The Museum Ludwig in Cologne has opened a significant exhibition of Australian art in a series which has included important Western artists such as Gerhard Richter in 2008 and Christopher Wool in 2009.

Here is the curatorial take on this pioneering show, Remembering Forward:
It is far more than living memory: it is a sensory, non-linear intertwining of past and future, of cause and effect, that distinguishes Australian Aboriginal painting. In Europe these unusual artworks are still largely unknown. The Museum Ludwig will devote attention to them in a large exhibition of approximately fifty paintings by nine outstanding artists of the past five decades.
Despite their origins in remote regions of Australia, these works are central contributions to contemporary art, and expand our understanding of painting. By including a selection of artists from various regions “ the Western and Central Desert, the Kimberley and Arnhemland “ the exhibition also acknowledges the diversity of Australia’s different Indigenous cultures.

This exhibition places particular emphasis on the artists behind the works, whose individual styles and developments become clear. Their works are not understood as expressions of their cultural backgrounds; rather, they are the artistic presentation of the interpenetration of tradition and modernity. The artists have all chosen to paint stories based on their Dreamings, from the oral tradition of the time of creation. These creation myths describe how the ancestors formed the land; but at the same time they reach into the future. The artworks must thus be understood as a highly current involvement with this system of beliefs, not as the reprocessing of a cultural history. Together with modern materials such as acrylic paints and canvas, this has led to highly innovative visual representations and new developments of content as well.

The selection of artists makes it possible to experience the diversity of painters’ experimentation through several examples. Artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Dorothy Napangardi increasingly departed from the depiction of specific narratives and arrived at pictorial programs that can be described as abstract, though they have not given up their relationships and references to the land. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri pursued a different path in their earlier works, in which numerous different stories connected to a specific place are combined into a single image. This combination of multiple Dreamings was not a part of traditional sand painting. Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, in contrast, varied one story many times: the straightening of spears. Thus he compresses numerous aspects into one complex visual metaphor: the story’s telling, the passing of time, the land, and conflicts over land rights. Artists from the Kimberley such as Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie and Paddy Bedford have combined the mythological content of their images with historical events associated with colonisation. Some of the horrors brought on by the European settlement of Australia, such as massacres of the Indigenous population, become tangible in paintings.

Two collections of bark paintings not only add this fascinating medium, but also provide a historical context for an exhibition of Indigenous Australian art in a Western art museum.

The collection of bark paintings from Arnhemland assembled by artist and curator Tony Tuckson with patron Dr Stuart Scougall dates from the period around 1960. Their exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, initiated the debate on the appropriateness of exhibiting Indigenous art in art museums. Today, Remembering Forward is still located within the context of this debate, the title perfectly illustrated by Paddy Bedford’s ability to sink personal episodes such as the Bedford Downs Massacre into the bigger picture of The Dreaming as he painted it. The NSW barks are complemented by others collected by Karel Kupka almost simultaneously for the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. Altogether, fourteen bark paintings by eleven (in some cases unknown) artists will be shown.
The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue in which curator Kasper Konig relates his policy for this show back to the 1994 Art Cologne dispute when Aboriginal art was banned for being located outside the bounds of international contemporary art – ie it was merely ‘folk’ art. This justifies his emphasis on individual artists : Paddy Bedford, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Queenie McKenzie, Dorothy Napangardi, Rover Thomas, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula “ most of whom might be said to be pioneers of a painting style rather than followers using a homogeneous style encouraged by a community art centre.

Their authority to paint, Konig points out, may be derived from ancient initiation rituals. But their paintings speak about the reality of the artists’ lives. And the quality of the art resolves all doubts.

Oddly, Konig has then invited a disparate range of writers to illuminate his exhibition. Two “ Djon Mundine and Richard Bell “ simply undermine his case. Fortunately Ian McLean defends the quintessential authenticity of remote contemporary art in the face of Bell’s tired old thesis about ‘ooga boogas’ producing only tourist art, while he carries the ‘Proppa Dreaming’! But Judith Ryan from the NGV really goes to town in her ‘aesthetic manifesto’ “ basically saying, Just shut up and look at it! And Fred Myers offers a remarkable analysis of the value of their paintings to the original Pintupi artists “ how their country, their turlku (or story) may have been priceless, but could be validly exchanged for a Toyota, which had sacred equivalence under the right circumstances!

I trust a more sensible range of participants will be involved in the symposium on Exhibiting Aboriginal Art which will be held 18 “ 19 February 2011

The catalogue is published by Paul Holberton Publishing @39,90 Euro (£ 30.00)
ISBN: 978 1 907372 14 8