The exhibition features works by nine leading Aboriginal Australian women artists and runs until 9 September 2018.
Art Radar looks at the show, which has been curated from the collection of Miami-based collectors and philanthropists Debra and Dennis Scholl.
“Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia” celebrates Australian Aboriginal culture, and includes 68 works drawn from the collection of Miami-based collectors and philanthropists Debra and Dennis Scholl, with many key works commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Organised by the Nevada Museum of Art, the exhibition is curated by Henry Skerritt, Curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, with works from the Scholl’s collection.
The exhibition features works by nine leading Aboriginal Australian women artists: Nonggirrnga Marawili, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Yukultji Napangati, Angelina Pwerle, Lena Yarinkura, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Carlene West and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.
The subjects of their art are diverse, yet each work is an attempt to grapple with fundamental questions of existence, asking us to slow down and pay attention to the natural world. These are marks made upon an “ancient endless infinity”, revealing humanity’s insignificance against the steady movement of time and the cosmos.
Aboriginal art is based on ancient stories and symbols centred on ‘the Dreamtime’ – the period in which Indigenous people believe the world was created. The Dreamtime stories are testimonies of 40,000 years of culture and history and have been handed down through the generations for all those years. Australian Aboriginal people have no written language of their own, and so these important stories are based on the traditional icons and information in the paintings, which help to pass on vital information and preserve their culture.
Contemporary Aboriginal art is considered to have started at the desert community of Papunya in the early 1970s, when senior tribal chiefs began to paint their cultural stories using modern materials. Other communities soon joined, and contemporary Aboriginal art is now a market-proven phenomenon – initially championed by men. Now, women artists have electrified the art scene through their dynamic artistry. The works of these nine leading female Aboriginal artists show their life’s journey of upholding the history of their people, while expanding upon their culture through art.
Of staging the show, Dorothy Kosinski, Director of the Phillips Collection, commented:
We are honored to champion Australian Aboriginal art in Washington, DC and to take part in celebrating the historic culture rooted in this exhibition … Duncan Phillips was known for being of an international mind. The sense of community and universal language deep within the symbolic nature of Aboriginal art would have resonated with his artistic passions.
Reflecting on the global position of Aboriginal art, Klaus Ottmann, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs at the Phillips, also stated:
The Phillips Collection has always been at the forefront of modern and contemporary art which is, in the 21st century, most decidedly a global phenomenon. Aboriginal art is a part of that evolution and we are proud to feature nine artists that are pushing the boundaries of their history to take part in this conversation.
In Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, the art market not only acts as the hub of the community but serves as a means for survival. Art production is self-regulated, and commercialisation is controlled by the community leaders.
Women artists redrew the boundaries of Aboriginal art and continue to be among its most daring innovators. Though cultural activity has always been central to the secular and sacred lives of women, art making in recent decades has offered a key means for women to also maintain their social and economic independence.
The nine artists in this exhibition offer a glimpse into the diverse contemporary art practice of Aboriginal Australia. Hailing from remote areas across the island continent, they are revered matriarchs, commanding leadership roles and using art to empower their respective communities. The works are steeped in ancient cultural traditions, specific to each artist, and yet speak to universal contemporary themes, revealing the continued relevance of indigenous knowledge in the 21st century.
The subjects of the works range from remote celestial bodies and the native bush plum’s tiny flowers to venerable craft traditions and women’s ceremonies. Accordingly, each work grapples with the most fundamental questions of existence. Every mark bears testament to natural and cosmological cycles that put one’s being into perspective, whether the ebb and flow of sacred waters and ancestral sands, or the simple passage of a brush against canvas. These artists make marks upon the infinite, asserting both our shared humanity and differences in experiencing and valuing the same planet.
Below, Art Radar highlights several of the works in the show.
Angelina Pwerle lives at Camel Camp, a small outstation in the Utopia region of Australia’s eastern desert. Outstations are remote communities of one or two small buildings that arose in the 1970s as Aboriginal people began leaving government settlements and missions to establish communities on traditional lands. Like many of her peers, her artistic career began with the establishment of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group in 1977. A decade later, she participated in the landmark exhibition “A Summer Project”, which brought the art of the Utopia region to national attention.
Pwerle’s paintings deal with many themes, the best known being the bush plum (arnwekety). The plant’s seasonal colours dominate the ground flora of Ahalpere country, and women collect its small berries which may be eaten fresh, dried or mixed into paste. The bush plum is an Altyerr (Dreaming) story that Pwerle inherited from her father. Its story is crucial to local women’s ceremonies and intricately intertwined with the songlines of the whole country.
