Hood opens Aboriginal art exhibit ‘Crossing Cultures’
By Ashley Ulrich, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, September 24, 2012
The Hood Museum opened its main exhibit for the year on Friday, titled “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art.” The show features over 100 works by contemporary indigenous artists from around the Australian continent, including bright acrylic works from the western and central deserts, muted ochre-toned paintings from the Tiwi Islands, Warmun and Arnhem Land and politically-oriented photographs from younger, emerging artists living in Australian cities.
“Crossing Cultures” is the third exhibit of Aboriginal Australian art to premier at the Hood since 2006, according to exhibit curator Stephen Gilchrist, a former curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and a visiting professor in the art history department. This exhibition is notable for its diversity and aesthetic sophistication, according to Gilchrist.
“What’s really interesting is the inclusion of urban-based artists that deal predominately with photography,” Gilchrist said. “While there are very important communities living in the deserts and tropics, most Aboriginal people today live in cities.”
Artwork in the exhibition portrays themes of colonization, marginalization and stereotyping of the native experience, which tie together pieces from different regions, according to Gilchrist. Some of the artwork contains more blatant political messages than others, but even the more traditional, geometrically-designed desert landscapes painted in brilliant hues of cadmium red and marigold yellow speak to the fragility of the land, which faces threats from both man-made and natural forces, Gilchrist said.
The works in “Crossing Cultures” come from Will Owen and Harvey Wagner’s private collection, compiled over the last two decades, some of which has already been gifted to the Hood, Owen said. Owen and Wagner’s complete collection numbers over 800 works, all of which will eventually join the Hood’s permanent collection.
Owen and Wagner’s collection represents one of the largest and most important collections of Aboriginal art outside of Australia, according to Hood Director Michael Taylor. This exhibit is important for the way it “challenges a lot of stereotypes,” Taylor said.
“Art can be used to resist dominant cultures, for example, to protect Aboriginal culture and traditions when they are under threat,” Owen said. “The exhibit features beautiful dot paintings as well as really great photography — it’s absolutely spectacular.”
Notable photographs in the exhibition include those by Michael Riley, an Aboriginal artist of Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi heritage, and Christian Thompson, an Aboriginal artist of Bidjara heritage, according to Gilchrist. The works by these artists are similar in their aesthetic beauty, but they also both include pointed political messages.
Riley’s “Untitled,” from the artist’s “Cloud” series, is an inkjet print of a soaring, burgundy boomerang that both monumentalizes the aeronautic competence of Aboriginal design and calls into question the ways in which the symbol has been reappropriated in popular culture, Gilchrist said. It is beautiful and graceful in the way the warm hues of the boomerang contrast against the clarity of the blue sky, but the piece’s political undertones hang suspended with the boomerang for the viewer to reflect on.
Thompson’s “Black Gum #2,” from the artist’s “Australian Graffiti” series, is an enlarged print of the artist wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. In the place of his face, however, there is an assortment of native Australian flowers, a criticism of the way that the term “Australian native” once referred to both the flora and fauna of Australia as well as the indigenous people, according to Gilchrist. The piece is more confrontational than Riley’s “Untitled” for the way in which the figure faces the viewer head-on, similar to looking in a mirror, calling for self-reflection on the viewer’s own assumptions about native identity.
More traditional works in the exhibition include the vibrant golden canvases from Papunya Tula artists, shown together in one of the main gallery rooms, which assume a bird’s eye view of swirling desert sand through tiny dashes of crimson, yellow ochre and pink acrylic paint. These works were done on sizeable canvases and draw the viewer’s eye in and around the surface with a dizzying effect. The whole gallery space glows and shimmers with warm, desert energy, a result of the close attention the artists paid to each brush stroke while simultaneously conceptualizing the way these details would combine on the larger canvases.
Besides depictions of the desert, many native artists in the show document the importance of community and the indigenous people’s connection to the land. Working in abstraction, Elizabeth Nungurrayi, of Pintupi heritage, paints women seated with various tools in her “Parwalla,” a mostly off-white and pink-orange canvas alive with features of desert life and fauna.
In “Pinkalarta,” artist Kalaju Webou of Yulparija heritage depicts the importance of water to the Aboriginal people, remembering how in her youth, the local water table fell and she and her tribe had to march miles to find a new source of water. During the course of the march, her mother died. Also working in abstraction, the artist painted the memory in dots of green, white, blue and pink, coloring shapes of larger columns amid a black landscape. A thin, red snake also interweaves among the columns on the canvas’ far left side.
More political works about colonization and the relationship between Australian natives and non-natives include those by Gija artists like Paddy Bedford, who in “Doowoonan” depicts a thin connection between two people in the shape of a long, black line, according to Gilchrist. The artist’s “Emu Dreaming at Mt. King” depicts a more violent interaction, specifically the poisoning of a number of his extended family by a non-native farmer in 1920. Works by Gija artists and others from the Kimberly region in northwestern Australia are notable for their reliance on ochres, colors literally from the land that the artists then use to depict the land.
“Crossing Cultures” also features works from Arnhem Land such as “Morning Star Poles,” constructed from ochres, feathers, bush string and cotton on wood from Queensland.
Supplementary to the show, the Hood has partnered with the art history, anthropology and art history departments for educational programs related to the exhibit, Owen said. In addition to the gallery opening, which occurred on Friday, the Hood hosted a panel discussion on the politics of indigenous identity and culture in Australia. The Hood also hosted a gallery talk by Owens on Saturday and an artist’s lecture by Thompson will occur on Sept. 25. Thompson also gave a performance on Friday as part of the gallery’s opening reception.
In addition, Howard Morphy, an anthropology professor and director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University, will join Dartmouth this fall as a Montgomery Fellow and will teach a course in the anthropology department that makes extensive use of “Crossing Cultures” in its curriculum.
The gifting of the Owen and Wagner collection to Dartmouth and opening of the “Crossing Cultures” exhibit represents an unmatched opportunity for Americans interested in Aboriginal Australian people to immerse themselves in a range of art and culture, according to Owen.
“[Wagner and I] made a conscious decision right around 2000 that we wanted a collection representative of all the different styles of Aboriginal art making,” Owen said. “Acrylic paintings on canvas, bark paintings, sculpture, contemporary photography — we realized that even at that time, there weren’t that many collections of Aboriginal art in America.”
The Owen and Wagner collection includes “a whole sweep and variety,” collected both at modern art auction spaces in urban Australian areas, as well as on trips to isolated tribal regions by way of private planes, Owen said.
After a 1988 show of Aboriginal Australian art at the Asia Society of New York City struck their interest, Owen and Wagner made their first trip to Australia in 1990. Although they only returned home with one painting, they returned to Australia three years later, this time coming home with six works. The two have visited Australia every two to three years to travel and collect art since then.
“Art proved to be a gateway for us to learn more about the people and culture,” Owen said. “We started buying books and reading all about Australia. Collecting turned into a lifetime passion.”
Owen and Wagner began collecting Aborignal art from Austrialian in the early 1990s, and wanting to “share the knowledge contained in these works with others,” according to the exhibit’s press release, chose to donate their collection to the Hood due to the insitution’s dedication to teaching.
“Crossing Cultures” will run through March 10, at which point the show will travel to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio for exhibition.