Aboriginal Dreams Hit the Canvas in Knowledge Keepers

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Australian art has long had a special significance, since the indigenous Aboriginal culture did not develop a written language, so art and verbal traditions are the records of those people's history. There are a number of misconceptions among Westerners about the Aborigines, who are sometimes thought of as one tribe. There were once 250 to 300 different languages, with perhaps 600 dialects, but many of these languages have died out.

The Aborigines have the world's oldest living culture, going back an estimated 60,000 years, but they did not create cities, so we lack the equivalent of the ruins of a Coliseum or a Pantheon. Aboriginal artists created rock art, and a great number of these sites exist today. They also painted, but on bark, using pigments that could not withstand the passage of time — neither could the bark.

Contemporary Aboriginal artists began working on canvas and linen a bit more than 40 years ago, so their art need no longer be ephemeral, and Aboriginal art has become an important movement, with huge vitality and increasing curatorial recognition. Arts Brookfield, in cooperation with the Booker-Lowe Gallery, is presenting an important exhibition of more than 50 contemporary Aboriginal paintings, curated by Sally Reynolds for Arts Brookfield/Houston. They are on display at One Allen Center in downtown Houston, and document the strength and variety to be found among these artists.


Knowledge Keepers: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art

Through July 9. One Allen Center, 500 Dallas, 713-336-2280, artsbroookfield.com.

Perhaps the most vivid work is Snake Vine Dreaming by Geraldine Napangardi Granites. Dreams are a crucial element in Aboriginal culture, and the Aborigines' traditions incorporate with significance "Dreamtime," the ancient period when their world was created. Granites uses yellow and green dots, and purple and red dots with an orange outline, to generate a work of stunning energy and beauty. The use of extensive dots in painting is a long-standing Aboriginal tradition. If a sacred scene was depicted, in order to keep it secret from outsiders, the artist would cover it with dots to hide the original work.

Prices are not normally included in a review, but it may be relevant to mention that the works in this exhibition are easily affordable. Snake Vine Dreaming is priced at a remarkably low $1,150, and other prices range from $225 to $10,800.

Mina Mina is a village near Lake Mackay in the Tanami Desert, and the subject of several paintings. One is Mina Mina Dreaming by Kelly ­Napanangka Michaels, which repeats a recurring image 24 times but with variations in the coloring; in some ways, the style resembles Keith Haring's. The work is vibrant, seeming to pulse with energy, almost approaching fluorescence.

With this huge an exhibition, there's a lot to choose from. Most intriguing to me was a quieter painting, but one that invited you into its world and its mystery: Claudie Mouth Crossing by Rosella Namok. The Claudie River, which empties into the Coral Sea, is in Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost point of Australia and Earth's largest unspoiled wilderness. Namok's large painting uses subtle, pale colorations, and she frames the work at top and bottom with lengths of gray open structures, a bit like the bones of a beached whale or the carcass of a shipwreck, though the regularity of the "bones" belies these concepts. The work has haunting, subdued grace and enormous appeal.

Namok has another work, Stormy Rains...Open Seas, that is the polar opposite in its ­depiction of movement, as splashes of white on a blue background depict a storm, while pencil-thin horizontal black and gray strands might be the rain itself — or could these be simulating slashes in the work, perhaps from an artist beyond our ken defending his mystery? One of the Aborigines' concepts is that an artist can "own" a story — for this reason, one artist doesn't paint the sun or the moon, since he doesn't own the rights to those "­stories."

Hunting Story by Bobby Bunugurr will have a more familiar look to the Western eye, since it graphically illustrates and represents elements in a hunt. There are the hunters, and a canoe, and also the prey: snakes, turtles, fish, a crocodile, swans, ducks and emus. They are linked in a brown landscape suggesting to me the unity of the world — perhaps all of them, even the vegetation, are elements in the same Dreaming (story), part of a universal thread of being.

Also perhaps familiar to Western eyes is a colorful abstract work by Kudditji Kngwarreye titled My Country. It has its own beauty, and powerful composition, using primarily red, pink and orange, but with white, blue and green dominant as well. While peaceful, the elements have energy and seem to shoulder each other for position or authority, perhaps echoing the tectonic clash of cultures that began with the European entry into Australia.

Kngwarreye is also showing Emu Dreaming, a seemingly straightforward abstract painting of a white square centered on a blue background, but on closer inspection, the blues are seen to vary, and together with the white image form a checkerboard of nine squares. Emu Dreaming is rich in power, without bothering to say "notice me." The painting holds its strength even at a good distance, and, like many of these works, should be viewed from afar as well as up close. The dot paintings especially, as you would expect, coalesce and change with distance

Bush Onion Dreaming by Daphne Napurrula Marks is subtle and soothing, using reds on a purple background, with tiny shapes — perhaps a bit like sperm swimming upstream — prevalent throughout the work. Lorna Brown Napanangka's Marrapinti Rock Hole uses brown and white dots on a red fabric, deliberately eschewing high impact or the allure of color, and while it seemed less appealing in its simple solemnity, I thought, "Perhaps the artist senses something we don't, and we haven't caught up yet."

Water Dreaming by Felicity Nampijinpa Robertson is colorful and powerful, demanding your attention and paying off in energy and grace. It is composed of yellow dots on red, white dots combined with another color, and brown lines to delineate segments. I would recommend several viewings at varying distances. This holds true as well for Star Dreaming by Paddy Japaljarri Sims; it's colorful and vibrant, with long, serpentine images interspersed with straighter strands, and a combination of lively colors suggesting an intent to please — and it does.

This is an exhibition of talent and love, and a chance to savor some of the dreams of a distant culture. See it and find your own favorites.

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