Aboriginal Women Bring a New Look to an Old Art

Article excerpt

Primordial, mysterious, obscure: These words perhaps describe the most common Western view of the culture of the Australian Aboriginal people, the oldest continuous cultural tradition on earth, dating back at least 50,000 years.

For the thousands of years of its existence, Aboriginal art has largely consisted of tribal practices involving sand, rock, and body painting. Even the name Aboriginal (Latin for "from the beginning") reflects the close relationship of the 400,000 remaining indigenous Australians to their homeland and a way of life that was forever disrupted by the arrival of the British in the 18th century.

Traditional Aboriginal artworks, at the mercy of the elements, left little permanent cultural record. They also represented only half of Aboriginal society, as this art was created almost exclusively by men.

But to the surprise of the international art world, Aboriginal women artists recently have been creating paintings that marry traditional symbols with contemporary methods, resulting in compositions that have brought wide critical acclaim.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington has assembled the paintings of 33 of these female Aboriginal artists in the first exhibition of their work in the United States (through Sept. 24).

"Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters" features mostly acrylic paintings on canvas. Often bracingly modern in feel, many of these canvases rival Jackson Pollock's works for boldness of composition and Bridget Riley's for visual intensity.

Other works from regions across Australia, including more traditional bark paintings, are included in the show.

The focus of "Dreaming Their Way" and the subject of most Aboriginal artistic endeavors is the attempt to capture, map, amplify, and express "The Dreaming," a vast cultural-religious concept central to Aboriginal life but often difficult for the Western mind to grasp.

Fundamentally, "The Dreaming" consists of stories and beliefs about the time when the land of Australia was formed and humans were created.

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a nonindigenous Australian, encouraged a group of male Aboriginal artists to experiment with acrylic paint in an effort to bring permanence to their art. The new methods took hold, and the birth of a new artistic movement was born. …