Nicolas Rothwell writes about Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic:
Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic breaks new ground by displaying 32 of the most majestic pieces in his collection, and making detailed use of Thomson’s field notes to tease out the meaning and symbolism in the works. It is a kind of portrait of the collector’s own sensibility, but it also builds into a succinct exposition of one core theme in Yolngu art: its role as a channel for ancestral forces to come to light, to show themselves as minytji, the bright designs imprinted in paint on bark.
Throughout his first two years in Arnhem Land, Thomson depended on a single travelling companion, a man who made possible everything he achieved. Rraywala Mildjingi, from the Welingarr clan, negotiated safe passage for Thomson everywhere he went, across hostile country at a time of looming tension. Rraywala went on to become the only enlisted soldier in the reconnaissance unit and, in peacetime, a fervent campaigner for Aboriginal rights.
On his death, after rich, eventful decades passed in remote settlements, Rraywala was buried in an unmarked grave in Darwin’s Marrara cemetery. Last month, at a ceremony crowded by Norforce soldiers, dignitaries and anthropologists, a headstone with his name was raised. It symbolises a new determination in the north to write indigenous heroes into their rightful place in the recent past.
On the stone is a quote from Thomson, paying tribute to his friend: “We lived, travelled and hunted together, attended many ceremonies, and finally he adopted me as his elder brother.” Those words say everything about the joint enterprise of anthropology and collecting in Arnhem Land in the days, so fresh in memory, when a world of art was waiting for Western eyes and beauty walked the world.
Ancestral Power and the Aesthetic: Arnhem Land Paintings and Objects from the Donald Thomson Collection is at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, until August 23.
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