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There are only a handful of bark art examples from the Dja Dja Wurrung in Australia, and they’re leagues away from their place of origin. A new exhibition of indigenous art of Australia at the British Museum, which holds these artifacts in their collections, will finally bring them back to the South Pacific. However, leaders there want them returned permanently.
Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation opens April 23 in London, the first major British exhibition to focus on indigenous Australia through these artifacts, many which have never been on public display. The British Museum’s release notes it will be a “unique narrative exploring the complex history of Indigenous Australia from Captain Cook’s landing in 1770 up to the present day” and has been “developed in consultation with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, Indigenous art and cultural centres across Australia, and has been organised with the National Museum of Australia.” Many of these objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last month, that “will be the first time that these objects have been exhibited in Australia since they were collected.”
An indigenous Australian painting representing the shimmering scales of the barramundi fish is being transferred on to the 700 sq. m rooftop of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The seven million people who every year ascend the nearby Eiffel Tower will be able to see the work, which is due to be unveiled on 6 June.
The original painting, Dayiwul Lirlmim (barramundi scales), was painted last year by Lena Nyadbi, a Gija woman whose ancestral country extends in a 100km radius from the tiny Western Australian settlement of Warmun.“It’s the first time a museum has commissioned a piece that will not be visible from the museum,” said Stéphane Martin, the president of Musée du Quai Branly, on 29 April, when the project was formally announced at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. “You have to be outside the museum to appreciate it,” he said.
The Paris museum dispatched senior staff to Warmun to work with Nyadbi on selecting a section of Dayiwul Lirlmim to be transferred to the rooftop with the use of digitised stencils.
The Art Newspaper
Two ghost gum trees made famous by the work of Australian Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira have been found burnt.
Officials in the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory say they believe the fire was started deliberately.
The trees had been due to be added to a national heritage register.
Indigenous leaders say that the burning of the trees is a desecration – they are regarded as living spirits in indigenous culture.
Tribal elder Baydon Williams said the loss of such a revered site was “heartbreaking”.
“Those two trees symbolised a lot of sacred areas and songlines and marking of boundaries of different skin groups and different clans,” Mr Williams said.
Seattle Art Museum now boasts one of the country’s largest collections of Australian Aboriginal art—more than 100 vibrant, modern paintings from the world’s oldest living culture. In a way, the artwork comes to the city by accident. In 1985, while on a business trip to Australia, Seattle’s Margaret Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier car; she recovered and was awarded a settlement in 1992, which she and her husband Robert Kaplan—both art lovers—dedicated to acquiring a museum-worthy collection of indigenous paintings.
And let it be said: They have great taste. The Aboriginal artwork covers the walls (literally—these pieces are massive) with a wash of colors that seem to be squeezed from the earth: rich oranges, browns, greens, pinks, and yellows, covering everything from canvas to bark. Though the pieces are modern, created from 1970 to 2009, the artists use a centuries-old language of artistic expression to address contemporary issues. With the same pinpoint-perfect swirls and crosshatches used to paint rock walls or bodies during ceremonies, the artwork reflects recent Aboriginal history across the country, from the central and western deserts up into the Northern Territory. And it’s a complicated past.
I had the great good fortune to receive an advance copy of Howard Morphy’s latest monograph, Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories . This new book is like a river stone, its arguments polished by years of being turned over in the author’s mind, flashing with brilliance; it is an opportunity for extensive and satisfying contemplation and of great utility to students of aesthetics and epistemology, anthropology, art theory and history, and cultural studies… in Becoming Art Morphy looks at ways of integrating Yolngu systems of thought into broader, more world-encompassing (i.e. cross-cultural) perspectives. Readers new to Morphy’s work will be delighted by an erudite but accessible introduction to Morphy’s research. Whereas the earlier works were undoubtedly written for an audience of anthropologists, I believe that Morphy here seeks to reach a broader audience, much as the book itself looks to move the world of the Yolngu into a larger arena.
The nominal focus of the book is Yolngu art, which Morphy has studied for thirty-five years. However, its scope is vast, comprehending in its well-illustrated 200 pages many of the questions raised in the compendious The Anthropology of Art: a reader that Morphy edited and published last year. He asks us to question overly narrow definitions of art, especially what he terms the “exclusionary rules” by which the Western category of “fine art” is determined. In doing so, he charts an understanding of art across cultures that will allow us to better understand the art of the Yolngu.
In order to understand the trajectory of Indigenous Australian art, it is important to consider the kind of thing art is to the producing societies and how that influences the relationships that Indigenous Australians see between artworks and the conclusions that they draw from those relationships. By making Indigenous art discourse part of the data of art history and critically examining the ontological concepts and their relationship to practice, we should become aware of conceptual similarities and differences between different traditions. And in the case of different art traditions that occupy the same temporal space we should be able to better understand how they articulate with one another–in the case of Aboriginal art, how Indigenous artists embrace contemporary Australian art worlds.
Or as he aphoristically sums up a fundamental principle early in the book, “there is a dialectic between common humanity and particular ways of being human. It is the common humanity that creates the possibility of anthropology; it is the diversity of humanity that makes it necessary.”
The apparent paradoxes arise because Western art history creates pigeonholes. It tends to allocate individual works to single art-historical spaces, failing to recognise the fuzzy nature of the boundaries between stylistic categories and the multiplicity of influences on a particular artist’s work. The solution forced by the nature of contemporary Aboriginal art was the recognition both of its plural nature and of the consequences of this plurality for Western art-historical theory.
The current moment provides a good opportunity for a rapprochement between art historical and anthropological approaches to art. The challenge to the old presuppositions of the Western art world, including the anthropological critique of the concept of primitive art, has created art worlds that are far more complex and heterogeneous than their predecessors, less subordinate to the developmental sequences of European-American art…An anthropologically informed art history is needed to provide the historical, art historical, social and cultural information, not only for those artistic traditions where background cannot be taken for granted but, it could be argued, for the Western art tradition as well.