A Gallery of Dreaming

In Australia, Aboriginal paintings- which boast an extremely contemporary "look" despite the millennia of traditions from which they arise—are displayed in prestigious museums alongside such modern masters as Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin. Originally a male purview, the genre has become increasingly dominated by female artists who are becoming household names among collectors in Europe and Asia.

For some 40,000 years, Aboriginal life has been recorded in sand-, body- and rock-painting, passed from parent to child to grandchild. More recently, encouraged by market forces, those images have made their ways onto canvas and other surfaces, becoming what Time magazine critic Robert Hughes has called "the last great art movement of the 20th century."

Aboriginal painting uses a variety of symbols. In Western Desert painting (the best known among the genres, from the vast central region of the continent) large circles can represent water holes and wavy lines might indicate sand ridges. Judy Napangardi Watson, 80, showed me a canvas taller than herself in which sinuous curves divided the pictorial space into cool pastels. "Mina Mina Dreaming," though completely abstract, easily conveys its subject matter: a women's ceremony involving dancing. Several lines snake around a central figure, who reaches in exultation toward the sky.

"The ladies are much stronger now," says Gulumbu Yunupingu, 59, a Yolgnu Aborigine medical worker and healer from Yirrkala, at the Top End of Australia. She captured Australia's coveted $40,000 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art award in 2004 for three memorial poles she crafted, covered by small marks suggestive of the stars of the universe.

Gulumbu's father was a leading figure who developed bark painting, a genre typical of the northern region, in the 1950s. He also was one of a handful of men who took the radical step of teaching their daughters art alongside their sons. As a child, Gulumbu watched him painting bark with traditional designs, particularly remembering his tale about the Milky Way, a river of stars, of souls far away in the sky. Now, she has been commissioned to install this same dreaming in a major new Parisian museum near the Eiffel Tower, one of eight Aboriginal artists whose work will cover its walls and ceilings.

The art she and others make charts the ebb and flow of cosmic forces, with a conceptual grasp as sophisticated as their innate understanding of pictorial space. Their works provide a window into a profound and sensitive culture- one whose beautiful artworks, ironically, are being enthusiastically embraced by the very nation (and world) that has been so committed to eradicating the indigenous cultures that create them.

This excerpt originally appeared as part of an article in the Spring 2005 issue of Ms. Magazine. It has been reprinted with the author's permission.

CSQ Issue: