Aboriginal Women Artists Get Their Due at the Newcomb in New Orleans

Painting by Carlene West, on view in "Marking the Infinite" at the Newcomb Gallery at Tulane University.
Painting by Carlene West, on view in “Marking the Infinite” at the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University.

Dictionary.com has announced that xenophobia is the word of the year. Referring to a fear of otherness, the word was obviously chosen because of the recent election’s rhetorical skirmishes. Trump’s rhetoric has exposed resistance to extending rights to the disenfranchised and has brought us to a full-scale reconsideration of diversity and identity politics. Outbreaks of violence during Trump rallies reminded us that many people find otherness threatening. Xenophobia often leads to a defensive attempt to try to get rid of otherness—by stamping it out, or by denial. Both responses try to assimilate the other into the mainstream. The exhibition “Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia” at the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University reveals the dangers of this strategy of assimilation, and at the same time attempts to teach its audience how to respect otherness without resorting to xenophobia.

“Marking the Infinite” features artwork by nine Aboriginal female artists — “others” because they are an indigenous population, “other” to the colonizers who have, historically speaking, attempted to assimilate them. “Others” also because they are women, grouped together presumably to emphasize this gender difference. This exhibition is a follow-up to a previous show that featured nine male artists from the same collection, belonging to Debra and Dennis Scholl, “No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting” (organized by the Nevada Museum of Art, the show was on tour over 2015-16). Of course, that earlier exhibition did not think to include the word male in the title, an omission that reveals the othering at work in the current exhibition.

Installation view showing works by Yunupingu.
Installation view showing works by Gulumbu Yunupingu.

Gulumbu Yunupingu’s paintings offer a first lesson. Yunupingu paints the same pattern over and over again: dense fields of terra-cotta red x-marks. Crowded between dots in the same red, each X stands out because of a black dot in the center and a white ground underneath. The title Ganyu (Stars) tells us that the marks represent stars, and that stars have an important role in Yolngu ceremonial painting and in Dreaming ceremonies. The concept of the Dreaming is specific to Aboriginal culture: a living tradition of rituals that use narrative to express the connection between past, present, and future, and that explain the connection between ancestors and the land. In one Dreaming, which Yunupingu learned from her father, the sisters Guthayguthay and Nhayay become stars in the Milky Way. Instead of depicting this story, the artist interprets the stars as universal symbols. The wall label quotes her: “Well how can we be separate if we’re all under the same stars? We are like the stars, in that there are as many stars as there are people.” The message is really quite cliché, the sort of thing you read and feel let down by, but in our post-election haze such clichés start to take on real power as we are challenged to achieve that elusive sense of unity.

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Detail of work by Angelina Pwerle, synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

Angelina Pwerle’s fuzzy conglomerations of dots feel like galaxies. Described as “a shimmering field” by Anne Marie Brody in the catalogue (p. 76), each painting is composed of tiny white dots that represent the flowers of the bush plum. While the flowers anticipate the fruit that will come, they also refer to the Ahalpere Bush Plum Dreaming. And yet, they are so abstract that one would not easily identify the white dots as flowers. The dots stand out against a dark black background in one painting, and a deep red background in the other. Looking at the panoramic canvases feels like floating in a haze, a sublime experience akin to JMW Turner or Barnett Newman.

If the otherness of the iconography of these paintings seems too, well, other, then one response is to make them just like us: assimilation. The ease of the comparison to icons of Western modernism is exactly the issue here. Gulumbu Yunupingu’s abstract pattern could be compared to Lee Krasner. Angelina Pwerle’s paintings recall Vija Celmins’s paintings of stars, but look even more like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets. As Brody explains in the catalogue, “It is possible to be satisfied with the sheer existence of these paintings as masterpieces of contemporary abstraction and not to be overly concerned with their intrinsic and exotic connections to an ancient culture and ancestral narratives of the Bush Plum” (p. 83).

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Installation view with paintings by Angelia Pwerle.

