27 March 2016

Everywhen - Indigenous Art from Australia at Harvard

Naata Nungurrayi, Untitled, 2006, detail.

In his review for the Boston Globe, Australian-born critic Sebastian Smee writes "If 'Everywhen' is not quite the show of Aboriginal art I've always secretly longed to see, it is probably the best I've actually seen". The exhibit, at Harvard's newly renovated art museum complex, is formally (and somewhat awkwardly) titled Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia. The compact show of 70 select paintings and objects is worth the trip, even considering the eternal battle to find parking in Cambridge.

The portmanteau everywhen tries to convey a meaning for which there really is no cognate in English - a way of understanding existence in a particular place  without reference to constructs of linear time or the lines of latitude and longitude. The guest curator, Stephen Gilchrist, who belongs to the Yamatji people of Western Australia, has divided the show into four areas,  "Seasonality", "Transformation", "Performance", and "Remembrance".

Three larrakitj in foreground.

The "Seasonality" gallery includes the three works in the image above, by artists Djambawa Marawili, Yumutjin Wunungmurra and Djirrirra Wunungmurra. Traditionally, these hollow log forms, known as larrakitj and decorated with earth pigments, were the customary vessels for the bones of the dead; now they are created as art objects. 

Details, larrakitj.

The wavy patterns, and images of fish and other aquatic animals, reference the emptying of fresh water estuaries into the sea, as well as the cycles of evaporation and precipitation which replenish fresh water rivers.

Gulumbu Yunupingu, Garak IV (The Universe), 2004; detail at left.

Although indigenous people in Australia having been making marks on their landscape for millenia, the creation of paintings on canvas, and other works detached from their ceremonial origins, began in the early 1970's.  A white schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon, working in Papunya, began encouraging Aboriginal men to record their traditional designs using brushes and paint.  The subsequent commercial success of indigenous art gave the artists some measure of economic independence.  Moreover the art medium clearly also provided a forum in which to record colonial events from the indigenous perspective, and even to achieve some measure of justice, by revealing unpleasant histories in works collected and shown publicly around the world.

Lena Nyadbi, Hideout, 2002.

One highlight of the exhibit is a video sequence of some of the artists, including Lena Nyadbi, producing their work.  In the video, Ms. Nyadbi sits on the ground, with the canvas flat in front of her, and, using a plump brush makes stroke after stroke of white paint on a black ground, in a  deliberative motion recalling  the repetitive actions inherent in agricultural work, ceremonial dances, and even ambulation. 

Ms. Nyadbi is explicit about the content of the painting, which recalls an episode in which her family and others had to hide in caves, fleeing from those who used Aboriginal ancestral lands for sheep grazing and pastoral activity.

"Transformation" gallery.

Another painting whose content is explicit is shown below.  The title refers to two ancestral women traveling in Western Australia. They place their coolamons, or wooden troughs, on the ground; the vessels  transform themselves into desert wells.  Through traditional knowledge of the landscape, which seems almost like a magical power, the receptacle for water is filled with the precious liquid.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Two Women Dreaming, 1990.

Gunybi Ganambarr, Buyku, 2001.

The work above is painted on recycled building material, incised, and then colored with natural pigments. The restricted color palette places the emphasis on the pattern, inspired by traditional fish nets, or buyku.

Buyku, detail.

"Performance" gallery.

The image above features two paintings which are  stand-outs in the show. To the left of the visitors is an untitled 2007 work by Doreen Reid Nakamarra.  Again a restricted color scheme puts the focus on the vibrating pattern of white, black and ochre lines, which close inspection reveals are made of many, many dots, like grains of sand in the desert, produced by touching brush to canvas, again and again.

Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Untitled, 2007.

Below, artist Dorothy Napangardi uses just three colors - black, red and white - to create her masterpiece, in the "Performance" gallery image above (to the right of the visitors) and, in detail, below.  Although the painting does not reference a specific location,  it does suggest the vast Western desert, dotted with clumps of spinifex grass, as seen in the aerial photo (below the painting detail) by photographer Mike Gillam.

Dorothy Napangardi, Karntakurlanju Jukurrpa, 2002, detail.

Source: http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/extremes/australia/australia_slideshow?result_6095_result_page=2

The exhibit is strengthened by material from Harvard's extensive ethnographic collection,  including wooden vessels and baskets collected by  anthropologist William Lloyd Warner.  As noted in Lee Lawrence's  Wall Street Journal review of the show, the inclusion of these pieces shows the continuity between the objects made before the 1970's, and the modern, acrylic-on-canvas transmissions of the same body of knowledge.

Unidentified artist, Batjparra (skirt), c. 1928.

Tom Djawa, The Burala Rite, 1972.

The piece above is painted using earth pigments on eucalyptus board. It references a story of families eating catfish, and placing the piled-up fishbones in a hollow log pictured in the center.  This developed into traditional burial rites and ceremonies which we, as outsiders, would not attend. But we don't need to be initiates to appreciate the skillful abstract representation of the turtle as a true work of art.

The Burula Rite, detail.