Australian Aboriginal art represents one of the oldest unbroken traditions of art, with Aboriginal charcoal drawings on rocks as old as at 28,000 years and cave paintings and rock engravings possibly dating back 40,000 years.
Starting Friday, the San Antonio Museum of Art will showcase the unbroken traditions of Australia’s indigenous culture with the debut of its contemporary Aboriginal art exhibition.
Of Country and Culture: The Lam Collection of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art includes more than 90 works from a collection of about 126 works gifted to the museum earlier this year by longtime supporters May and Victor Lam. The exhibition explores the contemporary application of a range of Aboriginal artistic traditions – ranging from sand paintings to body painting to grave poles – to show how indigenous societies visually communicate their cultural ties to land, traditions, and ceremonies.
The Lams’ enthusiasm for contemporary Aboriginal art began in 2000 when they visited SAMA’s exhibition Spirit Country, which featured the collection of the Melbourne-based Gantner and Myer families. May Lam, a longtime SAMA trustee, was taken with the Aboriginal art. It was at the museum that May met Spirit Country’s traveling curator Jenny Issacs, a prominent Australian writer, art consultant, and independent curator, and started what became a 16-year quest to collect Aboriginal art.
“Jenny was good at guiding me in collecting this art,” Lam told the Rivard Report. “This collection is as much a reflection of her as it is of me.”
Lam traveled with her daughter Dorothy, often accompanied by Issacs, to visit Aboriginal communities across Australia and meet with artists. Over time, Lam built an outstanding collection representative of contemporary art made between the mid-1990s and 2007 throughout Australia.
The contemporary Aboriginal art movement has its origins in the Western Desert painting movement, which began in the early 1970s at Papunya, where artist and teacher Geoffrey Bardon introduced the Aboriginal community to canvas and acrylic paints. Bardon encouraged artists to paint traditional indigenous designs which had been suppressed by decades of assimilation policies.
The early Papunya paintings were essentially a translation of a traditional form to a new medium. Indigenous artists began to transfer the methods and images from sand and body paintings onto portable, more permanent media that could be shared with the larger, global public. This movement inspired contemporary art-making across indigenous Australia, including the artists in this exhibition.
Co-curators Lana Meador and Erin Murphy tackled this particular exhibition differently: Rather than approaching the collection geographically, the objects were grouped into four broad cultural themes determined by extensive in-depth research.
“This material is new for the museum and for us,” Murphy said during a media tour of the collection. “The broad themes you’ll see [in this collection] are dreaming, the land, ceremony, and mortality.”
The Dreamtime is the Aboriginal understanding of the world, stories of its creation, the beginning of knowledge, the basis of all laws of existence which connects all things. The Aboriginal reverence for the land is reflected in their common refrain, “We don’t own the land, the land owns us.” Many of the objects in the collection were made for or depict specific ceremonies or mark the death of a loved one. These rituals are passed on to the younger generation increasingly through Aboriginal contemporary art, especially those ceremonies that can no longer be performed because some sacred ceremonial sites have become inaccessible. The art captures both the ceremony and the sacred place that now only exists in memories.
Subject matter, methods, and symbolism from ancient practices and culture all influence the practices of contemporary Aboriginal artists, whose art continues their oldest traditions.
Bark paintings are still made with bark from eucalyptus trees, a fast-growing evergreen tree native to Australia. Earth-based pigments – or ochres – in red, yellow, and black are used, as are mineral oxides of iron and manganese, white pipe clay, and calcium carbonate. Traditional painting combs used to paint designs on the body for ceremonies or rituals are also used on canvas or to decorate logs used in burials ceremonies.
“Artists started to revisit their dreaming stories,” Murphy explained. “They’re now translated onto the canvas to last longer and to share with others.”
Many bark-style paintings – including those captured on canvas – are based on sacred designs that include abstract patterns, such as cross-hatching in particular colors, that identify a clan and also often contain elements of Dreamtime. Sometimes the elements of a story are obvious – men or animals, for example – but sometimes they are symbolic. What appears to the outsider as a series of wavy lines punctuated by dots may actually be the telling of a complex Dreaming story describing the path of an ancestral or Creator spirit and events that happened along the way.
Traditionally, the most sacred designs drawn on bodies during ceremonies were drawn with a quality called “bir’yun,” which loosely translates to scintillation, such as the twinkling of stars or the far off shimmer of the heat rising from the land on the horizon. The intricate cross hatching patterns seen in many of the works in the collection represents this ‘shimmer’ quality in the power of ancestral spirits, according to Issacs.
“The artists in this collection represent the last generation of those who came from a nomadic way of life, which is why this collection is so extraordinary,” Issacs said. “These are the memories of those journeys.”
More than half of the collection includes works by female artists, who represent a recent shift from their historical exclusion from the contemporary painting movement in Australia.
Issacs explained that the artistic breakthrough in using more vibrant colors was considered revolutionary when female artists started using them in their work.
“Every color has its meaning when used in a ceremony,” Issacs added. “For women to use strong colors meant that they were wielding the power of men. Many female artists would shy away from strong color in their work [at first], telling me that ‘No, that’s for men, I’ll get into trouble.’”
The collection is visually stunning. Many pieces are oversized with a visual impact to match. As abstract as many of the images may seem, meaning is in the eye of the artist, with methods, symbols, and even colors filled with deep cultural meaning and context.
“With bold colors and materials, these works are made to be beautiful, but also to speak to people about communal history and events, reminding us that art is something cultures need,” stated Katie Luber, the Kelso director of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
There is a $10 special exhibition surcharge to see the exhibition, which is on view through May 14. This exhibition is supported by the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation, and May and Victor Lam.
The museum is working on its long-range plan to integrate the Lam collection into its current holdings.
“We are grateful to the Lam family for their collection,” William Rudolph, Marie and Hugh Halff curator of American Art and Mellon chief curator at the museum told the Rivard Report. “The Lam collection is the latest link in the chain of passionate single and family collectors [who have donated to the museum]. We are working on the long-term permanent home for the collection.”
“I had no idea how incredible this culture is,” Lam said during the tour. “I hope everyone will have a chance to find this out for themselves as everyone learns more about this culture.”