Layers of Meaning in Aboriginal Art

Nadia Rosenthal MonashProfessor Nadia Rosenthal is Founding Director of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University. She takes great pleasure in sharing her collection of aboriginal art with her work colleagues at the Institute - in this interview she tells a personal story that illustrates the layers of meaning in aboriginal art.

The first time I saw Sarrita's painting was when she had her earlier show here a couple of years ago. It was at a time when my father - who is in his 80s - and my stepmother - who is in her 60s - were visiting me here in Western Australia enroute to Bali.

My father is a composer, and all his life he wanted to hear a Gamelan orchestra. For his 85th birthday, I flew him out here and we took him up to some villages in Bali so he could hear the Gamelan. It was a magical trip. At the end of their trip, they came back and I said, "We don't have time to really explore Aboriginal culture but I can give you one big shot of it by simply taking you to Japingka". I didn't know what was going to be on the walls, but we walked in and it was Sarrita's show. It just so happened that she was there that day. David said, "Oh, well, maybe Sarrita can give you a little tour."

My parents were completely and utterly charmed by this incredible woman. I mean, she's an amazing force of nature. She has this incredibly beautiful open face and she's so articulate about her work. They bought a painting that day. It was small enough so they could get it in their suitcase. It was just one of her small paintings about water. They hung it in their house in San Francisco. They had bought a small Balinese sculpture and this painting as the two things to remember the whole trip by.

Something really tragic happened over the last year. My stepmother got really sick and died very very rapidly. It was just awful. Here's my father who is about to turn 88 and his life companion has died. He said he never thought in a million years he'd survive her and here he was writing out the eulogy for her funeral. He was in a bit of shock.

My father and I have spent a lot of time together over the last couple of months. I was present when the family got together to read my step mother's will. She had left money for both me and my sister and her children. It was clear that everybody wanted to do something very special with what they received. It might have been to take a special trip, do something special for somebody, or buy something special that they would remember this extraordinary woman by.

I came to the gallery when this last show was up. I came upstairs right away and I looked around and there was a painting that was one of those more bronzed background ancestor paintings. It was long and it was hanging over there. I thought, "Oh, God. That is the most beautiful thing." I was a bit in a hurry because I had just flown in from London. I managed to get here in time for the show so that I could come in and see Sarrita and look at the show, because it was so exciting when the show is going on. I thought, "Well, that's the one I really want to buy next." I didn't have time and I had to rush and so I left. By the time I got back the next day, someone had bought it. Then, I thought, "Well, I don't really know what I should do. What should I do?" By that time, that particular painting had really emblazoned itself in my mind.

I went downstairs a bit disappointed and saw the big blue painting. All of a sudden, a whole set of impressions came to me. One of them was that, it is cosmic, obviously. It has got a lot of that going on. It's also winter.

The last trip that I had ever taken with my stepmother was to take them up to Lapland and go on a long husky trip through the snow. I've spent all my life in various snowy places. I grew up in New England. It looked to me like the sort of wonderful vision that you see through a blizzard. I mean, that's the first thing. Plus, it's got cloud imagery, it's got place imagery and it's got a big cell in the middle of it. Of course, that's the way I see that. Because I'm a scientist in the field of cell biology, and I think about things in cellular context. I couldn't take my eyes off of it and the depth of those incredible colors she's layered on it and everything about it just really took me away. I told David that I was going to go off and try to rob a bank and come back. Then, I suddenly realized, that's where her money was going to go. That's what I've used to buy it.

I've used her gift to me to buy that painting and connect it in my mind with all the trips I took with her and with the moment when they were up here with Sarrita and they bought that other painting. It's a great connection.

I'd love Sarrita to know that I bought this painting in memory of someone she actually sold a painting to. That person will be right in that painting for me for the rest of my life. It's really beautiful.

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