Newsletter - April 2013
From Dreamtime to Machine Time
Our April lecture by Rebecca Hossack took us on a tour of Australia and Australian Aboriginal art. Rebecca was obviously an expert in her subject; she opened the first gallery in Europe specialising in Aboriginal art – an art of paradoxes and one of the oldest arts in the world. Rebecca showed us a map explaining the vast numbers of different indigenous people, with different languages and cultures, that there were in Australia – an area which virtually all the countries of Europe could contain.
The Aboriginal paintings demonstrate their tales of creation, and their love and reverence for the land. The creation stories – dreamtime – explain the ‘law’, the way things were, are, and will be. Understanding the creation myths help in the appreciation of Aboriginal art. Rebecca told us that the Aboriginal belief was that originally there was a vast, flat plain, in darkness, and the ancestral figures, whether animal, plant, rivers, rocks, all slept beneath.
They all had human characteristics and, in creation, these beings burst through into this world, some rising into the heavens to become celestial bodies. Everything has its creation story, and these stories can be expressed in dancing, singing, as well as visual iconography.
Some of the art takes the form of sand mosaics, heavily patterned, where circles represent the site were the ancestor emerged. Australia is also the home of the oldest ever representation of a human face, carved into a rock, which is possibly 50,000 years old. It is only in the last 50 years or so that Aborigines have set down their art on paper or bark.
Rebecca told us of one of the most famous artists, Albert Namatjira, who painted landscapes in watercolour influenced by a European style rather than the more symbolic style of other artists who followed. Albert became the first Aboriginal citizen, but he was tried and sent to prison for sharing alcohol with ‘the natives’. He eventually died a broken man.
Twelve years after Albert’s death, a teacher called Geoffrey Bardon arrived to teach at a settlement school in 1971. He encouraged the people to make their art more permanent, and instead of using ochre on the sand, or their bodies, to use housepaint and hardboard. Geoffrey then began to sell the art in Alice Springs and with the money made, he bought proper canvas and paint for the artists.
The paintings, which depict creation stories and the Aboriginal culture, are all painted from a bird’s eye view of the land. If an animal is depicted it is often in the form of their footprints. The human form is depicted as a U shape which represents the imprint in the sand made by the sitting body.
One of the most renowned painters was called Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri – his work has been auctioned for millions of dollars, and hangs in the National Gallery of Australia. Rebecca told us the delightful story of bringing Clifford to London, for an exhibition at her gallery, where he expected to see the Queen.
A distinguished gentleman at the exhibition asked her if everything was going well, and she confessed that she was really worried that she was going to lose Clifford’s trust completely as she was obviously unable to fulfil his expectations. The next day a phone call came, the gentleman said “I have spoken to my cousin and she will be delighted to meet you and Clifford at the Palace this afternoon”. It was Lord Harewood. Rebecca’s standing with Clifford was saved and he attended the Palace wearing a morning suit, top hat – and trainers that he had hand-painted for the occasion.
Rebecca also told us about the visit of a group of artists to England, who asked to see “where the trouble started”. So they set off for Whitby, birthplace of Captain Cook (who, in their view, had started the trouble) and where they spent the night in a Youth Hostel. One wonders what Yorkshire made of this visit!
There were introductions to the works of other artists, some using large canvasses, and some women painters, and also details of the sad conditions in which these pictures are produced. There are many different styles, monochromatic, violently coloured, and pictures of desert landscapes that appear to our eyes to be empty and are portrayed by the indigenous people as packed with pattern and colour. The artist’s familiarity with the landscape can in some cases make their paintings the equivalent of important legal documents, as they prove they intimately know their own land. Vast tracts of land have been given back to Aboriginal people as a result.
If you are lucky enough to own a piece of Aboriginal art, we were told, you can hang it on a wall with any side you please uppermost. The evening was a fascinating glimpse of another world view seen through a very particular culture.