It’s Time to Rethink How We See Indigenous Australian Art

To borrow the words of curator Stephen Gilchrist: “There’s more to Indigenous art than just dots and bark painting.”

by Noémie Jennifer
Sep 11 2016, 11:35am

Christian Thompson, Lamenting the Flowers, from the We Bury Our Own series, 2012. C-print on Fuji Pearl Metallic paper. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. © Christian Thompson

A recent exhibition at the Harvard Art Museum set out to change how we view and contextualize Australian Indigenous art—not as relics of the past, but as contemporary, internationally relevant contributions. Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, was guest curated by Stephen Gilchrist, an associate lecturer of art history at the University of Sydney. As an Indigenous Australian himself, of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia, Gilchrist shaped the exhibition with an insider’s perspective, hoping to broaden some minds in the process.

“I think people are surprised by the diversity—that there’s more to Indigenous art than just dots and bark painting,” he shared in an interview.

Emily Kam Kngwarray, Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam), 1996. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. © Emily Kam Kngwarray / © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VISCOPY, Australia.

The title of the exhibition references a term coined by Australian anthropologist William Stanner to illustrate Indigenous people’s circular conceptualization of time, which weaves together past, future, and present. The show asks visitors “to think about time from an Indigenous perspective, to consider how it is marked, observed, and sensed,” writes Gilchrist in a museum announcement.

Many of the 70 works on view had never been shown outside Australia until now, offering a panorama of themes that revolve around nature, transformation, belonging, and memory, and comment on colonial oppression and ecological matters. To set alongside the contemporary works, historical objects were pulled from the collections of Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Met—objects whose makers remain anonymous, and thus speak to the dehumanizing practices of early collectors, who rarely recorded names.

Stephen Gilchrist in front of Vernon Ah Kee’s many lies (2004), during preparation for the exhibition. © Vernon Ah Kee. Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard University, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

“Many of the narratives that we have inherited from art and social history are at the very least incomplete. The exhibition is about time, but it is equally about power and who gets to claim it,” comments Gilchrist. “Indigenous people are not merely from the past. We are couriers and keepers of what has been, what is, and what could be.”

The exhibition advances our understanding of these works from a technical standpoint: In preparing for the show, conservation scientists mapped the elemental composition of traditional bark paintings, comparing them to various ochre samples collected while touring Indigenous art centers in Australia—many of which have since been added to the Forbes Pigment Collection.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Two Women Dreaming, 1990. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. © The artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

View of the Seasonality-themed gallery in the exhibition. Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Julie Gough, Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land, 2008—a “necklace” that hangs in the shape of Tasmania and is made of Tasmanian Fingal Valley coal. (Other materials include nylon, Northern Midlands Tasmanian dropped antlers, and Tasmanian oak.) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photo: AGNSW © Julie Gough/Courtesy of the Artist and Bett Gallery

Everywhen wraps up at the Harvard Art Museums, on September 18. But if time is a circle, then maybe this isn’t really the end.


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