Monday, January 24, 2011

Desert country: a poignant reminder from Aboriginal art on Australia day

Desert country is an art exhibition currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In the foyer is a huge (5 m high, 10 m wide) photo of the outback, red dirt, a road rolling into nowhere. It’s the standard Western perspective, a snapshot of a moment in time, captured from the viewpoint of the individual staring outward. The red road is surrounded by scrubby bush – better stick to the road, cos in the desert lies the possibility of slowly parched death.

Inside are six rooms, containing the first ever attempt to chart the forty year evolution of the internationally acclaimed Australian desert painting movement. The paintings are drawn entirely from the the Gallery’s extensive holdings of Aboriginal art.

The exhibition is a haunting reminder that there is entirely other way of viewing, and living, in desert country. (These are just my thoughts, as I wandered. I might be well be well of base in my interpretation, but here is what struck me).

The perspective is topographical, looking down, rather than from the perspective of a person looking outward. How a desert people can conceive of land as birds eye is remarkable and shows an active and powerful imagination.

This land is given shape, takes form, through dots, rather than lines. Dots suggest a different way to measure, to enscribe and appreciate scale.

Most pictures have a narrative, a story. Thus land is shaped by the past, by the interplay of human and history and it is this that gives meaning, value, identity. Or tells of bush tucker, the path of emu, the spots to sample bush oranges or plums. What to Western eyes is arid rock, is for Aboriginal a place of sustenance.

The paintings also suggests a radically different approach to time. Often European art captures a moment, a snapshot. In contrast, in this art, a narrative over time seems embedded in the painting. Thus time seems to not be linear, but to be shaped by a sequence of past events, that can all be represented on one single canvas, Desert country.

The standard of the paintings is variable. Some works looking decidedly amateur. Others are simply stunning. But everyone is a reminder that there is another whole way of looking at life.

Land need not be for exploring, fencing, settling, mining. It can also give us identity, tell our story, offer us sustenance, provide a different perspective on time and space.

Desert Country will be making it’s way around Australia. Well worth checking out when it comes by you – Western Australia (13 May – 31 July), Victoria (17 August – 2 October), Queensland (18 November 2011 – 30 January 2012), New South Wales (18 February – 6 May 2012). For more details, go here.

Posted by steve at 10:09 AM