The exhibition, Sung into Being: Aboriginal Masterworks 1984-94 from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, has been carefully curated by Diane Moon, Curator of Indigenous Fibre Art at QAGOMA, and displays groundbreaking artworks from the East Kimberley and central Arnhem Land regions. From the moment one enters the darkened rooms of the galleries that bookend the exhibition space, one is transported to another world of ancient time and deep spiritual belief. The bold barks and shimmering rarrk highlight an art form that is both slow and fast: both traditional and contemporary. The works were created by respected elders in remote communities, whose responsibility is not only to educate the uninitiated younger generation and pass on secret, sacred knowledge to the initiated, but to reveal concealed knowledge as responsible leaders in a cross-cultural engagement with non-Indigenous viewers. In visual form, these paintings on canvas, bark and plywood express The Dreaming, the spiritual philosophy of Indigenous Australians, historically derived from an oral based culture, and originally expressed by transformational performance of song and dance in ritual ceremony. In today’s harried, secular world, these timeless tomes of transcendental thought provide an opportunity for the empathetic viewer to pause and reflect, and listen deeply to the art of these senior storytellers.
Painting on canvas to communicate ancestor Dreaming stories is a relatively recent invention that famously evolved out of the Western desert in the 1970s when art facilitator, Geoffrey Bardon first encouraged elders of the Papunya Tula community to reveal their honey ant Dreaming story. Using the contemporary medium of paint on a corrugated wall at the local school, the artists engaged in an innovative form of sharing culture rather than the traditional methods of expression, such as song and dance; sand drawing; body painting; or rock art. Gradually, from this time, Indigenous art was not relegated to anthropological museums as ethnographic artifacts, but began to be displayed in art galleries as contemporary art.
Arguably the most powerful paintings in Sung into Being are the ochre, abstract works on plywood of the late eminent artist, Rover Joolama Thomas (1926-98). The tactile layers of thickly applied earth pigment mixed with water-soluble gum from the Kurrajong tree, represent his country, not only metaphysically but literally. In Jumbala Hill (1985) Thomas uses a restricted palette of browns and greys with soft tonal variations and organic, abstract lines in a balanced composition to depict a flat perspective of the Australian landscape. The bold fluid lines aerially map the topographical contours of country of the Kimberley region and act as mnemonic devices for Thomas’s people to aid them in recording their Gurirr Gurirr Dreaming mythology. In some of the works, such as Texas Downs Massacre (1985), dot delineations record the sites of racially driven massacres and provide a historical documentation of these for the East Kimberley people.
These paintings of The Dreaming invite the viewer to consider a worldview with a different spatio-temporal framework to the dominant Western hegemonic model. Eloquently described by esteemed anthropologist and humanist, W.E.H. Stanner in 1953, the Indigenous person’s concept of the Dreaming is said to be ‘a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man’. 1 Thomas’s creation paintings of his country support Stanner’s fluid concept of temporality, where time, past or present is not fixed. Upon a deeper reflection of their visual form and spiritual meaning, the viewer can also seek an awareness for understanding and meaning in the elder Indigenous artist’s reflection of timeless or ancient time.
Central Arnhem Land artists symbolise this ancient time by the use of fine cross-hatching or rarrk: a series of straight, close, parallel lines that are meditatively painted with a fine brush to cross over at angles with a similar series of painted, straight, close parallel lines. The grand narrative rarrk works of Jack Wunuwun’s (1930-91) Barnumbirr Manikay (Morning Star Song Cycle) (1988) and John Bulunbulun’s (1946-2010) Murrukundja Manikay (Ceremonial Song Cycle) (1993-94), express their respective clan cosmogonies or creation journeys of crossing country. In Les Murrikkuriya’s (1932-95) paintings, the rhythmic geometric rarrk appears to shimmer. This optical trick is enhanced when placed next to pulsating dots that outline figuration, such as the totemic rainbow serpents in Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent) (1987) and fish traps in Petrol Sniffer (1988). The overall visual effect simulates, for the Yolngu people, the ancestral spiritual power as located at sacred sites in central Arnhem Land. Namorrortu (1987), by Les Murrikkuriya’s brother, Jack Kalakala (1925-87), depicts rarrk encased in curvilinear lines that appear to generate movement in the image of the mythological being who originally roamed the earth creating The Dreaming tracks that named the sites, languages and laws that connect Kalakala and the Yolngu people to their country. In a masterful execution of minute precision rarrk, Terry Ngamandara Wilson’s (1950-2011) Waterhole at Barlparnarra (2007) is an abstract work devoid of any naturalistic elements. A circle in the centre of the work signifies a fresh waterhole sacred site. Its internal rarrk disrupts the geometric grid of external repetitive rarrk triangles that represent the local spike rush plant. This visual contrast expresses the spiritual force that radiates from the sacred site. Many of these rarrk works use the medium of stringy bark, which like ochre, is a literal connection to country to convey the artists’ transcendental vision—the painting is not only of the land, it is also from the land.
These timeless tomes of the philosophical framework of The Dreaming created by senior storytellers are traditional yet contemporary. Lin Onus’s (1948-96) Portrait of Jack Wunuwun (1988) is a finely executed painting on canvas that depicts traditional morning star Dreaming elements together with a contemporary realistic depiction of Wunuwun. Les Murrikkuriya’s Petrol Sniffer (1988) addresses a contemporary problem prevalent in Indigenous communities today.
At the time of their creation, many of these works were acquired together as surveys of the artists’ oeuvres by the Holmes à Court pastoral company, Heytesbury Pty Ltd, for the purpose of ensuring cultural preservation around the time of the 1988 Australian Bicentennial celebrations and in the lead up to the enactment of Native Title legislation.
In Sung into Being non-Indigenous viewers have the privilege and opportunity for a cross-cultural engagement in the art of senior Indigenous artists. By painting on canvas and bark, these storytellers command respect as they seek to share and communicate restricted knowledge about their spiritual beliefs in The Dreaming and its timelessness. By immersing oneself and listening deeply,2 the empathetic viewer can better understand Indigenous spiritual belief in today’s secular times. An ensuing critical awareness and better appreciation of the motivations of Indigenous artists helps ensure cultural survival of an ancient art form.
Rover Joolama Thomas, Kukatja/Wangkajunga people, c1926-1988, Djundugal (Rainbow Serpent) Dreaming place, 1986. Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
John Bulunbulun, Ganalbingu people, 1946-2010, Murrukundja Manikay (Song cycle). Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
Jack Wunuwun, Murrungun/Djinang people, Banumbirr Manikay – (Morning Star song cycle),1988. Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
Les Mirrikkuriya, Rembarrnga people, 1932-1995, Petrol sniffer, 1988. Janet Holmes à Court Collection.
1. W.E.H. Stanner, White Man Got No Dreaming, Australia National University Press, Canberra, 1979.
2. Judy Atkinson, ‘Privileging Indigenous Research Methodologies’, National Indigenous Researchers Forum, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2001. See https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Brian_Calliou/publication/259176952...