development of contemporary art styles coming from numerous regions, including Papunya, Arnhem Land and Kimberley.

Subsequently, during the 1990s, many Aboriginal artists moved towards Aboriginal contemporary art – works that provided the artists’ own individualistic style and voice while staying connected with local traditions and the land. About this development Henry Skerritt told Art Radar,

For over a century now, Aboriginal artists have been using art to communicate across the frontier to show the persistence and beauty of Aboriginal culture. So what we see in the very best Aboriginal art — such as the nine artists in this exhibition — is this very deliberate attempt to communicate one worldview to another. This doesn’t mean sacrificing their unique identities — quite the opposite — it means finding ways to express these across cultures.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, "Sun Mat" (detail), 2015. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, ‘Sun Mat’ (detail), 2015. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Infinity, time and space

In 1973, artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson and her husband Harold Wilson founded the Peppimenarti Community in the Daly River region, south west of Darwin, for the Ngan’gikurrunggur people. After they both left the mission, a camp was set up at Peppimenarti that teaches young artists and students. Regina Pilawuk Wilson expresses the importance of teaching:

I teach the young girls every Tuesday. It is important I do this before I pass away,
also so the kids know how to do weaving, so they will keep it up. It’s important to keep that strong.

Her work encompasses the traditional weaving practice that she has transformed onto the canvas, print-media and textiles, creating detailed works that reflect the history of her community. Sun Mat by Wilson is a beautiful large scale-painting that interconnects traditional and contemporary weaving techniques, creating a three-dimensional effect. The sun mats refer to the traditional usage of mats as multi-functional tools for carrying items and clothing, before the missionaries arrived in the communities. Wilson explains:

We have to practice our own culture, own our ceremonies, our weaving. […] Weaving is important to us, reminds us the way back (to the ways that) the old people been using.

In Sun Mat, the creation of optical illusion evokes infinity, time and space, allowing the viewer to admire the depth of lines and colours, tracing back to Aboriginal culture and ceremonies.

Angelina Pwerle, "Bush Plum" (detail), 2010. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Angelina Pwerle, ‘Bush Plum’ (detail), 2010. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Meanwhile, Angelina Pwerle, from the Utopia region in Central Australia, focuses on rituals and natives in an abstract style. Bush Plum – Arnwekety highlights her distinctive and delicate style of dot-work and multi-layered surfaces, adding the sense of movement and ephemerality. The striking painting focuses on repetition and depth to create the quality of infinity associated with the metaphysical elements in our outer and inner world.

The role of women

In 2015, Henry Skerritt curated “No Boundaries” at Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, an exhibition that featured work by nine Aboriginal male artists from the remote northwest Australia. This exhibition was organised in conjunction with the existing Debra and Dennis Scholl collection. In contrast to “Marking the Infinite”, the show spanned works from 1995 to 2005 that were from an existing collection which addressed different artistic periods and regions.

With different laws and visual traditions in Arnhern Land, women’s ceremonies and designs differ from those of men. Women’s roles involved taking care of the community, hunting and attending to children. As Jennifer Isaacs explains in her catalogue essay “Spirit Country”, their different roles are often reflected in contemporary paintings, with the females taking the lead in Aboriginal contemporary art.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, 'Djorra' (detail, one of forty-five panels), 2014-15. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, ‘Djorra’ (detail, one of forty-five panels), 2014-15. Image courtesy Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane.

For instance, Yukultji Napangati from Kiwirrkura focuses on lines and optical illusions to paint an aerial landscape, encouraging the viewer to feel and contemplate upon the desert. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s figurative light painting, on the other hand, presents her own artistic style and voice, going beyond traditional styles. In the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, Yunupingu writes

These are not special stories… I am drawing my ideas, my stories from my head.

“Marking the Infinite” draws upon time and space by inviting the viewer to connect with the artists and the country. The works are presented to a global audience, showcasing important artists and community leaders who are using their innovative and individual styles.

Betty Milonas

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This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

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