Shimmering country: Aboriginal Australian artists at The Met in New York

The exhibition of six monumental works from contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists represents a commitment to diversity from The Met.

Art Radar takes a look at the exhibition on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in New York City, featuring works from the Kaplan-Levi Gift.

Doreen Reid Nakamarra, 'Marrapinti', 2008, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 153 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Doreen Reid Nakamarra, ‘Marrapinti’, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 153 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Taking cue from the natural elements of the earth, “On Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi Gift” runs until 17 December 2017 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, bringing together six large-scale paintings from five of the best-known Australian Aboriginal artists today. The exhibition features artists best known for depicting the landscape of the Australian territory, including Doreen Reid Nakamarra (b. 1955, Warburton, d. 2009, Adelaide), Dorothy Napangardi (b. 1950, Yuendumu, d. 2013, Norther Terrority), Kathleen Petyarre (b. 1940, Utopia), Abie Loy Kemarre (b. 1972, Utopia) and Gunybi Ganambarr (b. 1973, Yirrkala).

Kathleen Petyarre, 'Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sand-Hill Country (after Hailstorm)', 2000, acrylic on canvas, 182 × 182 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kathleen Petyarre, ‘Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sand-Hill Country (after Hailstorm)’, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 182 × 182 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Using works that were part of a 2016 gift to The Met, the exhibition explores the relationship that each of the artists share with the Australian territory, and their ability to depict the evocative qualities of the various elements and natural scenery on canvas. One of the main aspects that the exhibition explores is the ability of the artists to capture shimmer. Touted as a highly valued visual effect in Australian Aboriginal art, each of the featured artists have become known for being highly skilled in creating paintings that depict this trait, and have been named some of the most prominent artists of their generation.

Dorothy Napangardi, 'Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa', 2002, acrylic on canvas, 168 × 244 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dorothy Napangardi, ‘Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa’, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 168 × 244 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dorothy Napangardi’s Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa (2002) abstracts the form of the land into a multitude of dots and lines that spread out across the canvas. Deeply connected to the culture and land of Australia, Napangardi incorporates the traditions of the Warlpiri, the tribe from which Napangardi hails from. Napangardi takes reference from the journey of the Warlpiri women as they travel east from the sacred site of Mina Mina. Along the course of their journey, the Warlpiri women played a role in creating the topology of the land, carving out the landscape through the use of kurlangu (digging sticks) that rose out of the ground. Napangardi’s painting reveals her own intimacy with the historical narratives of her tribe; at the same time, it reinterprets the very physicality of the land and evokes the people who have shaped it.

Regarded as one of the leading painters of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, Napangardi’s works have been featured in exhibitions in Australia, the United States and Europe. With a practice that revolved around the topology of the land and the ancestral trails of the Warlpiri tribe, Napangardi had won several awards during her lifetime, including the 8th National Aboriginal Award, as well as the 18th Telstra NATSIA Art Award.

Kathleen Petyarre, 'Sandhills in Atnangkere Country', 1999, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kathleen Petyarre, ‘Sandhills in Atnangkere Country’, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On show are also two works by Kathleen Petyarre, Sandhills in Atnangkere Country (1999) and Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sandhill Country (after Hailstorm) (2000). Executed in a beautiful reddish-brown, Sandhills in Atnangkere Country also utilises multiple dots to create a dreamlike effect. Not unlike Napangardi, Petyarre also uses her works as a means to visualise the way that the Australian landscape looks from an aerial perspective. Expanding throughout the canvas, Petyarre’s dots trace the outline of the landscape whilst also conveying the trails of the inhabitants that lived and drifted through the land. Born in Atnangker, to the northwest of Utopia, Petyarre began making art with other women at Utopia, eventually creating her signature technique of layering thousands of fine dots across large canvases. At present, Petyarre’s works are also in multiple state collections in Australia.

Gunybi Ganambarr, 'Buyku', 2011, ochre on incised laminate board, 181 × 91 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gunybi Ganambarr, ‘Buyku’, 2011, ochre on incised laminate board, 181 × 91 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artist Gunybi Ganambarr, however, deviates from Napangardi and Petyarre. Ganambarr’s work, Buyku (2011), is a large painting made out of ochre on incised laminate board. Her usage of industrial laminate board gives a twist to the traditional technique of Arnhem Land bark painting, which involves painting on the interior of a strip of tree bark. Ganambarr’s incorporation of industrial material seeks to spark conversation about the fading of Aboriginal land rights in the face of mining industries in Australia. A dizzying, complex work composed of triangles, Buyku’s form and structure refer to the sacred waters of Gängan, a land in which Ganambarr claims ancestry. Forming a structure of interlocking diamonds, the repeated shape refers to an expression of ancestral power revealed through a flash of light, or in the encounter between fresh and salt water.

Abie Loy Kemarre, 'Bush Hen Dreaming- Bush Leaves', 2003, acrylic on canvas, 182 x 182 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Abie Loy Kemarre, ‘Bush Hen Dreaming- Bush Leaves’, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 182 x 182 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Also on show is Abie Loy Kemarre, incidentally the granddaughter of Kathleen Petyarre. Her work on show is entitled Bush Hen Dreaming (2003), and stretches across a large canvas, forming a geometric pattern in it. The work finds inspiration from a sacred song and dance ceremony, typically carried out by women by a dry water hole, which recounts the journey of a bush hen searching for leaves and seeds. Kemarre’s work builds a motif out of the leaf, repeating the image of the leaf over and over again through the canvas. From afar, Kemarre’s work shows a geometric shape cutting through the painting, almost as though becoming a formal work. However, when viewed closely, Kemarre’s motif of the leaf appears, revealing a connection to the bush and the close relationship to nature that the society has. The work displays an intense focus on the motif of the leaf itself, also adding another perspective on how the land is seen through the eyes of the Aboriginal artist.

Abie Loy Kemarre’s works have been collected by several prominent institutions and collections, including National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, the Kelton Foundation, Levi-Kaplan Collection, Kerry Stokes Collection, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission Collection and Festival of Arts Foundation Collection. Kemarre stems from a lineage of prominent Utopia artists, including Emily Kngwarreye and Glorria Petyarre, amongst others.

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Created as an attempt to signal their commitment towards representing diverse cultures, “On Countrylooks at some of the most prominent Aboriginal Australian artists today, bringing their works on show at The Met Fifth Avenue. A dazzling compendium of six works, the exhibition represents an interesting and intimate cross-section of Aboriginal Australian art today.

Junni Chen

1842

“On Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Gift” is on view from 11 August to 17 December 2017 in Gallery 918 at The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028.

Related topics: Australian artistsmuseum showspainting, promoting art, identity art, events in New York
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