In fact, that is the basic approach of the show’s organizers: the collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl and organizers William Fox and Henry F. Skerritt. Their thesis is that Aboriginal art is just as good as contemporary painting in the West. In the catalogue, Scholl explains: “I believe that Aboriginal art from Australia holds its own with contemporary artistic practice anywhere in the world” (p. 31). He goes on to explain that he wants the shows to “open people’s minds about where great art can come from” (p. 31).

In his talk at the exhibition’s opening, Skerritt supported the claim that these women are some of the most important contemporary artists working today by applying Terry Smith’s definition of contemporary art from his 2010 article, “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art.” Smith argued that certain themes show up in contemporary art: an engagement with place making, connectivity, and “world picturing.” Skerritt applied these themes to the Aboriginal artists in the show, and the argument worked just fine. But Skerritt used the term “affinities” to explain the link he saw between Aboriginal art and Western contemporary artists. It is a loaded term in contemporary art, used by New York’s  Museum of Modern Art for its 1984 exhibition “Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art,” which attempted to engage the relationship between African or “primitive” art and Picasso and the avant-garde. Showing them side by side, the exhibition claimed that the artworks reveal “affinities” between the two worlds, as if there is some shared magic essence. This was critiqued by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum (Nov. 1984) as yet another projection of Western values onto African art.

Painting by Carlene West.
Painting by Carlene West.

Comparing the work to that of the West is a strategy to make the work more palatable for a Western audience—to say, don’t be scared by its foreignness; it’s really not that different from what you’ve seen before. The wall labels engage in this work of making familiar by emphasizing what prizes the artists have won, or which museums hold their artwork, using the same forms of pedigree that apply in the Western art world. In his talk at the opening, Scholl explained how he brought art materials to the artists so that they could match the scale of contemporary painting. Pwerle’s large canvases, in other words, are not typical of Aboriginal art. They were commissioned in order to support the collector’s thesis that the work could compare to Western work. Whereas Yunupingu’s paintings, done on bark, follow a format and size that would be more common in Aboriginal art.

Detail of painting by Gulumbu Yunupingu.
Detail of painting by Gulumbu Yunupingu, earth pigments on wood.

Even the materials are significant. Hetti Perkins says that the format of bark painting was “the exclusive domain of male artists” (p. 22). Many of the labels tell us that these women learned from their husbands or fathers, though Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s quote on a wall label suggests a defensiveness about the explanation: “My father didn’t teach me, I learnt it myself.”  Then there is the question of grouping only female artists together for the show. The collector claimed that they started making art only after the men, and only when the men figured out that they could profit from work made by the women. I was uncomfortable to read on the labels suggestions that the women’s work was “allowed” by the men, and the presumption that it required their permission. My feminist radar started moving, picking up on the rhetoric of paternalism. Was this a question of my projection? Gender may work very differently in Aboriginal society, and my bias might be getting in the way. But why talk about the relationship to men at all in the labels? Perhaps because it’s one more trope of the Western art world working to assimilate these women.

On opening night, Scholl made much of his trips to the Outback, of how he turned his back on the art scene in those capitals of the art world like New York and Paris, and decided instead to travel to very isolated places that do not have a gallery scene, or a network of art schools producing MFAs, or fancy hotels and restaurants. He showed a picture of one of the artists, regaling his audience with a story about his wife being shocked to find their collecting attention turning away from the center and towards the periphery. I squirmed in my seat as I recognized the expectation that the audience should be amused by this turn of affairs. I’m not sure if the collector understood his audience. If Western Australia is the other to any anonymous art world capital, then so is New Orleans. Even if it is now possible for artists to achieve success outside of New York or Los Angeles, the power relationship still holds. There is something about the opening claim, in other words, that is already insulting. Of course it is just as good. But these artists have not had access to the same network that artists in the West have access to, and that is why the work is not familiar. The reason has nothing to do with its quality.

