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Australian Indigenous Art on Display at the Katzen

By Maggie Barrett

Treasure Island, 2005 by Daniel Boyd, Kudjla/Gangalu peoples. Oil on canvas. 192.5 cm x 220 cm. Purchased 2006 (courtesy National Gallery of Australia)

Treasure Island, 2005 by Daniel Boyd, Kudjla/Gangalu peoples. Oil on canvas. 192.5 cm x 220 cm. Purchased 2006 (courtesy National Gallery of Australia)

Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors, the largest exhibition of contemporary Australian Indigenous art to travel to the United States, will make its U.S. debut at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on Tuesday, September 8.  

The exhibition features work by 30 artists—one from each state and territory in Australia— and includes painting on canvas and bark, sculpture, textiles, weaving, new media, video, photo-media and installation works. The works are abstract and figurative, drawing on the past as they comment on the present.  

Australian Indigenous culture has existed for the past 60,000 years, making it the oldest continuing culture in the world. A culture with strong spiritual connections to the land, sea, and the stars, it includes numerous distinct clans. Although each clan has its own language and artistic tradition, all share some common beliefs, one of which is “The Dreaming.”

Also called “The Dreamtime,” it refers to a collection of stories about the beginning of time when the Ancestral Beings created land and life. In most Dreaming stories, the Ancestral Beings came to earth in the form of humans and created people, animals, rocks, plants, and the connections among them all. When the beings were finished, they changed into trees, the stars, rocks, and other forms—forever linking themselves to the land, and forever linking the land to the past, present, and future.

“Richard Bell once told me that we (Indigenous artists) are creating the new Dreaming,” reads text from the profile of artist Christopher Pease in the Culture Warriors catalogue. “This was a concept I had not thought about before, but it made perfect sense. From Tjapaltjarri’s dot paintings to Destiny Deacon’s photographs,
they all tell our stories—old and new.”

Pease’s artistic style is a perfect example of contemporary art creating the new Dreaming. His 2005 painting  Target  is a contemporary commentary on Australia’s history—particularly in reference to the Indigenous peoples.  A large target symbol is superimposed on a scene depicting the British settlement of Australia. Through this, Pease communicates the notion that Australia’s Indigenous people and the land were the target of greed and ignorance.

Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors was organized by the National Gallery of Australia, where it was first shown in October 2007. It was inspired in part by the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that determined Australia’s Indigenous people should be officially counted as citizens of Australia and included in the census. More than 90 percent of Australia’s non-Indigenous population voted in favor of the referendum.

“The title ‘Culture Warriors’ reflects the determination of the numerous Indigenous groups of people to preserve their identities while being included in their homeland’s culture and history,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum.

Three additional exhibitions will open the same day as the Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors:

John Dreyfuss: Inventions will display six new large-scale works by D.C. sculptor Dreyfuss in the Sylvia Berlin Katzen Sculpture Garden. The clean lines of Dreyfuss’s forms represent stylized hand tools made larger than life.

Paul Feinberg: Another Washington celebrates and preserves a vibrant—sometimes quirky and seamy, but always poignant—Washington. This Washington is not the one tourists see in travel guides. Feinberg’s camera lens presents intimate looks at all kinds of Washingtonians and their neighborhood haunts and places of pleasure. Feinberg’s photographic and prose portraits of Washington, D.C., have appeared in local magazines for more than 35 years.

Ron Haynie: Playing with Light is the culmination of a painting tradition encouraged at American University by alumnus and former professor Haynie that delicately balanced representation and abstraction while the various “isms” of the postmodernist era came and went. In Haynie’s hands, paint performed as material, light, color, space, gesture, and feeling all at once.

All exhibitions open to the public starting on Tuesday, September 8.  The Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors closes Sunday, December 6.  Paul Feinberg: Another Washington and Ron Haynie: Playing with Light close Sunday, October 25.  John Dreyfuss: Inventions closes Sunday, January 17, 2010.