New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those institutions that take to new trends at what might (before global warming) have been called glacial speed! So the appearance of a 14-canvas showing of Aboriginal art is both a splendid tribute to the now-38 year old art movement and an example of that very American thing “ the influential role of the private collector.
For, though this small show is curated by the Met’s top man in Oceanic Art “ Eric Kjellgren “ it has no catalogue and doesn’t even appear on the Met’s website. From this, one might conclude that the exhibition “ physically positioned between Oceanic musical instruments and Modern art in the Rockefeller Wing from now until June 12th 2010 “ is part of a recent tendency for US collectors to access some of America’s best museums to proudly show off their pioneering accumulations of indigenous art. The controversial ‘Icons of the Desert’, a far-from-random collection of early Papunya boards by John and Barbara Wilkerson, which toured three university museums over a year, was the first; and Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts is currently showing Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting, containing 26 masterworks by some of Australia’s best-known painters, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, Abie Loy Kemarre, Mitjili Napurrula, and Eubena Nampitjin, drawn from the collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell. And now The Met has joined in “ though this collector has shyly resisted revealing his or her name.
Another part of the US pattern is substantial curatorial descriptions for each work of the sort that raised the ire of NT Minister Alison Anderson “ declaring that interpretation of Aboriginal work should be the province of the artists and their descendants “ not non-indigenous ethnologists, etc.
The earliest work in the show “ Anatjari Tjakamarra’s 1984 work, ‘Sons and Orphans near Kurlkurta’ is described in part: Sons and Orphans shows places near his traditional homeland, that are associated with two Dreaming narratives. The six circles connected by sinuous bands represent the primordial journey of a father and his two sons.
The collection, which is exclusively on canvas rather than bark, then ranges through the years since 2000 “ culminating in a 2007 Daniel Walbidi work (from Bidyadanga), which perhaps suggests that the collecting is on-going. Geographically, the range heads up from the country of the Pintupi people (tribes or language-groups are apparently politically incorrect descriptors), including Long Jack Phillipus and Mitjili Napurrula, via Utopia (Minnie Pwerle), Yuendemu (Judy Watson), Balgo (Elizabeth Nyumi) and Lajamanu (Lorna Fencer), to the East Kimberley (Paddy Bedford and Freddy Timms), ending on the Tiwi Islands with Jean Baptiste Apuatimi.
Blogging for the Wall Street Journal, one commentator noted : Visually, the paintings by the Aboriginal artists wouldn’t look out of place with those by better-known modern and contemporary American and European artists. With bold colors and abstract, sometimes minimalist, geometric designs, the paintings are somewhat reminiscent of works by artists like Paul Klee.
Not bad for a bunch of ex-cowhands “ as our stockmen become in American. Another linguistic delight is the careful description of Geoffrey Bardon, facilitator for Anatjari and Long Jack when they started painting in Papunya in 1971, as ‘Euro-Australian’!
In the long-term, the significance of The Met’s showing will surely be the greater if it encourages other major American museums to accept the validity of contemporary Aboriginal art on a par with, say, Abstract Expressionism or the brief flowering of yBa (young British artists) than if its prime function is to validate a private art collection.