It is always good to challenge one’s idea of another’s culture, upgrade one’s appreciation of history, and be moved by a vibrant present. Before Time Began, the exhibition on Aboriginal art at the Art and History Museum is a catalyst that enables all of this, and is, quite simply, stunning.
The unique paintings hypnotise with their rich colours that feel like living earthy pigments of the ancient continent, their myriad of circles and dots upon dots. Each picture is a journey, and it is worth losing oneself in these aesthetic masterpieces. Some are landscapes of nature – an ode to the natural, cultural heritage. Others are landscapes of the mind – a personal message or remembrance, a retelling of historical journeys or of “The Dreaming”, a hard-to-fathom Aboriginal concept of before time when all was created.
1. Reading Symbols to Decipher Narrative Art
Each painting is a story steeped in symbolism, with the symbols keys to understanding. They give hints, windows into a work, a way to complement the aesthetic appreciation and try to make sense of the art. U-shapes represents people (patterns made when sitting cross-legged). Dotted circles or concentric circles represent people together, whether around a campfire or water hole. Dotted lines can be tracks manifesting a path taken by people or animals. Others are rivers, landscape features, sites of cultural and religious importance and host hidden private meanings.
The larger canvasses are like a novel written by a million dots, its vocabulary of symbols and colours that give tone. We take hours to read a book, yet often look at a painting for just a minute before checking the label. Like with novels, there is the meaning offered by the author and the meaning we manage to take. Both are legitimate, and we should offer more time to behold each creation – out of respect to the creators and for our own personal voyage.
The painting Wanapi tjukurpa (Love and War) below, by Witjiti George and Taylor Cooper, combines Taylor Cooper’s wanapi (water snake) story and Witjiti George’s “love story, where young brother makes his life hard because of his love for a woman, that he wanted for his wife”. Wanapi is a tale of deities that became snakes travelling through the lands. The wanapi bring rain and fill the water holes, and when it rains, they go hunting across the sand. Only by reading the caption and the description in the catalogue could I see that story.
Ihadthought the painting represented a creation story – with the big bang on the left, the rush of expansive creation flowing to the right, and rich, stable worlds on the right, each alive and vibrant, some appearing alone but all connected. It could also depict the explosion of life from primordial egg to tiny souls speeding out, to mature adults in connection with others. It is about love and war, so I’ll have to go back and look again at this masterpiece.
Many of the paintings are product of multiple artists from the community. The path of individual genius is not the only viable path to great art. The paintings show that a coherent, majestic and astonishing beauty can be created through cooperation. Meaning is multiplied and augmented. It is a collective memory and a snapshot statement of a millennia of history of a culture more ancient than any others.
The Elders (Mayatja Pulka) is Robert Fielding’s homage to artists engaged in collaborative paintings. Witjiti George is the artist on the top row on the left, and Taylor Cooper second row on the far right.
Works by the Ananga Women’s Collective have taken collective painting to another level. Twenty-six women from seven art centres were engaged in the huge canvass: “Women’s Law Alive in Our Country” (Nganampa mantangka minyma tjutaku Tjukurpa ngaranyi alatjitu) – see catalogue page 137-9 for the artists and the painting. This masterpiece integrates The Seven Sisters Story (Kungkarangalpa) – one of Aboriginal Australia’s most widespread ancient stories related to the Pleiades star cluster in the Taurus Constellation. Seven sisters flee across the lands from a man in love with them. They launch off a high cliff into the sky and become the Pleiades, but the man too leaps and becomes Jukurra-jukurra, the morning star. After sunset in central Australia, the seven Pleiades stars rise above the horizon, the morning star always chasing them. The story happens night after night (see Seven Sisters (Pleiades) Star Dreaming Story – Aboriginal Art Stories (japingkaaboriginalart.com).
The Ananga Women’s Collective also created the beautiful painting “Our Country” (Nganampa Ngura) below. Many Aboriginal paintings have both outer and inner meanings and encode traditional knowledge. Some are understood only by those initiated, while others are kept as secrets to the artists. We can enjoy the aesthetic beauty, decipher and discover hidden meetings, and wonder what ancient and modern secrets lie hidden in plain sight. Who doesn’t love a mystery?
3. Chapters of history
While we appreciate the art of the present, we should remember the stark past. Colonialisation started a depressingly dark chapter of Aboriginal history – of a people dispossessed of their land, forcefully separated from their culture, denigrated and manipulated. Of the five hundred languages spoken at first contact, only fifty are still spoken today.
The exhibition reminds us that we need a sanity check on our past and present, make a real effort at reconciliation and rediscovery, and recognise the immense value of unique voices, individual and collective and of a culture. Thank you to the artists who have shared this rich tapestry of time. It would be a travesty to lose even more and a responsibility to see with open eyes the treasures of an ancient people, with a potential for an increasingly vibrant present and future if allowed to grow.
4. Be Tempted
The above is only a taster of Before Time Began – there are videos of cave painting, decorated burial columns, works of art on bark, intricate depictions of animals, statues, a sculptural whirlwind of spears, and a photo exhibition placing Aboriginal people in the clothes of the first Europeans “discovering” this old continent. See the collection, read the text, and shiver at the unfeeling blindness and prejudice of colonial expansion. Then walk back to the central part and admire the beautiful power of lyrical painting. The exhibition is on until the 29th of May 2022. It, and other homages to Aboriginal culture, such as the regular exhibitions at the Aboriginal Signature- Estrangin Gallery in Brussels, are catalysts to a cross-continental, cross-time appreciation of others’ cultures and their unique voice and genius.