Aboriginal Art Collections in America

Lupulnga, by Makinti Napanangka

I was first introduced to Aboriginal painting in the early 90’s when my friend Colleen Burke returned from the Australian Outback with a cache of gorgeous pieces on bark and canvas. I sat for hours with her paintings and searched constantly for what few books were available in this country (it was, after all, back in the primitive B.I. era—Before Internet). And finding original works from these desert artists that could be seen in person was rare in North America. Scattered small shows happened here and there. I drove down to New York to see one, a group of Aboriginal paintings hanging at the United Nations which was really more of a cultural/anthropological event than an art exhibit. A gallery featuring Aboriginal work sprang up in San Francisco for a period of time and then disappeared. It was the inaccessibility of seeing this work in person that drove me to finally make an art pilgrimage of my own to Alice Springs. That trip was a life changer for me.

Much has changed over the last 20 years. First and foremost is access to the work. This year alone I have seen two major exhibits of Aboriginal works here in the U.S.: Ancestral Modern, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi‘s collection at the Seattle Museum (and written about here), and more recently, Crossing Cultures, the Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Both collections contain extraordinary works and have both been promised to the respective museums. Great paintings from this region live here now.

Second, the work itself has evolved. Aboriginal painting began at a very specific point in time—in the early 1970s. A young art teacher from Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, brought the first acrylics and canvases to Aboriginal communities. The time between those first brushstrokes and a major art phenom was as close to overnight as success can be.

Many of the works in both of these shows are by artists who are second (and even third) generation, following on the path laid by those first pioneering elders 40 years ago. The lineage in the work is evident, but these younger painters are not caught in a derivative loop of tradition and style. The work feels fresh, exploratory and yet still elementally Aboriginal. I connect deeply with the old as well as the new.

For those of you living in the Northeast, the Crossing Cultures exhibit at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum runs through March 10, 2013.

Hood Museum

Political Storm Brewing, by Clinton Nain

Yunala, by Yukultji Napangati

Pukaratjina, by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri

Close up view

Untitled, by Freda Warlapinni

Blue Water Hole, by Rosella Namok

Close up of the signatory dot technique

White Painting, by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (on bark)

Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:

Aboriginal Art, Sacred Land and Becoming Visible

Art and Meaning

Explorations in Landscape and Art

Ancestral Modern

The Brush is the Least of my Weapons

I Feel You

Icons of the Desert

Threading Through Abstraction, Micro and Macro

Spaciality and Language

Barbara Weir: Grass Seed Dreaming

Breast, Bodies, Canvas

From the Dreaming, It Became Real

Contexts: The Museum vs The Gallery

Painting, in the Larger Context




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  1. dee fairchild’s avatar

    oh a feast! thank you, thank you! very glad you’re back from holiday 😉

    1. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

      Thanks so much Dee for you kind words. I never grow tired of looking at these works.

    2. pianotales’s avatar

      To my ear, the very names of the artists add aural art to the visual.

      1. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

        They are mellifluously foreign, I agree!

      2. Maureen’s avatar

        Gorgeous work!

        Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving.

      3. miriam louisa simons’s avatar

        The perfect gift of Thanks-giving – how blessed we are to be able to worship at these altars.
        Thank you D.

      4. Ann E. Michael’s avatar

        Lovely. I have a niece in Hanover…I think I need to visit her before mid-March! :)

        My parents brought back some interesting aboriginal artist acrylic-on-board pieces when they lived in Melbourne for 6 months, but those struck me as more like tourist pieces (animal motifs) and were remarkable mostly for the way the ‘modern’ painting materials were used. These paintings above show a fascinating fusion of ‘abstract’ or contemporary art and a natural synthesis with native approaches…stunning..I love especially the white painting and Napangati’s piece.

      5. paintlater’s avatar

        Nothing compares to our indigenous works. I love the New York school abstractionists but these are another level. There are 2 places that tug my heart-art strings – New York and the Central Desert Northern Territory. Cheers Sue

      6. margaret’s avatar

        “White Painting” spoke to me so loudly that it changed the direction of the textile piece that I’ve been struggling with – thanks for posting it.

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