The Aboriginal people of Australia are that country’s most impoverished group. They have an average household income 40 percent lower than the rest of Australia’s residents, according to the Australian government’s social justice commission. They have an unemployment rate three times as high. They are half as likely to enter the 12th grade.
From their tiny communities, most of them in remote areas of the wilderness, the Aboriginal people have also become the creators of one of the major movements in contemporary art. This fall, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College has brought their work to New Hampshire with “Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters,” a collection of 56 works by 33 female artists.
“They are living in government-provided bungalows, and one shop, and a school, and a church if it’s a mission station. But there’s an art center,” said Brian Kennedy, a former director of the National Gallery of Australia who is now the director of the Hood Museum.
The exhibit was originally organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The Hood Museum is the only other American museum to show it, something Kennedy found disappointing but not surprising.
“In terms of the curatorial ranks of American museums, I think there’s a tendency to regard this painting as traditional over contemporary,” he said. Art museums see the work as too ethnic, he said, and history and anthropological museums see it as too artistic.
In fact, the movement is both rooted in history and innovative. Painting has long been a part of the 50,000-year-old culture, a way for Aboriginal people to record the creation stories that shape their society – not only how animals and customs came to be, but how they are and how they will be. In English, the stories are referred to as “the dreamings,” although Kennedy said the words for them in Aboriginal languages translate more closely to “the Law.” It is said that no indigenous person has ever died of thirst in Australia’s harsh deserts, because they know from the dreamings where all the water holes are.
It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that people began recording the dreamings on canvas.
“They’ve been painting for aeons this type of painting, but it’s been on the body, on sand, on rocks,” said Sharon Reed, the museum’s public relations coordinator.
The work and life of Emily Kame Kngwarreye are illustrative of the changes Aboriginal art has undergone in the past three decades. One of the show’s most well-known artists, Kngwarreye, who lived in a remote village in the Central Desert called Utopia, had been “painting up” her body and others for ceremonies all her life but did not start working on more permanent materials until she was in her 70s. In the last eight years before her death in 1996, she produced thousands of paintings.
Her pieces in the show are abstract, but their titles signify the meaning they had for Kngwarreye. A field of yellow, orange and red dots is called “Alhakere (My Country).” A 12-paned set of curving, intersecting white lines on a black background, “Soakage Bore,” evokes the root systems in her culture’s Wild Yam Dreaming.
Like Kngwarreye’s, many of the pieces in the show are highly abstract; others, like the bark paintings by Galuma Maymuru and Wolpa Wanambi, have recognizable figures that express the stories they tell. Some of the paintings appear to be from an overhead point of view – a perspective that makes sense, Reed said, considering that all the canvases are laid flat on the ground. Many are so large that the artists had to sit on the edges of their paintings to reach the middle.