Spirituality and the History of Aboriginal Art

Shifts in Values in Aboriginal Art

The spiritual appeal in Aboriginal art seems to be a source of considerable reinvention. Sometimes when that cycle starts it draws in new players all the time. There seems to be certain times in large movements where there’s a shift and that triggers a whole series of human reactions that get expressed through culture.

For me, that’s what has been happening in Aboriginal art. I think that perhaps the shift has got to do with aboriginal people realising that there is a wider interest in their own culture because certainly when we talk from maybe the sixties and even the seventies, there was a rejection of Aboriginal language in the education system.

There was a rejection of any kind of Aboriginal values often in education and in the missions and in the settlements where governments were providing infrastructure. All the messages that were being sent to the Aboriginal people, certainly prior to and right up until at least the mid-1970s, was that your culture was insignificant and your culture shouldn’t be brought into the modern towns or establishments.  There was this strong discouragement of people being aboriginal and a strong encouragement for them to adopt a Western approach … everything to do with Western modern life style.

At some point that changed. Aboriginal art battled in the early days, it battled with the managers allowing Aboriginal people to express themselves in that way and to run commercial enterprises based on their cultural production and cultural knowledge. It was difficult.

Certainly when we went out with Aboriginal designs to create Desert Designs in 1986–87, there was a sense that people had preconceptions about what Aboriginal art was. They were not convinced that Aboriginal art had anything to offer modern Australian society.

Perceptions were that it was brown, it was earthy colours, it wasn't exciting, it was colourless, and it wouldn’t connect with modern Australians. That was the preconception. And then we would show them some of the contemporary works from an artist like Jimmy Pike and they’d go “Oh, Is that Aboriginal art? Gosh! Yes that is pretty exciting stuff!” There was this, I think, strong prejudice that existed within Australia about Aboriginal people and therefore about the art work. It probably took another ten years for that hurdle to be overcome, the idea that it wouldn’t be interesting to them.

I think as soon as the first artist started achieving success in Aboriginal society, because it is so integrated, I think other people wanted to be become part of that. They wanted to share in the art making, in the marketing, in telling their own stories and receiving the recognition, receiving the fame, receiving the financial rewards that they were seeing with some of their successful artists. Not universally and not all through their lives but certainly when their art was taken to the market for the first time, it was probably one of the occasions where they could see a return for their work.

At that time Aboriginal people were being turned off properties all over rural Australia, as an unfortunate result of the equal pay for pastoral work change. It just meant that land owners weren’t prepared to pay Aboriginal workers and their families who lived on the stations an equal pay.

That had been a huge shift for life in rural Australia. A lot of people at that time in the late 1970s, were moved off the land where they had lived, which were cattle stations. They went to live on the fringes of the regional towns. Then there was this time shift where land was resumed by the government and the modern communities were set up on these locations. But in between it was part of this whole transformation that was just happening throughout aboriginal Australia.

The Art Movement Changes Over Time

The Aboriginal movement has gone through several periods of significant change. The initial challenge was gaining acceptance. And when you look at that challenge, the influence of Geoffrey Bowden was very important.

Geoffrey Bowden was a school teacher who played a key role as an instigator, he helped stimulate the art movement. In the initial stages, purely in terms of the art, the pioneer painters were all men. Geoffrey was encouraged by aboriginal men to look at their art because initially he was asking young school children to paint things that related to their world. Eventually the older men came to him and said, “Why are you asking the young people, it’s the old people who know.”

The huge development that came was that group of men started telling very significant stories and therefore had to work out which aspects of that had to be withheld from public view. They worked together, men from at least half a dozen different language groups. Papunya was a government agency town. It had no natural cultural connection. They were people from different language groups all put together. They worked out jointly how they could express very significant aboriginal stories without upsetting the requirement for non-initiated people not to have access to the meanings.

The Change To Big Paintings On Canvas

As the aboriginal painters of Papunya developed, their work came to be known all around Australia. I remember seeing the first big exhibition of Aboriginal art in Western Australia at The Art Gallery of Western Australia. I think it was the mid-1970s. I think it was probably 3 or 4 years after the movement had started. The paintings were fabulous. They were big, one meter, two meter, two and half meter paintings. Previously the work that we would see in State galleries and collections were mostly bark paintings and small works that were rarely more than half a metre across.

