About Aboriginal Cultures

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Aboriginal peoples' presence in Australia dates back at least 50,000 years, making them the earliest civilizations known to humankind. Art has always played an integral role in Aboriginal societies and is linked intimately to daily life. The oldest surviving examples of Aboriginal art are cave paintings and rock engravings that are 40,000 years old, predating the cave paintings at Lascaux (present-day France) and Altamira (present-day Spain). Both subject matter and iconography from ancient precedents inform the practices of contemporary Aboriginal artists, who are thus working in the oldest continuous cultural tradition.

Since 1788, when Europeans colonized the continent, Aboriginal Australians have suffered devastating displacement, dispossession, and marginalization. A staggeringly diverse Aboriginal population of 500,000 people—whose groups spoke over 250 unique languages with additional dialects at the time of colonization—diminished as a result of violent conflicts, environmental imbalances and diseases, and discrimination. At its lowest point, Aboriginal populations decreased to a mere 100,000 people. Government-sponsored programs, which removed Indigenous people from their homelands and children from their families (known as the Stolen Generations), attempted to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into European culture. It was not until the 1960s when government restitution policies granted rights and citizenship to Indigenous Australians.

Despite this tumultuous history, contemporary Aboriginal art has flourished in recent decades. Beginning with the Western Desert painting movement at Papunya Tula in the early 1970s, community-operated art centers across the continent have given Aboriginal artists the resources and platforms to create artwork and sell it in an international market. In combining designs and subjects depicted by their ancestors with present-day materials, contemporary Aboriginal artists reclaim their rights to the land and preserve their culture for future generations.

Central to the life and art of Aboriginal Australia is the Dreaming, a belief system that connects all objects, lands, life forces, and beings. The Dreaming is a concept that transcends time: it is continuing and eternal. The Dreaming begins with the Creation Period when ancestral beings emerged from the earth. These beings laid the foundations for Aboriginal law, formed the natural characteristics of the land, identified sacred sites, and established ceremonies. Artistic expressions—including sand and body painting, sculpture, dance, and song—are vital elements of Dreaming narratives, along with the role of art in a wide range of other ceremonies and traditions.

The contemporary works featured in Of Country and Culture reveal Aboriginal peoples' strong ties to land, community, and heritage. Likewise, these works demonstrate a commitment to visual expression as a central element of culture, as practiced throughout many millennia. Traditional ceremonial sand paintings become vibrant acrylic abstractions on canvas, while designs usually applied to the body are instead painted onto eucalyptus bark, allowing the tree's vertical form to become a stand-in for the human figure. Pukumani grave poles are unique to the Tiwi Islands. Typically carved in ironwood and painted with natural ochres, the sculptures are not removed after the burial ceremony, but left to the elements: the surface decorations and form of the works poetically disappear over time. While demonstrating innovative approaches to material and form, the works in this exhibition also show that Aboriginal artists share many of the same concerns as their international contemporaries, including art as a reflection of individual and communal identity, art as activism, and the role of abstraction.