Indigenous Australia – Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Dehli

Yhonnie Scarce

15 Jun - 26 Aug 2018

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and Collectors Room Berlin present a survey of significant traditional and modern art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, providing an insight into one of the ‘oldest, richest and most complex’ cultures in the world (Franchesca Cubillo). ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’ opens in Berlin on 17 November.

The NGA hosts the most extensive collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork worldwide. Exploring works from the early 19th century, ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’ encompasses not only the iconic traditional Indigenous works from these early periods, but also explores the rich diversity of contemporary practice in Australia right now.

The collection reflects Aboriginal culture’s deep spirituality in its connection to country. The religious mythology of the Dreaming holds an important place in many of the works, producing images of intricate patterns belonging to particular regions while works such as ‘Meeting the White Man’ (Tommy McRae) remind us that there has been great upheaval and change for these cultures throughout past and recent history. Some, sensing the ongoing transformation, used the medium of artistic expression to document their people’s ways, preserving them for future generations by portraying mythology and ancient rituals. Consequently, many of the modern works deal directly with issues arising today in Aboriginal society: Identity, politics, and sharing the complex history.

This ongoing process of change is reflected in the arrangement of pieces throughout the exhibition. Many early works, showing natural phenomena and the land, are painted on bark using natural earth pigments, and so intentionally share a direct connection with the area they portray. Later on, more frequent exchange between Aboriginal and western culture led to the integration of new styles and increasing diversity: For example, beginning in the 1970s, artists of the Papunya community adopted acrylic paint on canvas as a new medium to share the ancient stories of their ancestors. Others came to adopt western watercolour landscape painting techniques as early as the 1930s. Works from the 1980s onward utilize ever wider variations of media and styles, but retain in their core the central themes of nature, land, and community – spiritual and political alike – and remain deeply rooted in their culture’s styles and traditions.