Painting a New Visual Vocabulary

Pansy Napangati's
Pansy Napangati's "Kungka Kutjarra at Kampurarrpa" ("Two Women at Kampurarrpa"), below left, in "Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters," at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and non-native Australian Fiona MacDonald's "Fallwall" installation, below right, which camouflages a light shade, rocking chair and wall in the same paper, in a G Fine Art exhibition. (G Fine Art)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 22, 2006

When we talk about Australian Aboriginal painting, the kind made on linen or on canvas, we're talking about a recent phenomenon. Yes, indigenous Australians have been making art for millennia, painting on bodies and fabric and rock. But acrylic paint and canvas, the foundations of Western practice that allow artwork to travel quickly and easily, weren't introduced into native communities until the early 1970s.

So when we visit Aboriginal painting in museums or galleries, as we can right now in two exceptional shows at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Embassy of Australia, we're looking at a still-nascent creative phenomenon, and one that belongs largely in the domain of women.

Both the museum's "Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters" and the embassy's "Painted Stories: Contemporary Painting by Australian Aboriginal Women" suggest how women have so broadened the visual vocabulary of Aboriginal painting that they have practically reinvented its practice.

They have loosened traditional forms. Their works are still based on historical images and ideas -- maps of watering holes or the retelling of "Dreamings," which are the creation myths of Aboriginal culture. But more recent paintings from the 1990s and early 21st century function in another important way: They are explorations of color and gesture that sit comfortably in the Western tradition of non-narrative painting. Gallery-goers disenchanted with the arid intellectualism of latter-day minimalism and third-generation abstraction will love them.

For those unschooled in Aboriginal symbols, a picture like Inyuwa Nampitjinpa's "Travels of Kutungka Napanangka from Papunga to Muruntji" from 1999 at the women's museum looks like pure gestural abstraction. A big loop of color encircles smaller concentric circles that appear to float inside. But Nampitjinpa sees these lines and colors differently than we might. The painting's loops and colors suggest a well-told story of a devil-like woman named Kutungka Napanangka who got revenge on a group of bothersome boys by cooking them up for dinner.

On the one hand, her painting offers aesthetic pleasures. On the other, it presents ancient legend. (That is, if we bother to decipher its symbols. To aid us, the museum exhibition opens with a glossary of common "Dreaming" symbols and their multiple, sometimes contradictory, definitions.) That such a picture functions on these two levels simultaneously lends it that much more power.

There are plenty more works at the museum that offer pure aesthetic appeal. Among the most striking are those from artists in the Northern Territory. Emily Kame Kngwarreye's untitled five-panel installation features broad horizontal strokes of white paint on black ground that make a striking impression. It's as if the painting were a record of the artist's arm gestures and the canvas retains the vigor of the artist's movement. And the netlike grids of tiny dots by Alice Springs resident Dorothy Napangardi Robinson couldn't be more delicate -- or more reminiscent of a minimalist such as Agnes Martin.

These artist's loose, expressive images mark a change from the early 1970s. Early works, most done by men, employed traditional symbols -- concentric circles, animal tracks and heavy dotted forms. (The Australian Embassy has several examples in its permanent collection and on long-term loan.) Women, too, worked in this style. Yet, by the 1990s, women such as Kngwarreye had broken away from stylistic precedent, broadening the definition of Aboriginal painting.

Despite the many changes practitioners have made, the very fact that these pictures derive from indigenous cultures means they sometimes risk marginalization as ethnographic imagery. Both "Dreaming Their Way" and "Painted Stories" argue the contrary. This is fine, fine art.

Norrie and MacDonald

At G Fine Art, a pair of non-native Australians, Fiona MacDonald and Susan Norrie, engage the Aboriginal plight and world politics in their charged installation (MacDonald) and video (Norrie).

Norrie's 9 1/2 -minute video "Twilight" looks at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a tent city stationed outside Canberra's Old Parliament House. Though Parliament moved from the building in 1988, the controversial shantytown that has occupied the site since the early 1970s remains. Norrie's video is a study in the architecture of power, contrasting images of haphazard tents with shots of the impassive modernist Parliament and its eerily illuminated fountains. The anonymous regularity of power and the jerry-built structures of poverty assert contradictory viewpoints.

MacDonald's installation looks something like a living room, complete with curtains, wallpaper, a rocking chair and lamps. It suggests that the quotidian and predatory often share space. Wallpaper and matching upholstery boast an M.C. Escher-esque design where silhouettes of leaves exist alongside a competing pattern of rockets and fighter jets. Nearby curtains have an equally disturbing pattern with rosettes formed from jet fighters.

The installation's most striking object is a lampshade twirling wildly on its base. The piece is a zoetrope; when you look through the shade's slotted holes, a black bird seems to circle above a crowd of black men. The lamp's Linda Blair-like turns suggest a metaphor for the larger ghosts in this house.

The title of the G show is "Dream Home." These words conjure both the lore of Aboriginal dreamings and Western fantasies of freedom from strife and want. Both come off as welcome diversions in a world where neither fairness nor security is guaranteed.

Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m., 202-783-5000, to Sept. 24. $8 adults; $6 students and those 60 and over; 18 and under free. Visit .

Painted Stories: Contemporary Paintings by Australian Aboriginal Women at the Gallery of the Embassy of Australia, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 202-797-3176, to Sept. 1. Visit .

Fiona MacDonald and Susan Norrie: Dream Home at G Fine Art, 1515 14th St. NW. Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-462-1601, to Aug. 5. Visit . Online catalogue: .

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