Closely associated with the sacredness of Ahalpere country, the narrative speaks not only of physical nourishment but also spiritual sustenance. Pwerle depicts the bush plum as a shimmering constellation of dots, creating grand tapestry-like canvases that suggest the profound connection between the individual and the universal. She explains:
This painting is about my father’s country and about arnwekety [bush plum]. The flowers are there, the little bush plum flowers. That bush plum is my father’s Dreaming. That bush plum comes from Ahalpere country. It has little white flowers, then after that there is the fruit. If it doesn’t rain, the plants are dry; if it rains there is an abundance of bush plums. The flower is small when they have just come out . . . well, after that the fruit comes. The fruits are really nice when they are ripe.
Larrakitj poles, like the one above by Nonggirrnga Marawili, were once created by the Yolngu (indigenous peoples from the northeastern Arnhem Land region) to house the bones of their dead. For these traditional burial poles, only the most perfectly symmetrical hollow trunk of eucalyptus trees were used. Once stripped of bark, the surface would be decorated with detailed paintings intended to guide the deceased to their spiritual home. Larrakitj still play an important role in Yolngu mortuary rites and memorial practices, but no longer function as receptacles for human remains.
In the 1980s, artists began making Larrakitj for the art market, departing from the strict conventions of ceremonial design. They became less concerned with symmetry and, in the 2000s, began exploring the surface features of the trunk, utilising imperfections as integral parts of its expressive form.
Nonggirrnga Marawili’s early works primarily represented the motifs of her husband’s clan, the Djapu. Recently, however, she has focused on the designs of her own Madarrpa clan. Her patterns echo sacred Madarrpa iconography, but she renders them in expressionistic, personal ways out of respect for the prohibitions of Yolngu Law, according to which only certain people can hold a proprietary claim to paint these designs. She explains:
This Yirritja painting I’m doing is coming from the heart and mind, but it’s not the sacred Madarrpa painting. It’s just an ordinary fire, not the Madarrpa fire: tongues of fire, fire burning backwards. This is just my thinking. No one told me to do this pattern. I did this on my own. When the elders see it they will let me know what they think.
Marawili’s works often reference the four key elements of Madarrpa Law: lightning, fire, water and rock. While Marawili alludes to the visual conventions of ceremonial painting, she ultimately represents her own interpretations. In doing so, the artist demonstrates the deep connection that Yolngu ancestral forces have to their lands as well as to their identity. The Yolngu word “Yurr’yun” refers to the water marks produced by a powerful wave crushing against a rock, from splashes to droplets to mist.
Wintjiya Napaltjarri was born around 1930 in Malparingya, in the Northern Territories of Australia, and witnessed the birth of the contemproary Aboriginal art movement with the establishment of the Papunya Tula Artists company, the first Aboriginal-owned artist company, founded in 1972, and belongs to one of the first generations of women to paint for the company. Born in the Western Desert, she lived nomadically with her family until the 1950s, when she joined the migration Western Desert peoples to the Lutheran mission at Haasts Bluff.
Watanuma, located northwest of the Kintore Walungurru settlement in the Northern Territory, is associated with the Minyma Kutjarra (Two Women) creation story. This story follows two sisters whose travels shaped the distinctive landscape of the region. Napaltjarri’s painting does not imitate or illustrate topographical features or narrative events but instead uses symbols that allude to the Two Women tale. The ancestral women are indicated by U shapes, while floating comb shapes represent their nyimparra (hair-string skirts). The circles may indicate rock hole formations or the plump fruits of the bush tomato (Solanum chippendalei) that the women gathered on their journeys.
The Phillips Collection has also invited one of the nine artists, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, to travel to the United States and paint a mural in the museum’s courtyard. Wilson, along with her husband Harold, established the Aboriginal community of Peppimenarti. A gifted fibre artist, Wilson began painting in 2002 after attending a workshop in Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. Her large-scale works immediately received acclaim at such prestigious events as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. As she continued her education she became an expert in painting with the goal of continuing her people’s traditions in innovative ways.
The exhibition has been staged from the collection of Debra and Dennis Scholl, who have dedicated many of their recent years to Australian Aboriginal art, its communities and lifestyle. The Scholl’s have progressed from supporting the history of Aboriginal art to commissioning new works of larger scales than had previously been attempted, including the work by Regina Plawuk Wilson for this show. In 2017, they announced they would donate part of their collections to three museums, Miami’s Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, the Nevada Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia” will be on view from 2 June through 9 September 2018 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA
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