UCLA's Fowler Museum Showcases Aboriginal Australia’s Living Heritage

Aboriginal PaintingConsidered by many one of humankind’s oldest artforms, the sacred designs of the Aboriginal culture of Australia only recently became available to a wider audience. It was in the early 1970’s when a schoolteacher in the settlement of Papunya gave some masonite and acrylics to some elders, who then began painting evocative patterns of dots, repeating lines, curves, snakes, fish and other symbols that will never be fully decoded. The rest, as they say, is history. These paintings have gone on to sell for well into six figures at major auctions by Sotheby’s and other important dealers, while an earlier bark painting by an Aboriginal elder once led Pablo Picasso to remark that he had attempted his entire life to paint that way.

Now, you wont have to shell-out a few hundred grand or even travel to Australia to view these treasures.  The renowned Fowler Museum, always unearthing ethno-artistic treasures from around the globe, will showcase work from seminal artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri.

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya and Innovations in Western Desert Painting, 1972–1999: Selections from The Kelton Foundation will be on display May 3–August 2, 2009.

Icons of the Desert includes 49 paintings in all, and will focus on the first paintings ever to systematically transfer the imagery of the Aboriginal culture to modern portable surfaces. The designs from which these are drawn are thousands of years old but still in regular use today; they appear in body painting for religious ceremonies and in the temporary ground-paintings of ceremonial sites.  This is the first exhibition to focus on the crucial founding moment of Papunya art, which has a unique status in the history of Western Desert painting.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa of 1972; this work twice made Australian national headlines when it was sold for world-record auction prices in 1997 and 2000. The artist depicts the vital activity of the male elder who brings forth rain, rites that are associated with the sacred water hole at Kalipinypa. The painting reflects the artist’s deep ceremonial knowledge of the site, but also his desire to obscure sensitive details.

(The Australian Aboriginal worldview is based on Tjukurrpa, or the Dreaming, a belief that creator ancestors who shaped the land formed the world, made all living things, and laid out the moral code for human conduct. The many Dreamings that relate to specific geographical features, animals, plants, and the elements are the collective responsibility of numerous Indigenous Nations who ensure their preservation for future generations in song, story, and imagery).

Several of the works in the exhibition include sacred imagery and depictions of ritual objects used in men’s ceremonies that would normally be viewable only by initiated men within the Aboriginal community. However, key senior painters have granted permission for American audiences to view these works

Innovations in Western Desert Painting, 1972–1999, features fourteen paintings drawn from the vast collection of The Kelton Foundation. It explores changes in the Western Desert painting movement since its founding, including the shift to canvas, the use of non-traditional colors, transformations in content with regard to sacred imagery, the maturation of personal styles by individual artists, and the recognition of women artists, and provides an informative companion installation to Icons of the Desert, which focuses primarily on the earliest years of the movement.

The Kelton Foundation maintains the largest private collection of Australian Aboriginal Art in the United States. With more than 1,300 works of Aboriginal Art, the collection spans nearly one hundred years, from early 20th century Arnhem Land bark paintings, through the Western Desert art movement, to contemporary styles of work by urban Aboriginal artists.

Admission to UCLA’s Fowler Museum is free to the public.  Open Wed-Sun  from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours on Thursday until 8 p.m.  For more information or directions call 310-825.4361.

Related Events:

Saturday, May 2, 2009 5 pm
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Roger Benjamin
Affective Visions: Early Papunya Boards
Exhibition curator and research professor in art history, Roger Benjamin launches Icons of the Desert with a lecture that examines the nascent years of Aboriginal painting at Papunya.

Thursday, May 14, 2009 7 pm
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Benjamin Genocchio
Dollar Dreaming: The Rise of the Aboriginal Art Market
The book Dollar Dreaming by New York Times art critic Benjamin Genocchio traces the dramatic growth of the Aboriginal art market, nearly non-existent in the 1970s and now estimated to be a $500-million-per-year industry.

Sunday, May 31, 2009 2 pm
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Vivien Johnson
Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists
The Papunya Tula Artists company is the founding force behind the Australian Aboriginal desert painting movement. Established in 1971–72, it is today the movement’s multi-million dollar flagship. A book signing and reception follow.

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