Mind Maps: After 45,000 Years, Aboriginal Painting Is Still Evolving, Writes Will Self

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Borroloola: Paintings and Prints from the Gulf of Carpentaria

Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, London W1

An old Australian friend, Kerry Gardiner, whom I met when I was living and working in the Northern Territory in the early 1980s, emails to tell me that the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery in Fitzrovia, London, is mounting an exhibition of Aboriginal art that might interest me. He's right. Ever since that sojourn, I've tried to remain connected with the creative world-view of Australia's indigenous people--and also to stay in touch with the white Australians I met then, idealistic men and women who eschewed the affluent hippie trail to Earls Court and instead investigated the red centre and the beige hinterlands of their home country.

These Strine soixante-huitards were radicalised by the predicament of the Aboriginal people, who had been not so much subjected to colonialism as annihilated by it. The British doctrine of terra nullius denied them ownership of their land--and so opened the genocidal gates--while the Australian government refused them citizenship until the late 1960s. On my first journey across Australia, I was shocked to see children with trachoma and rickets at the outstations where the bus stopped. Though white Australia seems to have bucked the global economic downturn, I suspect that you can still look upon such sights today.

Australian Aboriginal painting is familiar to the western eye as a sort of primitivist pointillism: concentric circles of dots, stippled outlines and wavering borders, rendered in bright, primary colours. It is arresting and seems to hum with a visual intensity--as if op art had become a self-consciously mystic methodology. Such apprehensions would be correct: painting and carving are the tangible forms of cultural restoration adopted by a people who came, in recent decades, within spitting distance of total deracination. The superlative mental mapping of the Aboriginal mobs, which, between them, capture the surface of this vast island continent in a reticulation of so-called songlines, is given expression not just in topographic poetry--the "singing-up" of the country--but also by these graphic representations.

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It is the abiding fallacy of the west to suppose that cultures that are athwart our notions of "progress" must, ipso facto, be up a cultural creek without a technological or aesthetic paddle. The full sequencing of the human genome now allows us to peek into the deep time of our diaspora and discover that the Aboriginal people of Australia were first out of the African omphalos, some 60,000 years ago. …