A Hot Commodity With a 30,000-Year Lineage

New York Times, - Thursday, April 24, 2003

Abstract: Australia's modern Aboriginal artists use modern paints and canvases but refer to symbols from cave paintings and rock carvings that date back at least 30,000 years; work is essentially religious art or has its origins in religion; Geoffrey Bardon brought modern acrylics to tribal artists in 1970's and encouraged them to paint ancient stories on portable and salable wooden boards; set up first artists' cooperatives to produce and market results, which have soared in price.

Australia's Aborigines may have created one of the world's oldest art forms and have certainly created one of the newest. Travelers in the remote outback of central and northwestern Australia can see cave paintings and rock carvings that date back at least 30,000 years. Then they can drive back to the big coastal cities and buy paintings by direct descendants of those ancient artists, who use modern paints and canvases but still refer to symbols and images that may predate the oldest cave paintings in Europe.

"We can see a very clear connection between rock art and contemporary art," said Hettie Perkins, an Aboriginal woman who is the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. "The same communities that made rock art are making the art we see today."

Thirty years ago Aboriginal work was hardly recognized as art. Painted tree bark and ritual stone and wood objects, spears and clubs tended to be lumped together with stuffed koalas and wallabies in the ethnographic sections of Australian museums; Aboriginal art was never displayed in the same spaces as work by white artists.

Less than 20 years ago "you could barely give it away," said Tim Klingender, director of Sotheby's Aboriginal art department in Sydney. "People just didn't take art made by Aboriginal painters seriously."

"But at our sales in July," he said, "we'll have people from all over the world bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for art you could have bought for hundreds in the 1970's. We're estimating a total sale value of more than $3 million."

Essentially Australian Aboriginal art is religious art or has its origins in religion. Whether on rocks, in the sand, in clay patterns, on human bodies, on tree bark or now on canvas, the art is largely about sacred ancestor figures and their travels, totemic plants and animals and creation stories dating to a distant past that has become known as the Dream Time. In a society that has no written language, this art is part hymn book, part map, part biography and part illustration in the Western sense.

So an artist like Kathleen Petyarre, 60, who saw her first white man when she was 10, will produce a painting that to an outsider looks like an elegant abstract composition of dots, streaks and broken lines. She explains: "The lines at the top are where the green pea grows in the sand ridges. And that patch is a water hole, and this line is the tracks the thorny devil makes when he goes to visit his ancestors." (The green pea is her totem plant; the thorny devil, a small, brightly colored desert lizard, is her totem animal.) Asked if she made a preparatory drawing, she said: "No, I paint straight on the canvas. It's all in my head."

The vivid, portable Aboriginal art made in Australia today dates back only to 1971, when a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya, a remote government settlement for nomadic tribal people in the desert about 160 miles west of the central Australian town of Alice Springs.

Like all Aboriginal tribes, the people of the region had senior men and women who were artists, charged with creating decorated stone and wooden objects and painting the bodies of participants in sacred dances. Mr. Bardon brought them modern acrylics, encouraged them to paint their ancient stories on portable -- and salable -- wooden boards, and set up the first artists' cooperative to produce and market the results. Canvas painting came soon after.

Mr. Bardon did not teach anyone how to paint, but he changed the medium and was a tireless promoter and marketer. His idea that artists should form cooperatives to make and sell their own art has been copied by communities across Australia and is the main platform for production and sale of Aboriginal art today.

Aboriginal artists all over Australia now practice canvas painting, and distinct styles have evolved. The artworks of the central and western desert, which includes Papunya, use the modern palette, purples, pinks, fluorescent greens and yellows, and are often made up of thousands of dots of color. The artists of Arnhem Land in the tropical, coastal north make art on bark and canvas, using blacks, yellows and browns to depict ancestors and totemic animals.

The painters of the Kimberley region in the far northwest literally use earth colors, black, red, brown and white clays, ochres and sand. These austere, calm paintings can resemble aerial maps of the desert and have struck a special chord with collectors and museums. The current record price for an Aboriginal painting -- $490,000 -- was paid for a work by the Kimberley artist Rover Thomas, a former cowboy.

All these schools are to be represented at the Sotheby's sale in Melbourne in July. The most extraordinary painting offered, estimated to sell for around $300,000, will be an enormous western desert painting, "Ngurrara Canvas No. 1." Some 26 feet wide by 23 feet deep, it was painted in 1996 by 19 men and women working on a canvas spread out in a remote part of the Great Western Desert in the state of Western Australia. The painting was made to show Australian government ministers and officials the ancestral lands and sacred places claimed by a group of tribes from the region.

"This is a historical Australian document," Mr. Klingender, of Sotheby's, said. "It really should be bought by the government for the nation, although it would be ironic if they did because the land claim hasn't been recognized yet."

This is a painting based on traditional themes, but Aboriginal art is also changing. Young Aboriginal artists are making photographs, installations and conceptual art and are depicting modern urban life as well as the Dream Time.

Samantha Hobson, 21, from the Lockhart River settlement on Queensland's northeast coast, has produced a series called "Bust 'Im Up," about drunken brawling in the small community of about 800 people. Her art is splashed with scarlet smears of what could be fresh blood, the crimson of clotted blood and tangles of black, like torn-out hair.

For a picture in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, she has written this caption: "Seems like every big night, Thursday, Friday night, specially at the canteen and parties, man and woman fight."

It is not pretty or mystical. "But it tells you about how some Aboriginal people have to live today," said Margo Neale, an Aboriginal woman who is a gallery curator and an editor of the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture.

The one group of Australian citizens rarely seen in galleries and salesrooms selling this exciting and expensive art are Aborigines themselves, who are too poor to buy the products of their own culture.

It was not until 1967 that these original inhabitants of Australia were even given the citizenship of a country they settled as long as 60,000 years ago. Today the 410,000 people who claim Aboriginal ethnicity have the lowest average income of any Australians, the lowest life expectancy and the poorest health. That their art survives at all, let alone thrives and is admired around the world, may be a true Dream Time miracle.

Edition: Late Edition - Final
Section: The Arts/Cultural Desk
Page: 1
Page Column: 1