Like many visitors who enjoyed NMWA’s first exhibition of Aboriginal art, Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Painters, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of NMWA’s upcoming show Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting, which opens on October 9th. This exhibition will display Aboriginal paintings from the collection of scholars Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell of Yale University and Georgetown University. Their collection boasts several celebrity artists from the Northern and Central Desert, including Emily Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, and my favorite, Gloria Petyarre (Emily Kngwarreye’s niece). Several painters in the show are related to each other as cousins, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces. This ongoing family tradition of painting reveals much about the structure of Aboriginal society and how “Dreamings”—sacred stories about Aboriginal land and ancestors—are passed down from older to younger generations and continually reinvented and expressed through art.
After viewing the Aboriginal paintings at NMWA in 2006 and having seen representations of Dreamings in galleries and museums throughout Alice Springs, Australia, it is hard to imagine that these paintings were once overlooked in the 1970s. During this decade many anthropologists perceived Aboriginal women’s Dreamings as less meaningful, less sacred, and ultimately inferior to men’s Dreamings. However, in the 1980s Australian scholars such as Francoise Dussart and Diane Bell insisted through their anthropological research that women’s Dreamings are the artistic and cultural equivalents of Dreamings held by men. This movement to bolster the social standing of art by Aboriginal women echoed the protests by art historians in the United States like Linda Nochlin, who famously asked in her 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
Eventually in the 1980s and 1990s, more scholars acknowledged the creativity of women Aboriginal artists. Some even declared women’s representations of Dreamings as a radical aesthetic departure from men’s, primarily for their use of bold colors like pink, purple and orange instead of men’s traditional reds, browns, and blacks. Women artists do not usually render traditional iconography such as parallel lines or grid-like forms commonly seen in men’s Dreamings. Furthermore, Aboriginal women are known to apply paint more thickly and liberally onto the canvas than men. Often, women’s broad brushstrokes and thick application of paint is inspired by body painting, which they execute for ceremonies and celebrations of their country.
The artistic characteristics just mentioned are large generalizations that fuel the debate over whether or not there are truly distinct differences between Aboriginal men and women’s paintings. Though this debate has not been resolved, one thing remains clear: both men’s and women’s Dreamings are intended to extend knowledge of Aboriginal places, designs, and stories. We have a unique opportunity to see the artistic expression of this knowledge at NMWA this fall.
Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting opens October 9, 2009 and runs through January 10, 2010.
About the Author: Shana Klein is currently a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She recently received her Masters degree in Art History at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she wrote her Masters Thesis on contemporary art by Aboriginal women.
This post was revised on September 22, 2009.