To compare Aboriginal painting to icons of Western abstractionis to marginalize the work again. Yes, Pwerle’s painting does look a lot like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets, but its meaning is completely different. This is the age-old problem of dealing with abstraction. Abstract paintings can look a lot alike and yet have completely different meanings. It is the meaning that makes the difference, not the appearance. To its credit, the Newcomb installation does not ignore this difference. The installation works to explain the specificity of Aboriginal iconography. In addition to very informative wall labels, there’s a laminated handout that can be carried around, offering a key to the meaning of various abstract symbols and a map denoting where each artist works.

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Two paintings by Wintjiya Napaltjarri on either side of a work by Lena Yarinkura.

Standing in front of Wintjiya Napaltjarri’s paintings, the key can be used to decode the U-shapes. Each U-shape represents a woman, with the shape meant to imitate the mark left by a woman sitting cross-legged on the sand. Sarita Quinlivan’s essay in the catalogue fills in the blanks in our cultural information, referring to the ancestral women Minyma Kutjarra, who could shape shift and had magical abilities. The comblike shapes in the paintings represent their skirts, called nyimparra (hair-string skirts) (p. 55). The resulting paintings, all named after “Women’s Ceremonies” at Watanuma or Pinari, present evenly spaced fields of circular shapes, U-shapes, and comblike shapes in red or gray against a taupe background.

The U-shapes show up in Carlene West’s paintings, as well. The paintings are named after Tjitjiti, a salt lake in Spinifex Country that is surrounded by high red dunes. Red forms a background for one of the paintings, with a large oblong white shape outlined in thick black lines and surrounded by a field of tiny white dots. The color palette is consistent, with black, red, and white in each one. Others feature a black ground and a broader white shape with variegated brushstrokes, surrounded by tiny red and white dots. The label informs us that the lake is associated with several Dreamings, such as Minyma Kutjara (Two Women), in which two women walk across the lake with a child, all of whom are killed by the Quoll Man when his attempt to abduct the child fails. It’s fascinating to see how these stories are transformed into symbolic marks, and to consider how the landscape is depicted in a way that completely resists Western conventions of landscape painting and mimetic representation in general.

West was not even looking at the landscape when she started work on the painting. Instead, she painted the lake from memory, while living at the mission at Cundeelee. Later she was part of the movement to return “to country,” eventually accomplished in 2009. It is this history of colonialism that an emphasis on aesthetics works to obscure. On the other hand, the catalogue does give us a quick history of colonial treatment of Aborigines. Cara Pinchbeck tells us that the “withdrawal from country” began in the 1930s when Aborigines traveled to religious missions that gave out rations (p. 66). Many stayed at the missions, or would visit and then go back to country. But as the 20th century wore on, the government pressured Aborigines to move to the settlements, leading to the Australian government’s 1951 policy of assimilation (to “live like white Australians do”). In 1957, welfare patrols forcibly moved people to resettlement camps. The settlement near Napangati, called Papunya, was where senior men began painting their Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) on various materials, then forming the Papunya Tula Artists group. They were working in exile, using art as a form of memory and honoring their ancestors and expressing desire for their homeland. In the 1980s, many Aboriginal peoples moved back to their original homelands (p. 66).

An syaw painting by Regina Pilawuk Wilson.
Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fishnet), 2015; synthetic polymer paint on canvas, approx. 98 by 137 inches.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s paintings reflect this history of working in exile. While her marks might recall grids, the cross-hatched patches represent nets. The label tells us that her grandparents made fishnets (syaw), after which the painting is named. But when her grandparents died and missionaries took her in, she forgot how to make them. The Catholic mission where she lived did not allow her to weave at all, a craft she had learned from her mother and grandmother. The painting Sun Mat replicates the patterns of the circular mats that she had learned to weave. Instead of the circular format, Wilson depicts the patterns on a large rectangular panoramic canvas for this exhibition. It was the prohibition that prompted her participation in the movement to leave the mission in Daly River and resettle near Tom Turner Creek, called Peppimenarti (pp. 106, 112). To reclaim her lost traditions, Wilson went to Yilan to relearn the craft of making syaw. She recalls that her sister told her to “do the story on painting for our children and grandchildren, so they can remember what our ancestors used to do a long time ago” (wall label).

