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Connect the Dots

Art can be both "aboriginal" and "contemporary"

Seeing Booker-Lowe Gallery's "Uncrated II…" exhibition of works by Australian aboriginal artists reminded me of a painting I saw more than ten years ago. By Tim Johnson, it was included in "Documenta IX," the prestigious contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Johnson's painting used the dot-based style of his country's Papunya region. I assumed it was by an aboriginal artist until I saw the white guy in the photo accompanying Johnson's bio.

Johnson had created the work in a style of the Australian indigenous people, whose cultures stretch back at least 40,000 years. Of course, artists appropriate stuff all the time, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But when the cultural production of a systematically disenfranchised people is appropriated by the highly enfranchised, things get morally sticky. Aborigines weren't even allowed Australian citizenship until 1967.

I still wonder why the hell Jan Hoet, the show's artistic director, didn't just show work by an aboriginal artist. Had Johnson done anything that new, interesting or transformative with the Papunya painting style? Not to my knowledge. But he was connected enough to get Hoet's attention, and a white male presenting this work unquestioningly placed it in the realm of contemporary art. Things are slowly changing, but when artwork is made by an indigenous person, it has all too often been viewed as solely an anthropological artifact. Decisions about what gets shown in an "art museum" and what ends up in a "natural history museum" have historically been informed by cultural prejudice.

This is an ongoing issue in the art world. In the mid-'90s, a major auction house insisted artist Judy Watson categorize her work as either "aboriginal" or "contemporary" -- but not both. Artists like Fred Wilson have explored the issue of categorization. Wilson created a revealing installation in which he presented "modern art" in a cluttered ethnographic museum setting and displayed "ethnographic material" in a pristine white gallery space.

The works of "Uncrated II…" were acquired during Nana Booker and David Lowe's trips to remote aboriginal communities formed by the Australian government, which forced its indigenous nomadic people to resettle as part of an assimilation program that lasted from the turn of the century to the mid-'60s. The practice should sound familiar to students of American history.

Contemporary aboriginal art initially garnered attention in the '70s, when a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya, a grim forced-resettlement community created around 1960 that threw different aboriginal peoples together in one place. Horrified, Bardon described Papunya as "a death camp in all but name." He encouraged his students to use acrylic paints to make images from their culture. These uprooted children were at a loss until the community-elder artists zealously embraced the new materials and used them to deal with their displacement. The project helped them reconnect with their cultures and the ancient designs, symbols and images that were in danger of disappearing as a result of the systematic dismantling of their way of life. An artist's cooperative was set up to produce and market the results, eventually earning income for the community. Papunya became a model for other settlements.

Traditional aboriginal art tells stories about the Dreaming, the aboriginal story of the world's creation. Historically, it was especially important in a culture without written language. Depending upon tribe and region, artwork was drawn on bark, painted in caves, or drawn in the sand or on people's bodies. It used material like charcoal or ochre pigments, mixed with binders such as plant gums. Today, acrylic and canvas are more common.

"Uncrated II…" is a mixed bag, but the show has some stunning paintings. These are individual artworks, all informed by their makers' cultures. John Lee's Ngarelli (Creation of the Country) (2003) is spectacular. Done in acrylic on linen, its colors are fantastically vivid. Black, fuchsia, orange and green lines of paint encircle one another, almost as if they were crocheted. Booker explains that the organically abstract pattern has its origins in geography -- both mythic and real. Two thick black lines indicate a river made by a serpent's trail. The curving parallel lines of other sections indicate wind patterns or sand rills. Suddenly, the visually dynamic painting also registers as a gorgeous, loving topography; you see the importance of land to Lee and his culture. The loss of it becomes all the more poignant.

Aboriginal art now brings in $10 million a year to auction sale rooms. Record prices are paid for works made by people who've pretty much spent their lives in abject poverty. And if you look at the owners of the works auctioned, they aren't the artists. Galleries and private collectors are the ones who make money in these sales. People may say that happens in most auctions -- but the situation with aboriginal artists is extreme.

According to a New Yorkerarticle by Geraldine Brooks, a work bought for $75 in the '70s from Papunya artist Johnny Warangkula was eventually sold to a New York collector for $263,000. Warangkula -- destitute, crippled and partially blind -- received nothing from the sale. There is a movement to give artists royalties from the astronomic resale of works, and more galleries are trying to treat the artists fairly to begin with.

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