Dreamtime Art At MAPI Montevideo – “Tiempo de Sueños: Arte Indigena Australiano”

Owen Yalandja’s “Yawk Yawk” a group of three lithe water spirit figures, of carved and very finely painted wood. Link at end of post.

I attended the November opening of this exhibition at Montevideo’s MAPI museum, Museo del Arte Precolombino y Indigena and returned last weekend with Mike and our friend Gail for another, more careful look than was possible that day. This visiting exhibition is currently showing until sometime in May; but don’t leave it until the last week to go see it. Of course, being a (non indigenous) Australian, I am thrilled to see this collection of art from our ancient continent appearing here in Montevideo UY after extensive travelling in Brasil. It’s here with sponsorship from various parties Australian, Brasilian and Uruguayan.

Like many other ancient people, Australian Aborigines see the natural landscape and phenomenona around them in terms of behaviour or decrees of their spirits. Every object, every landscape feature, weather event, every animal, every person, has a spirit. To understand and be connected to the world it is vital to know ancestral and spirit stories: these contain the societal norms and environmental knowledge needed to remain connected to the land on which Aboriginal people have lived for at least 40,00 and possibly 60,000 years according to some experts.

A really informative statement appears here, in the weekly listing of cultual programming here in Uruguay, which my computer automatically translates https://www.cartelera.com.uy/averespectaculo.aspx?23003

In common with many other indigenous peoples, story telling often has woven into it the impact of a colonising group’s arrival. In 1788 a group of English settlers, convicts solders and government officials landed on the east coast of the continent to set up an English penal colony at where the city of Sydney is today. January 26, 1788, began a new phase of the human history of the continent which is now Australia. The process of colonisation severely damaged the Aboriginal people and their culture, as usually happened elsewhere. Recovery from that position has been long, painful, and is still incomplete.

“Yam Dreaming” Emily Kame Knangwarreye

This exhibition includes work created by indigenous Australians over the past 50 years, in effect most of my adult lifetime. I became aware of Aboriginal art while I was still at school, and a bit more so while at university. It is true that during my own lifetime Australians as a whole have gained greater knowledge and understanding of the Aboriginal people through their art in particular. Our museums, institutions and major collectors contribute to the growing popularity of all forms of Aboriginal art through exhibitions like this one. Intellectual property rights are now fully protected by law and generally respected.

Abie-Loy Kemarre “Bush Leaf Dreaming” (detail and full view)

However, all is not rosy in the idigenous population. In common with other colonisation in other parts of the world, the clash of cultures resulted in social problems that were exacerbated by government administrators and by missionary do-gooders who all operated on values of two centuries ago that are so out of step with modern values. There were brutal repercussions and massacres in retaliation for stock thefts or other crimes against white man’s property laws that were not easily understood by Aborigines.

Jack Dale “Packhorse Road”
Queenie McKenzie’s “Horse Creek Massacre” – I included this poor image behind glass for it’s powerful statement about an actual incident. The artist’s grandfather as a young child hid in the belly cavity of a killed beef cow and witnessed the killing of men women and children in the group. Police troopers are depicted in white hats and holding weapons.

In a different kind of violence, people were pushed off their traditional lands to make way for farms and sheep and cattle stations, and forced to live on reservations. Aboriginal children were taken into mission schools and towns so that they could get a (foreign, alien but ‘proper’ english education) Far too many were brought up not knowing their true identity or anything of the families they’d been taken from, and many never recovered from that trauma. Sally Morgan has written of her first hand experience, see link at the end of this post.

Sally Morgan “Women Together” Morgan was one of the ‘stolen generation’ who in adult life discovered the extended family from whom she had been taken to ‘protect’ her by being fostered to a white family in a town. She published a book about her discovery, link at the end of this post.

Treating Aboriginal people as simple minded children who needed to be paternistically controlled by well meaning authorities, though they meant well, has been disastrous for the Aboriginal people. Today, their part of the Australian community has much shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, widespread health and welfare problems due to dietary changes and alcoholism. There are bright spots though, including that today more Aboriginal people are achieving the education required to thrive in the non-traditional world while maintaining strong links to their traditional lands and cultural practices.

Jack Britten “Night Corroboree” A favourite. Britten was from the East Kimberley, country out near the northern West Australia/Northern Territory border. A contemporary of Rover Thomas and other Warmun painters all of whom painted in a similar style.
I’ve included this didadtic panel in both english and spanish as a wonderful example of how the dreamtime or creation stories are woven around to everything in the environment of every particular tribal group of Aborigines, and how the artists have painted the stories they know so well. (David Daymirringu Malagi “Black Cockatoos”)
David Daymirringu Malangi “Black Cockatoos”

In this lovely exhibition there are many more works, but I just selected the few most special ones. Others included work by names I knew well, but wasn’t so excited about. For example the work Punmu – The Universe by Rover Thomas, was behind glass and hung up so high it could not be seen well at all, and in that position didn’t look too interesting compared with others in the show.

This visiting exhibition is currently showing until sometime in May; but don’t leave it until the last week to go see it 🙂


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One Response to “Dreamtime Art At MAPI Montevideo – “Tiempo de Sueños: Arte Indigena Australiano””

  1. Judi Crespo says:

    Hello Alison: Thank you so much for this post. The art work is fascinating. When I read some of your explanation of the culture of the peope I thought of a book I’m reading and loving, called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American woman/biologist. Your description of Australian Aboriginals mirrors her own description of her people. So very interesting.

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