Aboriginal art: A modern primitivism

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Aboriginal art: A modern primitivism

Encountering Australia’s Aboriginal arts can be like looking into an abyss.
See, for instance, the work titled “Salt on MinaMina” (2003), by Dorothy Napangardi, a leading Aboriginal artist. The black, wall-sized canvas is incessantly, horizontally lined with fine white dots. It looks like a high-tech optical illusion, but was in fact made by hand. This visual concoction, seeming to stretch into the distance like Australia’s vast landscape, has a refreshing and shocking power.
Behind this modern work on canvas lies a traditional art form that originated on the Tiwi Islands, off Australia’s northern shore. The painting is a fantastic invitation to an imaginary, almost surreal space that seems to exist beyond it. It’s unlikely that a photograph could do it justice.
When Eum Joong-ku, owner of Gallery Samtuh in Seoul, stumbled upon works like these at Australian art fairs over the past few years, he often found himself instantly possessed.
To organize Korea’s first exhibition of its kind, “Our Country, Our Art: Welcome to the Art of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Artists,” which opens today, Mr. Eum spent six months collaborating with the show’s curator, Ahn En-young. Ms. Ahn is a Korean-Australian freelance art critic and currently a visiting fellow at the School of Humanities at Australian National University in Canberra.
Aboriginal art has existed in some form for tens of thousands of years, but the term today refers to contemporary work since the 1970s, usually employing Western media, Ms. Ahn said.
There are about 500 Aboriginal groups in Australia, using 300 different languages. In ancient times, drawings and paintings played a vital role in communicating, educating and documenting events.
“Our Country, Our Art,” which is at Posco Art Museum in southern Seoul, features 45 paintings by 12 artists from indigenous communities in Utopia, Kontore, Lajamunu, the Kimberly region, the Tiwi Islands, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.
Besides Dorothy Napangardi, internationally-known artists featured in the show include Peter Newry, Katie Cox, Walala Tjapaltjarri and Minnie Pwerle.
Of the 45 works, 43 will be available for sale. There seems to be enthusiasm for Aboriginal art among American and European collectors; when Sotheby’s in New York first auctioned Aboriginal art last July, all 560 works sold, with total sales reaching around $7.5 million in Australian dollars (U.S. $5.8 million).
Ms. Ahn has pursued Aboriginal art ever since she saw an old copy of National Geographic magazine. The magazine’s 1948 coverage was the first worldwide exposure for this primitive artwork, which mainly consisted of murals, ceremonial objects and body painting.
Today, Aboriginal art is mainstream in Australia, though its contemporary practitioners ― many of whom still adhere to traditional ways of life in isolated communities ― use acrylics instead of natural mud pigments, and paint on canvases.
Their works tend to be inheritors of the traditional religious customs and mythical stories inherent to each tribe.
But there is a consistent theme: one of “dreaming” or “dream time,” incorporating imagination, supernatural power and totemistic belief. It was believed that by painting during ceremonies, devotional artists could revive and commune with the spirits of ancestors.
These vibrant, abstract and optically illusory paintings have been at times compared with modern optical art. However, it is the visceral humanness in Aboriginal art that could perhaps fill a void in contemporary art.

‘We are part of the land’

The JoongAng Daily spoke with a leading Australian artist, Richard Walley, who is visiting Seoul for the opening of the exhibition. Mr. Walley, a Nyoongar, chairs the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Arts Board.

Q. You’ve been an artist all your life.
A. Most people don’t realize that from the moment they’re born, they take part in art. The babies trying to speak, and learning to walk and dance when they are older, are all art. You go to a baseball game, and the entire production there is also art. The cheerleaders dancing and singing and the design of chairs and the stadium are all done by artists. My career as an artist and stage actor began at the age of 20. Since then, I’ve been performing as a musician and painter as well. I play a traditional musical instrument, a didgeridoo, a kind of flute, and have released seven albums.

What makes Aboriginal art special?
Long before each culture in different countries took place, there was a primitive form of art which can be identified by everyone. It’s a matter of who can hold it out longer, and indigenous groups in Australia have preserved their roots to this day: our art is the purest form of communication to all. We are part of the land on which we live, and through art we tell ancient stories we have heard from our custodians. It’s a gift we’re not supposed to sell. The role of the board is to maintain our tradition and heritage and learn how to be innovative in modern days.

by Ines Cho

The exhibition runs through Feb. 20. Posco Art Museum is located on the second floor of Posco Center in Daechi-dong in southern Seoul. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Take subway line No. 2 to Seolleung Station and use exit 1, or to Samseong Station and use exit 4. For more information, call (02) 3457-0793.
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