The University of Queensland Art Museum will be swimming with crocodiles, sharks and the odd dugong for its next exhibition, and you’re encouraged to dive in for the experience.

On show from September 11, Before Time Today is the first comprehensive survey of art from the remote Aurukun region in far north Queensland, and includes almost 100 different works brought together from collections around the country.

UQ Art Museum Acting Director Michele Helmrich said the exhibition was inspired by links between objects collected by the UQ Anthropology Museum from the 1950s, and contemporary works recently acquired by the University.

The main experience we’ve tried to create is the relationship between past and present, curator and Senior Lecturer in Art History Dr Sally Butler said.

There’s something exciting about looking at the historical precedents for the contemporary art and the new works that have come after. It also helps to focus on the innovation of the contemporary artists as well as their sense of tradition, as they’re not just copying the past, they’re doing all sorts of new things.

Even the artists haven’t seen a lot of these old works for a long time, if ever, so just putting them back into dialogue with the present is significant.

The artworks from western Cape York include large sculptures of animals and spirit figures, eye-catching canvas paintings, and fields of iconic red-and-white law poles.

Because they’re 3D objects, they have a real presence and one of the main aesthetic features is the art of characterisation, Dr Butler said.

You get a sense of them almost having a personality, even if they’re a fish or a dog or a ceremonial figure. It’s a lively presence of culture.

The entire ground floor of the museum will be dedicated to the exhibition, with visitors able to explore works from different clans and across mediums as they navigate the space.

Dr Butler said the regeneration and reinvention of Aurukun artistic traditions “ particularly carving “ made it one of the most dynamic Indigenous art movements today.

She used the example of senior artist Arthur Pambegan Jnr “ now in his 70s “ who had recently started configuring ceremonial paintings in new ways.

Arthur Pambegan has taken his body paintings and turned them into these canvas paintings that are unlike anything else in Indigenous art. It’s pure Aurukun, she said.

Female artists such as Mavis Ngallametta have also recently begun painting, while traditional sculptures were now being created not only out of wood, but also aluminium and bronze.

Another recent innovation is the use of ghost nets “ remains of fishing nets which have been washed on to the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and are used by women to weave new, colourful creations using traditional techniques.

The ghost nets are very typical of the way Aurukun artists are prepared to innovate to keep their culture alive, Dr Butler said.

The weaving tradition is on the brink of extinction all around Australia but they have used fishing nets as the start of an environmental initiative and as an imperative for re-invention.

Traditional woven items are also on display in the exhibition, along with documentary film depicting ceremonial dances and the history of the Aurukun peoples, who experienced first contact with Europeans in the 1600s.

Accompanying the exhibition is a new UQP publication which includes chapters from leading scholars on Aurukun art and culture and the Director of the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht.

Before Time Today: Reinventing Tradition in Aurukun Aboriginal Art is one of the major events of UQ’s Centenary year, and is open free to the public until November 28.

It follows the successful Our Way exhibition of Lockhart River artists, also curated by Dr Butler, which attracted thousands of visitors to UQ in 2007 before touring to Singapore and the United States.

Before Time Today will be officially opened on September 11 with 21 Aurukun dancers performing for the occasion.

The UQ Art Museum is open seven days a week, with parking free on weekends.

Media: Dr Butler (07 3365 3037,, Ms Helmrich (07 3365 7952, or Cameron Pegg at UQ Communications (07 3365 2049,

** High resolution images with captions are available for download here

About the exhibition

The Aurukun exhibition has been generously supported by The Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA), the Gordon Darling Foundation, Skytrans, and the Aurukun Community Development Fund (a partnership funded by CHALCO and the Queensland and Australian Governments)