|‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington,; 2013; Acrylic on canvas. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.|
In the darkened space of Room 35 at the British Museum I find myself in another world. The abstract images that dominate the entry space hold me mesmerised. The longer one looks the more the stories emerge. Tiny dots of colour that seem applied with a fingertip, pulse with light and create shimmering circles and the outline of fabulous creatures. It’s a 'dreaming' of a mythical past and of a landscape well known. Uta Uta Tjangala’s painting Yumari, describes a 'dreaming' of women with digging sticks and King Brown Snake and tells the story of the artist’s own biological conception. Ironic that a portion of this painting is printed as background on every Australian passport like DNA.
The exhibition is incredibly moving and for me particularly unsettling as it connects so strongly with my own background – the way the San people in Southern Africa were dismissed by white settlers and the later years of ‘apartheid’. There are too many parallels. One painting in a more Western style of landscape with whitened gum trees is the most moving of all. Albert Namatjira, famous in the 1950s as one of Australia’s leading landscape artists was granted Australian citizenship, long before other Northern Territory Aboriginals. Then in 1957 he was imprisoned for supplying alcohol to one of his family members (alcohol was forbidden to Aboriginals) and died soon after his release.
Equally sad are postcards sent home to the UK from Victorian visitors depicting indigenous people almost as objects – the dismissive words scrawled across one postcard – ‘I spent two days here’.
One of the most beautiful exhibits is a line of biface spearpoints. The chipping detail on these minute blades is exquisite, made even more so by being of reflective materials like glass and agate and precious stone as well as ceramic (made from insulators on telegraph poles).
For the full impact of this beautifully curated and spare exhibition, it should be seen on a quiet day when the artefacts speak for themselves without distraction. The amazing crocodile masks, one bartered for with a few paltry beads and a mirror, the bark paintings, the etched shell pendants where the shimmer of shell was seen as a connection to lightning, water and ancestral power, the message sticks, the incredible ancient knotted bags and amazing biconical baskets – surely one of the most beautiful shapes in the world, that seem to trap and hold air in a moment of stillness – and the video of a basket-maker’s story, whose regular work is at the local dump, whose fingers are large and squidgy and yet can weave the finest of biconical baskets.
|Pearl shell pendant with dancing figures. Kimberley region, Western Australia, before 1926. Pearl shell, charcoal © The Trustees of the British Museum.|
|Bark painting of a barramundi. Western Arnhem Land, about 1961 © The Trustees of the British Museum.|
(Permission to use these images was given by the British Museum and the copyright is as stated in the captions.)
Zeraffa Giraffa, written by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray and published by Frances Lincoln, is on The Sunday Times List of Children's Top 100 Classics for the last 10 years.