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Can art rooted in 40,000 years of tradition possibly say anything fresh to us today? The 120 works on display at the Toledo Art Museum emphatically show that, yes, it can. Crossing Cultures (April 12—July 14) showcases the Aboriginal works from the art collections of Will Owen and Harvey Wagner, gifted to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in 2011. These works by contemporary artists working with modern media such as film, photography, and acrylic paint, produce statements that stay true in spirit with traditional Aboriginal culture while engaging in contemporary, relevant, and provocative discourse.
To the Western viewer, these works introduce an entirely new way of looking at art. Rather than use traditional Renaissance perspective to capture a likeness of the world, Aboriginal artists work almost entirely in abstraction. The meanings behind these abstract forms vary depending on their context, subject, and place of creation. In his catalogue essay, John Carty explains that concentric circles in Aboriginal art “can… be variously employed to indicate depth (a hole in the ground), time (water drying up around a rock hole), and quantity (a diversity of foods to be found in a single area), among other things.” 1 Abstract patterns that reference different clans decorate Burial poles (tutini) from the Tiwi Islands. Dots on a canvas can refer to ceremonial sand-art or signify a crowd of people. A semi-circle can represent a mountain or a kneeling woman.
Some of these dizzyingly abstract works comprise a visual language rich in spiritual significance only intended for understanding by the initiated. They often depict personal interpretations of sacred Dreamings, the traditional Aboriginal religious narratives that they base their culture. Aboriginal artists deliberately abstracted these sacred narratives so that only a small community of intended viewers would fully understand.
The many acrylic dot-paintings from Yuendumu, each consisting of innumerable painted dots which together form an abstract image, reveal a striking blending of tradition with innovation. These paintings have roots in the Aboriginal practice of ceremonial sand and body art, that positions balls of cotton on the ground or applies them to the bodies of dancers. Shorty Jangala Robertson’s luminous abstract dot-painting, Ngapa Jukurrpa— (Water Dreaming at Puyurru), represents a frame in a sequence of a geo-specific mythical Dreaming narrative. New to the Yuendumu culture as of the early 1980s, acrylic dot paintings demonstrate contemporary Aboriginal art’s ability to respectfully blend traditional content with new media.
The urban-based Boomalli Artist Cooperative, a group of photographers who use their art to counter stereotypes arising from archaic images depicting Aboriginals as primitive and savage, exhibit more emphatically contemporary, confrontational and deeply personal photographic prints. In his self-portrait, Black Gum #2, Christian Thompson sports a black hoodie bursting forth with black gum blossoms, a plant stereotypically associated with Aboriginals, masking the artist’s face. The use of black gum blossoms both references genuine Aboriginal culture while alluding to its stereotype, which, in this instance, literally hides the face beneath. The iconic frontal pose and subsequent two side-poses in the series deliberately suggest a mug shot and address the disproportionately large number of Aboriginals in Australia’s prisons. Photographer Michel Riley similarly confronts stereotypes in Untitled, which shows a boomerang suspended against the sky, confounding the implied motion of the weapon with the disquieting frozen stillness of the boomerang in midair. While the boomerang remains a traditional lethal Aboriginal hunting weapon, it has also become a stereotype and ultimately converted into a child’s toy.
Crossing Cultures has surprising contemporary cultural relevance. For the visually striking and deceptively beautiful triptych, Political Storm Brewing, Clinton Nain tossed bleach on red fabric, deliberately using the corrosive medium to reference the white washed Australian history. The work alludes to the History Wars that pit Australia’s manicured official history against the atrocities that actually occurred.
Crossing Cultures devotes significant attention to the Cultural Genocide of the 20th century, where the Australian government removed Aboriginal children from their homes for raising by non-Aboriginal parents. This practice, lasting well into the 1970s, resulted in what Australians refer to as the Lost Generation. One room continuously loops the televised formal apology Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered to the Aboriginals in 2008 on behalf of the government and the country in general. A damning 1997 report delivered to the Australian parliament, revealed the true extent that governmental policies had so mercilessly abused Aboriginals.
Largely because of its initial visual foreignness to Western art, the show offers a challenging but rewarding experience. The TMA makes the show as viewer-friendly as possible. An illustrated exhibition catalogue explains the visual and historical context of the works on display, while an audio tour offers more information to anyone with a smart phone. (Those without can hear the complete recordings in the final room of the show). The exhibit welcomes children with a free interactive exhibition guide available for young viewers. The last gallery contains several stations where they can create their own dot images using beads on the ground. Those that opt not to purchase the exhibition catalogue can utilize the complimentary exhibition guide, which helps the viewer understand the works on display by relating them to comparable European works in the TMA’s permanent collection.
Crossing Cultures, rich in visual, historical, social, and political content, offers some surprises. First, it shows that a visual culture rooted in 40,000 years of history can speak vividly to a contemporary audience. Second, it reminds us that the issues addressed in Aboriginal Australian art, such as the latent effects of colonialism, competing histories, and the stereotyping of groups we prefer not to understand, also exist, inescapably, so close to home.