The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas is opening today its first major museum exhibition devoted to Australian Aboriginal art:’Mapa Wiya’ (Your Map’s Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Swiss Fondation Opale. The show includes more than 100 works created by more than 60 artists from all around remote Australia. These works represent profound recitations of Aboriginal peoples’ personhood, their Country, and the different intercultural spaces Indigenous peoples occupy in Australia today, says the Menil’s press release. Country is the foundation for the autonomous ways of the Aboriginal peoples. Vast deserts and rainforests with their distinctive rock formations and water holes, and other meaningful spaces”these are the diverse terrains of their lives. They are places in which the laws and primordial creations of ancestors are always present, where painfully violent colonial histories are memorialized, and potential futures are reclaimed in song and dance.

Knowing the land, moving through it, and living with its deeply embedded song lines animate the rich visual expression of Aboriginal artists. In the Pitjantjatjara language of the Central Australian desert region, ‘mapa wiya’ means no map. The exhibition title is derived from a recent drawing by artist Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams (b 1952“2019) by that name. The artist’s reinterpretation of official government maps and postal bags is a pointed response to the foreign cartographies of the country that Australian Aboriginal peoples embody.

Some AAD readers may recall that in 2012, Fremantle Art Centre in the West also put on a show with a similar title “ ‘We Don’t Need a Map’. It’s a common Aboriginal boast because the whole point in a pre-literate society is that you have to learn how to survive without writing. Songs, ceremonies, body painting and designs on sacred tjuringa are all bashed into kids from an early age so that their mnemonics become second nature. As families tracked across the Country, according to Kim Mahood in the Martu catalogue, The rhythm of walking and breathing took the song into the body until it was a form of breath itself, mapped into the body.

Mahood continues: To offer a Martu a map of his or her Country would be like offering Shakespeare a primer of basic grammar!

Said the Menil’s Curator of Collections, Paul R. Davis, Aboriginal peoples are the perpetual custodians of Country, and the works on view in ‘Mapa Wiya‘ are topographies of their knowledge”visual accounts of its living history, primordial and recent, ceremonial and secular. When visitors move through the five galleries of this exhibition, they will experience the diverse ways Aboriginal artists share their knowledge of Country with others. Reflecting on the long history of art-making and different ways of Aboriginal peoples, ‘Mapa Wiya’ highlights work created after the 1950s and includes paintings on bark and canvas, hollow log coffins (larrakitj, lorrkon, or dupun), pearl shell body ornaments (lonka lonka or riji), and shields held by the Fondation Opale in Lens, Switzerland, one of the most significant collections of Aboriginal art.

At this point, we do need to sort out what Fondation Opale actually is. For it only came into being last December, which suggests extraordinarily dynamic management to get to Houston now “ unless it was something already in the plans of the Arnaud Fondation which had just gone bust. Presumably, the Arnaud had put together this impressive collection, which not only feeds the Menil but also supplies art for the First Nations show in Lens, ‘Before Time Began’. And all of this trove now belongs to Ms Berengere Primat. From a family of French industrialists, she has spent the last 15 years visiting remote Australia and has named the museum after the sacred stone of Aborigines “ the opal, not the French car.

The exhibition showcases large, vibrant, and at times collaboratively painted works by internationally recognised artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932“2002), early Paddy Nyunkuny Bedfords from the 90s (1922“2007), Emily Kame Kngwarreye (ca. 1910“1996), Gulumbu Yunupingu (1945“2012), Balang John Mawurndjul (b. 1952), and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri (b. 1950).

Standing out for me during an online glance was a 1960 Paddy Compass bark, two Ignatia Djanghara ‘Wandjina‘, only dated ’20th Century’, one of Mick Kubarku’s legendary ‘Moon Dreaming’ and a 1971 Mick Namarari board. Of course, the late Mumu Mike William eponymous work, a map of Australia drawn on the post bags in which food, and occasionally poison was delivered into the Deserts will get much attention. Then there are lots of carved pubic pearl shells, an assortment of lorrkon/larrikitj, and a battle-load of shields. Was the Fondation Arnaud at one time an ethnographic museum, I wonder.

Said Director of the Menil Collection Rebecca Rabinow, The Menil Collection and the Fondation Opale share the understanding that since the beginning, humankind has attempted to express its place in the universe through the representation of art. We are pleased to be partnering to present a museum exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art in Houston for the first time. Not only will visitors enjoy the energetic, dynamic, and wholly unique works on view, but also find that the display is aligned with the Menil’s mission to present works of art that address the day’s most pressing issues, just as our founders John and Dominique de Menil did for many decades.

Well, actually, Aboriginal art has been seen in Houston before “ at the commercial level. Houston’s Booker Lowe Gallery, the longest-running Aboriginal art gallery in the Americas, has nurtured the market for the Indigenous, and, right now, Sydney’s Cooee Gallery has seized on the space to capture any spin-off from the Menil. Directors Adrian Newstead and Mirri Leven are delighted to present the exhibition ‘Beyond Time’, which will open tomorrow and continue through to December 14th, 2019.