Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia
At the Museum of Anthropology at UBC until March 31, 2019
Two of the biggest and most compelling paintings in the exhibition Marking the Infinite are by senior Aboriginal artist Angelina Pwerle. Executed in acrylic paint on canvas, each is composed of thousands upon thousands of small white dots, one work with a rosy red ground, the other, sooty black. Suggestive of the night sky, of looking upward at the numberless stars and cloudlike galaxies of our universe, they are, instead, symbolic depictions of the small white flowers of the bush plum that is native to Pwerle’s country in the Australian desert, northeast of Alice Springs. More than that, they allude to the artist’s patrilineal clan estate, walked in the time of creation—the time of the Dreaming—by the clan’s Bush Plum ancestor.
Subtitled “Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia”, this glorious exhibition recently landed at the Museum of Anthropology after travelling to five galleries in the United States. Drawn from the collection of Miami-based Debra and Dennis Scholl and curated by art historian Henry F. Skerritt, it includes some 61 works by nine women. In addition to Pwerle, the artists represented are Nonggirrnga Marawili, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Yukultji Napangati, Carlene West, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Lena Yarinkura, Gulumbu Yunupingu, and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. As Skerritt writes in the accompanying catalogue, the show is not intended as a comprehensive survey. Instead, “it focuses on artists who draw from the local and the specific, and extrapolate to the universal.” At the same time, the show demonstrates an interesting development: much contemporary Aboriginal art production in Australia in the past three decades has been powered by women.
With a few exceptions (twined-palm-leaf figures by Yarinkura; memorial poles by Marawili and others), Marking the Infinite is composed of paintings, some of them acrylic on canvas (by women based in desert communities in the Australian interior) and others, earth pigments on bark (by those living in Arnhem Land, in Australia’s tropical north). Whether composed of dots, lines, circles within circles, or cross-hatching, all these seeming abstractions are symbolic, “defiantly embedded in specific cultural contexts and artistic traditions,” Skerritt writes. One of the fascinating aspects of this work is how so many of the artists have found ways around gendered proscriptions, especially regarding access to certain stories and symbols. They have truly claimed the marks as their own.
A number of the paintings were commissioned directly by Dennis Scholl, who encouraged the women to work on a larger scale than they were accustomed to—that is, to produce work that would command attention in a western art gallery or museum. While most of them met this request with skill and confidence, there is something unsettling about an outsider-imposed, bigger-is-better aesthetic. Still, contemporary Aboriginal art from Australia has been produced since the early 1970s expressly for the market and the non-Indigenous art world. Similar to contemporary Inuit art, it is a guided and adapted cultural practice that provides a dependable income for Aboriginal families in small, remote, impoverished communities.
Art ranges from Napangati’s Ancestral Women at Yunala, whose dotted surface seems to shift and undulate before our eyes, to Carlene West’s huge, gestural depictions of Tjitjiti, the salt lake on whose western edge she was born. It also includes Wilson’s Syaw paintings, based on her people’s lost tradition of fishnet weaving, and Marawili’s diamond-patterned depictions of fire, water, lightning, and rock. Particularly captivating are Napaltjarri’s bold red U-shapes, bars, loops, and circles emerging from a creamy white ground, and Gulumbu Yunupingu’s star paintings, rendered in earth pigments on bark. Gulumbu’s works, which western viewers might describe as all-over abstractions, are composed of thousands of dots and crosses, and evoke, the catalogue tells us, the night sky and the Yolngu people’s conception of the cosmos. Like Pwerle’s bush-plum paintings, they beautifully embody the show’s underlying theme—“the interconnectedness between a humble mark and the vastness of the universe.”