Ways to Picture the World


Angelina Pwerle, Bush Plum, 2005. Pwerle is one of the artists featured in the exhibit, “Marking the Infinite.” (Photo: Bett Gallery)

Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia, is an exhibit that is making its tour of the U.S. before finishing up at the Phillips Collection in DC in June, 2018. The catalog for this show is one of the spectacular new publications covering aboriginal art that have appeared recently. These include Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art, No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting, and Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia.

I was introduced to aboriginal art 25 years ago thanks to a visionary friend, Colleen Burke. She came back from an extended visit to the outback of Australia with paintings that altered the course of my own art making. The connection I felt with these works was immediate.

That was in the early 1990s, and it was hard to find much of this work to see in person. I made the journey to Australia so I could expose myself to as many of these paintings as possible. All that has changed now thanks to a number of noteworthy American collectors who have been sharing their largesse—the Kaplan and Levi Collection in Seattle, the Owen and Wagner Collection at Dartmouth, the Kluge-Ruhe Collection at the University of Virginia, and the Scholl collection that is the foundation for Marking the Infinite, inter alia.

Along with the availability of actual aboriginal paintings and artifacts, a more informed understanding of what this work is about has emerged. Once viewed primarily through an anthropological lens as artifacts far afield from the western canon, this work now has thoughtful and insightful art historians who are shifting that understanding. Stephen Gilchrist, guest curator for the Fogg Museum exhibit, Everywhen, is a good example of this more enlightened approach. He understands that these works are full of meaning for aboriginal people in particular and for the rest of us as well.

Another insightful voice is Henry Skerritt, Curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection. His essays have been included in most of the new publications, and he is the editor for the catalog of Marking the Infinite.

From his essay in that catalog:

This is an exhibition about the intimate and the infinite: about the tiniest fruits of the earth and the stars above; about a single stitch, and the great web of creation; about the simple passage of a brush across canvas, and the unfolding eternity of being…it is the most human of urges to look to the heavens and contemplate our place in the universe, to try to find a connection between our earthly selves and the boundless expanse of the stars. Each work in this exhibition is an attempt to bridge this divide: to provide an intimate encounter with an “ancient endless infinity.”

If this sounds a little mystical, I would like to suggest that on the contrary, it is both profoundly human and insistently contemporary. The world in which we live is more connected than ever before…it is no surprise that “webs” and “nets” have become such fertile tropes for contemporary artists…for these are the operative metaphors of our age.

Skerritt goes on to make the case that given the challenges to the sustainability of human life, there has never been a more urgent call for artists to imagine new “world-pictures:” “Ones that imagine our shared predicament as the diverse occupants of the same planet. To meet the needs of our present, such world-pictures must necessarily be both local and global; they must be planetary in scope but human in scale; they must balance the big with the small.”

There’s plenty more of this provocative wisdom in Skerritt’s essay. It is deeply inspiring for anyone who, like me, lives in an intersectional commingling of visual language, creative expression, transcendence, spirituality, connectivity, planetary consciousness, political evolution. Visions for how these disparate forces can come together—of how a new way of seeing and being can be crafted—feel essential to me right now.