To see these great big painted images - in earthly colors with these very prominent aboriginal motifs that could only come from an aboriginal culture - it was a fascinating thing to see. The paintings were riveting and you just had a sense of how strong the culture was that those paintings that didn’t come from nowhere. They came out of people’s cultural knowledge. I think something like that was in a modern sense that was on display. Perhaps partly because it had now moved on to canvas. Previously we were used to seeing it on more earthbound materials.

It would be carved on wooden artefacts or perhaps on stone or pearl shell but it tended not to be certainly on these same materials that were used by the European modernists. Suddenly there was this whole comparison possible between a painter in Australia and a painter in America and a painter in Europe and now an aboriginal painter. That established a whole new set of possibilities.

Women Painters Introduced Colour & Different Stories

The next stage I think was when the women started painting. The first ten years were dominated by male painters, maybe for 15 years. Then as the women painters started to work alongside women art managers, they brought a different sense to the art world. They were really the ones that introduced the color, the range of colours.

They introduced women’s stories. They introduced a lot more paintings about the women’s world so about the fruit gathering and the food sources, what aboriginal people relied on for survival in the bush which was a whole new addition. That started happening in the mid-1980s. At that point, I think we started seeing the first glimpses of painters who were crossover artists, because the colour was very contemporary. Perhaps the painting became looser because the women seemed to be moving beyond archtetypal designs, painting references to ceremonies, food sources and landscape.

The paintings became quite free. Some of the major Aboriginal artists who emerged there included people like Emily Kngwarreye. The started using what they knew freely, adapting it or freely expressing it to give us something new. After 15 years this created a new sense of aboriginal art emerging. It gathered a whole lot of new momentum and went out afresh.

Since then, new communities joined the Aboriginal art movement maybe every year. There’s been a surge recently. Every time a new language group, a new community, comes in to the Aboriginal art fold, they bring some differences. They bring new stories, new approaches. We see a whole new wave of artworks coming from different regional areas into the gallery.

Where Aboriginal Art Is On The International Stage

The Aboriginal art movement now goes out on major international excursions. Big projects take place in major centers. Paris, perhaps most recently, has opened its Musée Branly, which is less contemporary and more more graphic in its basis.

It has managed to incorporate Aboriginal art into the fabric of the building. It is in the tiles and on the roof, on some of the the pillars. Not the museum, but the book shop and some of the areas of the building. It’s made a huge statement, more recently, a huge design on the roof of the building so it can be seen from the Eiffel Tower. Something like that is incredible highlight in terms of placing aboriginal art on the map in international cities.

The Future of the Aboriginal Art Movement

I hope we see more intergenerational connection between the elders - who have lived in remote places under different circumstances - and their children. The children who have grown up in communities and settlements with some of their grandparents and parents who actually grew up just on their ancestor lands without any western infrastructure.

I'm hoping that all of that knowledge will continue to be expressed through future generations. Those values, they will change, they always have, but the dynamic qualities that we see in aboriginal art will continue to have a role in generations to come. I think, in terms of expressing Aboriginal art, we’ve loved being able to put art gallery work together in the space that we have at Japingka and seeing the diversity and the quality in running the exhibitions. We would love to have more people to have access to that. We’re still having people come in to our Aboriginal art gallery and be surprised at what is there. We certainly hope that that will continue to happen.

Ultimately, for people to be able to have that ‘wow’ experience, it would be great to have museums or even interactive spaces where people could see a lot more of aboriginal culture. More and more people are visiting Australia. Overseas visitors expect to have some interaction with aboriginal culture. For a whole lot of reasons, many people don’t experience that and I feel that they’ve been shortchanged. They would like to understand more about Australia and aboriginal life.

Perhaps the place for that to happen is in the regions rather than in the major capital cities. While there are still contemporary art galleries, maybe the story can be very well told closer to home. People will see aboriginal culture in the south, but they’ll see it also in some of those more remote regions. I think many people go there and expect to see both the beauty of the landscape and the values of aboriginal culture. I just think it would be great to see - in places like Darwin and Alice Springs - a large visual presence that tells the story.

The Canning Stock Route exhibition, which toured Australia, was a groundbreaking example. It was a multimedia aboriginal experience of the Canning Stock Route. That kind of exhibition may well point the way to a really high powered, high value interaction with aboriginal life.

That could well take place on aboriginal lands and in aboriginal communities. Using modern technology and the very ancient cultural values we could create something quite marvellous.