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Crossing Cultures; The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art

Nov 06, 2012 01:45PM ● By Erin Frisch

A Review: Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art

The Hood Museum, a gem of art and history nestled right in the heart of the Dartmouth College campus,  is well known for its focus on international and cultural art. Its exhibits feature carefully selected pieces that focus on environmental sustainability, human rights, and preservation of history, along with other important issues of our world today. The Crossing Cultures exhibit, at the Hood from September 15 through March 10, displays the works of modern Aboriginal artists from all walks of life. In spite of the period of colonialism in Australia from 1788 to 1901, a period when foreigners ignored Aboriginal customs and their significance, Aboriginal artwork is enlightening Western society more than two centuries later.

The first gallery in the exhibit, with high ceilings extending almost to the sky itself, evokes the organic movement and colors of the Australian outback, as seen by the Aboriginals who call that land their home. These bright works feature swirling details that nearly flow into tribal patterns, and then diverge at the last moment into their own design. The raised dots form organic mosaics, crafted not according to any outline but according to the living, breathing, imperfect organisms of the wild. On the opposite walls, paintings composed of sandy orange tones evoke images of the sprawling deserts that inspired them. Many are titled using Aboriginal words for various wildlife. One, picturing what almost looks like an intricate desert flower blooming into layers of petals, is titled Aloota, the Aboriginal word for rock wallaby, a small kangaroo rat native to the Australian outback. Just like the desert plains, these paintings are wild, vibrant, and unpredictable.

The next gallery features reproductions of traditional ancestral artwork. Encoded in thousands of white dots on rusty red backgrounds, each one tells a story of a deceased leader, a sacred practice, or a revered legend. But this is not ancient art, although it looks like it could have been preserved through generations. On the contrary, this tribal art is created today by natives who want to keep the stories alive and relevant. Each Aboriginal clan has different ceremonial emblems, as well as their own techniques for recording them for posterity. The gallery features wooden carvings, sculptures, and paintings on tree bark. Many are accompanied by the corresponding legends of the mythological spirits and deities of the land. Modern Aboriginals pay homage to their ancestors through traditional ancestral eulogies. Pieces of bark are painted carefully with animals and spirits whose traits the deceased evoked in their lives. The Aboriginal people choose not only to pass on the stories to their children but also to teach their children how to record them for themselves through their artwork. The new generation, even as it continues to carry on these traditional practices, is also creating traditions of its own.

Modern Aboriginal art represents the environment of wild Australia and the myths created there; it also represents the tamed, urban areas. The last gallery depicts the “urban experience.” Using modern media, the indigenous people speak out against issues that threaten their heritage, their land, and their community. Several works on one wall protest an incident of police violence against an Aboriginal man, Tony Albert. In 2004, Albert was taken into custody in Queensland. Less than an hour later, he was found dead in his cell, brutally beaten to death. Artists created works in watercolor, pencil, and photography to peacefully protest the wrongdoings against Albert and his people. Other pieces in the gallery highlight the lives of distinct groups within the Aboriginal community, including modern Aboriginal women trying to create identities in society and transgender Aboriginals.

This exhibit demonstrates not only how drastically different works of art from the same country can be but also how they are ultimately connected by their common homeland. However dissimilar some of the pieces may be to each other, they all share their origins—having been painted, sculpted, carved, or photographed by an Aboriginal hand. Through their art, modern Aboriginals have succeeded in remembering the past, appreciating the present, and forming the future. This non-traditional fusion of both aesthetically pleasing and intriguing art makes for a worthwhile trip to the Hood Museum.

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