In Australia, Modern
Aboriginal Art is a Hot Commodity
April 24, 2003
By TONY CLIFTON
Australia, April 23 - Australia's Aborigines may have created one
of the world's oldest art forms and have certainly created one of
the newest. Travelers in the remote outback of central and northwestern
Australia can see cave paintings and rock carvings that date back
at least 30,000 years. Then they can drive back to the big coastal
cities and buy paintings by direct descendants of those ancient
artists, who use modern paints and canvases but still refer to symbols
and images that may predate the oldest cave paintings in Europe.
see a very clear connection between rock art and contemporary art,"
said Hettie Perkins, an Aboriginal woman who is the curator of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
in Sydney. "The same communities that made rock art are making
the art we see today."
ago Aboriginal work was hardly recognized as art. Painted tree bark
and ritual stone and wood objects, spears and clubs tended to be
lumped together with stuffed koalas and wallabies in the ethnographic
sections of Australian museums; Aboriginal art was never displayed
in the same spaces as work by white artists. Less than 20 years
ago "you could barely give it away," said Tim Klingender,
director of Sotheby's Aboriginal art department in Sydney. "People
just didn't take art made by Aboriginal painters seriously."
"But at our sales in July," he said, "we'll have
from all over the world bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars
for art you could have bought for hundreds in the 1970's. We're
estimating a total sale value of more than $3 million."
Australian Aboriginal art is religious art or has its origins in
religion. Whether on rocks, in the sand, in clay patterns, on human
bodies, on tree bark or now on canvas, the art is largely about
sacred ancestor figures and their travels, totemic plants and animals
and creation stories dating to a distant past that has become known
as the Dream Time. In a society that has no written language,
this art is part hymn book, part map, part biography and part illustration
in the Western sense.
So an artist
like Kathleen Petyarre, 60, who saw her first white man when she
was 10, will produce a painting that to an outsider looks like an
elegant abstract composition of dots, streaks and broken lines.
She explains: "The lines at the top are where the green pea
grows in the sand ridges. And that patch is a water hole, and this
line is the tracks the thorny devil makes when he goes to visit
his ancestors." (The green pea is her totem plant; the thorny
devil, a small, brightly colored desert lizard, is her totem animal.)
Asked if she made a preparatory drawing, she said: "No, I paint
straight on the canvas. It's all in my head."
portable Aboriginal art made in Australia today dates back only
to 1971, when a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya,
a remote government settlement for nomadic tribal people in the
desert about 160 miles west of the central Australian town of Alice
Springs. Like all Aboriginal tribes, the people of the region had
senior men and women who were artists, charged with creating decorated
stone and wooden objects and painting the bodies of participants
in sacred dances. Mr. Bardon brought them modern acrylics, encouraged
them to paint their ancient stories on portable - and salable -
wooden boards, and set up the first artists' cooperative to produce
and market the results. Canvas painting came soon after.
did not teach anyone how to paint, but he changed the medium and
was a tireless promoter and marketer. His idea that artists should
form cooperatives to make and sell their own art has been copied
by communities across Australia and is the main platform for production
and sale of Aboriginal art today. Aboriginal artists all over Australia
now practice canvas painting, and distinct styles have evolved.
The artworks of the central and western desert, which includes Papunya,
use the modern palette, purples, pinks, fluorescent greens and yellows,
and are often made up of thousands of dots of color. The artists
of Arnhem Land in the tropical, coastal
north make art on bark and canvas, using blacks, yellows and browns
to depict ancestors and totemic animals.
of the Kimberley region in the far northwest literally use earth
colors, black, red, brown and white clays, ochres and sand. These
austere, calm paintings can resemble aerial maps of the desert and
have struck a special chord with collectors and museums. The current
record price for an Aboriginal painting - $490,000 - was paid for
a work by the Kimberley artist Rover Thomas, a former cowboy.
All these schools are to be represented at the Sotheby's sale in
Melbourne in July. The most extraordinary painting offered, estimated
to sell for around $300,000, will be an enormous western desert
painting, "Ngurrara Canvas No. 1." Some 26 feet wide by
23 feet deep, it was painted in 1996 by 19 men and women working
on a canvas spread out in a remote part of the Great Western Desert
in the state of Western Australia. The painting was made to show
Australian government ministers and officials the ancestral lands
and sacred places claimed by a group of tribes from the region.
"This is a historical Australian document," Mr. Klingender,
of Sotheby's, said. "It really should be bought by the government
for the nation, although it would be ironic if they did because
the land claim hasn't been recognized yet."
This is a painting
based on traditional themes, but Aboriginal art is also changing.
Young Aboriginal artists are making photographs, installations and
conceptual art and are depicting modern urban life as well as the
Dream Time. Samantha Hobson, 21, from the Lockhart River settlement
on Queensland's northeast coast, has produced a series called "Bust
'Im Up," about drunken brawling in the small community of about
800 people. Her art is splashed with scarlet smears of what could
be fresh blood, the crimson of clotted blood and tangles of black,
like torn-out hair.
For a picture
in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, she has written
this caption: "Seems like every big night, Thursday, Friday
night, specially at the canteen and parties, man and woman fight."
It is not pretty or mystical. "But it tells you about how some
Aboriginal people have to live today," said Margo Neale, an
Aboriginal woman who is a gallery curator and an editor of the Oxford
Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture.
The one group
of Australian citizens rarely seen in galleries and salesrooms selling
this exciting and expensive art are Aborigines themselves, who are
too poor to buy the products of their own culture. It was not until
1967 that these original inhabitants of Australia were even given
the citizenship of a country they settled as long as 60,000 years
ago. Today the 410,000 people who claim Aboriginal ethnicity have
the lowest average income of any Australians, the lowest life expectancy
and the poorest health. That their art survives at all, let alone
thrives and is admired around the world, may be a true Dream Time