Canvases Tell Stories of Aboriginal Dreaming
Embassy of Australia Hosts New Exhibit to Highlight Works From Indigenous Tribes
For several millenniums, the indigenous people of Australia told stories in different ways. Sometimes, they shared tales by word of mouth. Other times, they drew pictures in the sand or painted their bodies.
But none of it was recorded permanently, simply because they never saw a need for it.
Then, in the 1970s, something changed. An art teacher named Geoff Bardon asked a group of people from the Papunya tribe to paint their stories as murals on a school wall. This led to a contemporary art movement of other Aboriginal people recording their own stories on canvas.
Today, 29 of these pieces hang in the Embassy of Australia as part of the “Circles in the Sand” exhibit. The exhibit displays work from different Aboriginal artists in three tribes: the Papunya, the Yuendumu and the Balgo.
“These pieces are loaded with cultural depth,” says Brendan Wall, the embassy’s cultural director.
“When you look at any of these canvases, you’re seeing history, lessons, dreams. It’s quite extraordinary,” he says.
Each year, the embassy has five or six art exhibits open to the public in its foyer, and every summer, the goal is to display indigenous art, Wall says.
This year, the embassy worked with the University of Virginia to put together “Circles in the Sand.” UVA has one of the largest collections of Aboriginal art in the United States in its Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection.
The two organizations decided to feature three tribes out of the dozens of indigenous groups that produce art to narrow down their options.
At first glance, the paintings might appear pretty but don’t seem to reveal much. The artists use shapes and colors in a swirl on the canvases. The shapes are traditional iconography, with squares sometimes representing rocks and circles illustrating campsites. Depending on the tribe, the artists use either bright colors or earth tones.
The shapes might form patterns or be placed at random, but without a knowledge of the tribe’s history — or, in the exhibit’s case, a reading of the plaque next to the painting — the meaning behind the canvas is a mystery.
In “Five Dreamings: Flying Ant Dreaming, Possum Dreaming, Rainbow Serpent, Rock, Wallaby, Rain,” artist Michael Jagamara Nelson uses a mixture of bright colors in various shapes to tell a cosmological story. The colors blend together, and one cannot tell where one dream ends and another begins.
Indeed, Wall says that the descriptions provided don’t fill in all the gaps.
“Depending on who you are in society, whether you have a high ranking or you’re a man or woman, you read different things in each painting,” he says. “It’s filled with symbols, but only certain people know what all of the symbols mean.”
Some of the paintings tell of dreams, while others describe tribal initiation rituals. The paintings even offer practical lessons: Where does one find food in the area?
But, lest visitors forget, Wall has one reminder: Each of these works, done on canvas with acrylic paint, are by modern artists working with their personal history.
“These aren’t old pieces,” Wall says. “They’re translations of what the Aboriginal people have been doing for years.”
The exhibit is open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at
the Embassy of Australia, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The works are on display through Sept. 17.