In Lens, Aboriginal art tells a country’s turbulent history

Dream Water, Dream Emeu, Dream Fire: The exhibition brings together several “wamulu”, works made from a yellow desert flower, harvested, crushed and mixed with natural pigments. Keystone/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT sda-ats

This content was published on July 08, 2022 – 08:00

(Keystone ATS)

The Opale Foundation is discussing ritual painting and photographic work through November 6, 2022. A production that deals with contemporary Aboriginal art that questions Australian colonial history and raises questions of identity.

“Contemporary Aboriginal art is not limited to pointillist works. It is much broader and constantly reinventing itself,” the director of the Gautier-Chiarini Foundation explains to Keystone-ATS. The new exhibition in Lens (VS) entitled Present Fugitive shows some of this diversity.

First room: ocher concentric circles, dancing lines, black arrows on a beige background. The work seems to crumble like the earth with a lack of water. Under these relief motifs appears the territory of the Australian desert, its water points, its emus. A cartography passed down through song and ritual painting for tens of thousands of years.

“We wanted to start this exhibition with works that take motifs from Dreams, a term used to describe the stories and beliefs underlying the creation of the natural world,” explains Gautier Chiarini. This cosmology, which understands human beings as belonging to the earth and not the other way around, provides information with great precision about sacred sites, water points or even about the topography seen from the sky.

Sing the work

Rêve Eau, Rêve Emu, Rêve Feu: the exhibition brings together several of these “wamulu”, works made from a yellow desert flower, harvested, crushed and mixed with natural pigments. Usually these paintings are made on the bodies, the floor, small or large, but disappear once the ritual is over.

As part of an artistic project initiated near Alice Springs in the early 2000s by art collector Arnaud Serval, a fervent advocate of Aboriginal art, four men – Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa, Ted Egan Jangala, Johnny Possum Japaljarri and Albie Morris Jampijinpa – made 65 works by mixing their material with a synthetic binder before applying it to wooden panels. From ephemeral creations have become permanent.

In Lens, some are suspended, others placed on the floor as designed. These works are “transdisciplinary paintings that mix song and dance. But they do not have an explicitly sacred dimension,” explains the foundation director. The artists knew they should be exhibited. Reinvented, these thousand-year-old works are now part of contemporary Aboriginal art.

colonial history

Second room: rusty, dented, pierced seals are installed in a corner, light illuminates them from within, like candlesticks they cast their selective shadows on the floor. These seals, on which we read paka, pulawa, tilipi and tjuka (tobacco, flour, tea and sugar), were used until the 1960s to reward Aboriginal work in the cattle stations and terminate the Objects of origin photo series by Robert Fielding.

The tone is set: while the works in the first part are dedicated to Dreams, the “photographs and installations in the second room illuminate Australian colonial history with its expropriation and subjugation,” notes Gautier Chiarini.

Four artists, in turn, address the effects that this colonization had and still has on the traditions of the first inhabitants of the continent, but also on the resulting questions of identity. “The tension is visible in the works presented, which repeatedly suggest a different reading of these productions,” emphasizes the director.

Committed Art

With Up in the Sky, Tracey Moffatt explores the Stolen Generations, the name for the generations of children born of mixed union who were removed from Aboriginal families for a century to the late 1960s to place them in boarding schools, missions or white families. Michael Riley shows the settler-induced conflict between Aboriginal spirituality and Christianity and the resulting cultural and territorial losses.

While Tony Albert with the Brothers series denounces the racism that Aboriginal Australians still carry today. On the wall are three photos of men with a red target painted on their bare chests. Our past, our present, our future: the titles complete what the image already suggests, inspired by a brutal incident that took place in the heart of Sydney in 2012 and which led to strong racial tensions and mobilizations.

In Present Fugitive, museology uses a wide range of media to express what is invisible at first glance, says Gautier Chiarini. Also a way to tell the tumultuous history of a country.

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