To use painting as a form of memory is a compelling strategy of resistance. In the catalogue, Hetti Perkins explains, “For many Aboriginal artists, creating art offers a way to ‘be Aboriginal’ in modern Australia that is culturally appropriate and economically sustainable” (23). In other words, making paintings that participate in the western art market will provide income to support Aboriginal peoples, while the very marks of the paintings also work to preserve a culture that colonialism has placed at risk.

Their relationship to tradition—to their fathers, to their elders—is an issue that crops up in many of the texts. There’s a sense that these women are not supposed to use the symbols found in ceremonial painting—that those symbols are reserved for figures of authority and considered sacred. In the catalogue, Will Stubbs explains that Yunupingu did not use her own Gumatj clan designs (22). Such designs would be used in ceremonies, painted on the body, and painted on corpses or coffins. They are used to maintain connections with the ancestors. But the culture controls who uses them. Marawili insists that she is not painting the sacred designs associated with her clan. In her youth, no women were allowed to use them. This changed later on, such that Marawili could use them, but she chose not to. Instead, the artists personalized the symbols, altering their makeup to avoid transgression.

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Installation view showing Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s Sun Mat on back wall and bark paintings by Nonggirrnga Marawili on the left wall.

In Nonggirrnga Marawili’s paintings, a lattice of stretched diamond shapes moves across the bark surface. Called Lightening and the Rock (2014), the paintings use parallel rows of white lines to represent the force of lightning striking the land. In the catalogue, Elina Spilia suggests that the diamond shape may represent the ancestral fire, or the movement of the water (36). Spilia explains that fire and lightning are considered ancestral forces, assigned to the Crocodile and the Lightning Snake. The ancestral Crocodile had a fight with his wife, and she responded by setting fire to his hut while he was asleep; he ran out with burning embers on his back, slipped into the saltwater and was turned into a rocky reef. The Lightning Snake, shown by zigzag lines coming from the snake’s mouth, casts lightning and thunder at other ancestral snakes representing other places. Lightning indicates the beginning of the wet season and thus designates the cycles of time.

The same patterns are used by Marawili on several Larrakitj or memorial poles, sculptural objects whose presence relieves the emphasis on painting in the gallery. Four columns, painted with earth pigments, feature her cascading diamond pattern. Dark shapes represent rocks and white dots represent the sea spray or barnacles that build up on the rocks. These poles were traditionally made by the Yolngu people from eucalyptus trees that had been naturally hollowed out by termites. The hollow trunks were then used to hold the bones of the dead, and patterns were painted on the outside to guide the dead to their new home. But these poles are not functional; they are made for exhibition purposes. Yunupingu’s poles are covered with cross-hatching and circles in white paint. In another room are three poles by Lena and Bob Burruwal, skinnier poles wrapped with pandanus palm leaf, white feathers sticking out between the rows of leaf.

Detail of work by Lena Yarinkura.
Detail of work by Lena Yarinkura.

These poles could be considered compelling examples of sculpture, but I would object to the comparison. Aboriginal art is not like western art, and we should respect its difference. It should not have to compete with Lee Krasner or Vija Celmins. That is what it means to respect the politics of difference. That these artists survived othering and have turned their experience into these artworks is a testament to their strength. Looking at them from the point of a view of a Westerner, I am compelled by how their abstract marks can hold so many layers of information, with the aesthetic power of the work opening onto deeper levels of cultural context. “Marking the Infinite” has a lot to offer in our current battle against xenophobia.

“Marking the Infinite” is on view through December 21. 

Quotes are taken from the museum’s labels or from the catalogue: Skerritt, Henry F., ed. Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia: From the Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection. Munich: Prestel Verlag, in association with the Nevada Museum of Art, 2016.

Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.

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