Aborigines in Seattle

Bush Hen Dreaming Sandhill Country

Today I went to the Seattle Art Museum in search of paintings by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and happily found them except all the Graves were early ones (from the 1930s), magical as they were, I still have to find one of his translucent late flower paintings, meditatively still, luminously beautiful.

However, the main event was unexpected: a major exhibition of modern Aboriginal Art.

On first look, it appears to the untrained eye as 'abstract' but closer inspection (and helpful contextualization) reveals that this is painting embedded in place and that place is always particular, dynamically unfolding and of a communal and sacred imagination. They can always be read at different levels - for everything has multiple levels of story interwoven.

What struck me so powerfully was how within Aboriginal culture, each group has its own individual pattern of making, using different (if overlapping) forms and materials; and, each is part of a vivid living culture that dances in the viewer's sight and heart. The wealth of the different forms was extraordinary given that each and every Aboriginal tribe is relatively small. The world may be dreamed into existence but at the heart of that dreaming is a weaving, dynamic dance - indeed one of the films on show was of one of the featured artists (and his companions) dancing a work into being that consisted of sculpted painted poles between which the dance evolved.

This reminded you that each and every painting lived in a communal pattern of meaning. It emerges out of a shared space: human, animal and landscape. It had the same sense of standing in a fresco-ed church and being informed by a narrative space that is shaped not only by physical form but also sacred action. Indeed more than one painter confessed an allegiance to Christianity and to the Dreaming. You could see why - they have the same task at hand revealing the world as sacrament, embedded in a sacred ordering.

The sheer colour and energy that were the paintings was enlivening and you left buoyed up by hope that such making was still possible in the world.

But among the works was recognition of the costs born by Aborigine communities - this is not art born out of unworldly serenity but hard fought affirmation in the face of hostility and neglect.As this painting makes clear:

Horso Creek Massacre

Here the white helmeted figures are the Australian militia who in the late nineteenth century killed a number aborigines when they had driven off bullocks being brought onto the land by ranchers. The tree in the centre appears to weep and a gashing wound appears on one of the hills. Place has memory and this stark story is added to its realities.

I went from this exhibition into the contemporary gallery but this, I fear, looked strikingly insipid by comparison: a painfully held together collection of uncertain pieces belonging nowhere except in a gallery (and the minds of their creators).


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