Bold, Striking, Modern: New book and exhibition explores Australian Aboriginal art of the last forty years

Lorrkkon, Hollow Log Mortury Ceremony

‘Lorrkkon, Hollow Log Mortury Ceremony’ (1994) by Mick Kubarkku (1920-2008)

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art, opening at the end of this month, is a fascinating new exhibition from the Seattle Art Museum which introduces viewers to Australian Aboriginal art of the last 40 years, highlighting a millennia-old artistic tradition. Today we take a look at the fascinating accompanying catalogue, and the vivid, beautiful and dazzling art within.

Australian Aboriginal art is the longest continuous art tradition in the world, spanning over 50,000 years. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art at the Seattle Art Museum (31 May – 2 September, 2012) puts a modern face on the tradition, celebrating the past 40 years of contemporary indigenous art, which has experienced a renaissance since 1970.

Modern-day Aboriginal Australians are the direct descendants of the first people who arrived in Australia as early as 50,000 years ago. Even though there is no word for art in Aboriginal languages, visual literacy is an essential means of transferring knowledge over generations. From an early age everyone learns to draw and paint or weave, and although not all become practicing artists, each person is equipped to interpret the signs and symbols that appear in various forms of art.

Wuyal with Dhulaku the Euro

‘Wuyal with Dhulaku the Euro’ (1991, natural pigments on wood) by Dundiwuy Wanambi (1934-1996)

Aboriginal art is essentially spiritual in nature. Traditionally, it is produced in greatest volume on ceremonial occasions, but it can also serve the purposes of teaching, magic, and sorcery (whether to assure a successful hunt or to attract a wife or husband). And it can be made purely for pleasure.

Minyma Kutjarra (Two Sisters Creation Story)

‘Minyma Kutjarra (Two Sisters Creation Story)’ by Maringka Baker (born ca.1952)

When the British began settling the continent some 230 years ago, Aboriginal people were regarded as among the most miserable societies, possessing little in the way of culture. Without the typical framed paintings or sculptures on pedestals, Australian Aboriginals were considered a people with no art at all. In fact, because most Aboriginal art was being made for the restricted context of ceremony, it was intentionally hidden from public view.

'Female Spirit and Rainbow Spirit' (ca. 1970) by Nammerredje Gumala

‘Female Spirit and Rainbow Spirit’ (ca. 1970) by Nammerredje Gumala

During the last hundred years, Aboriginal artists have chosen to change that. While they continue to make art for ceremonies that are part of the longest continuing tradition of art known to humanity, they now also create art that is disseminated to an international audience.

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art

Featuring more than 100 paintings and sculptures in a variety of media, the beautiful exhibition catalogue of Ancestral Modern provides a fascinating revision of many commonly-held beliefs about the art form. Aboriginal artwork is often said to induce a sense of “intellectual vertigo”, due to its expansive interpretations and methods of representation. The bold patterns and striking colours lend comparisons to abstract expressionist or minimal art, but as this book shows, the imagery is more deeply narrative and often more literal than previously thought, depicting landscapes, still lifes, historical events both real and mythic, ceremonies, portraits and even laws.

This well-produced catalogue displays visual art alongside photographs of the actual landscapes and animals depicted, providing important visual context for understanding an art form that is once ancient and contemporary. Also included are detailed biographies of many leading contemporary artists, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, John Mawurndjul and Rover Thomas.

A beautiful and important book, perfect for those with a keen interest in contemporary art, design and Aboriginal culture.

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art is available to order now from Yale University Press. The exhibition begins at the Seattle Art Museum on 31 May 2012.

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