People have been producing Aboriginal art continuously for almost 50,000 years in Australia. Since the 1970s, with the emergence of art centres, including that of Papunya, Aboriginal artists have been using acrylic paint and linen canvas introduced by Western artists. The intersection between an ancestral, archaic iconography, imbued with magical powers, a repertoire of meaningful shapes deeply rooted in the Aboriginal lifestyle, and the expressive freedom of contemporary art caused a resounding big-bang whose echoes are now exhibited in the world’s greatest museums.
Aboriginal artworks are on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum in London, the Canadian Museum of History, and in major Australian museums, of course. Artists like Emily Kame and Sally Gabori represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. Others like Paddy Bedford or John Mawurndjul painted the ceilings and the roof of the Musée du Quay Branly in Paris. Art lovers with a penchant for bold paintings will delight again and again as they discover the iterative shapes and bright colours of these paintings, bordering on expressionism or abstraction.
Impossible to pigeonhole, most of these works can compete with the greats, by the likes of Cy Twombly, Yayoi Kusama or Dotremont, or some of Alechinsky’s good paintings. Aboriginal artists can draw from a precise repertoire of sometimes realistic shapes (fish, tree, turtle, etc.) in the north of Australia, or sometimes abstract forms in the central desert, but always highly charged with symbolism. Their works can be perceived by the different layers of consciousness as a result. Here, we have a fish with its very recognisable shape, which is also a symbol of water, river, abundance, and of a totemic ancestor. There, an abstract shape in beautifully vibrant colours which is to die for, but which represents a grandfather or a snake.
In Brussels, only one gallery specialises in this art. Aboriginal Signature works directly with centres scattered across Australia that it represents in the heart of Europe. For its new exhibition entitled Entre deux eaux, the gallery brings together Erub and Mangkaja, two communities and Aboriginal art centres separated by more than 3,000 km. What they have in common? They extol their respective territory and water-related elements.
Erub is a small island with 400 inhabitants. Tourists are not welcome there. The islanders collected the fishing nets which are damaging the coral, injuring marine life, and recycled them to create impressive sculptures of fish, half-aquatic, half airborne creatures, a kind of protective totems in bright colours. This is their way of making a heartfelt appeal to raise our awareness and defend their environment.
Mangkaja for its part uses the medium of paint to emphasize the importance of water holes and freshwater fish for the life of this nomadic people on the borders of the semi-arid desert. In this painting by Sonia Kururra, the repetitive lines are reminiscent of CoBrA artists. The artist began painting on paper in the 1990s. In 2008, she switched mainly to canvas and her artistic clout has been increasing in her community. We come across splendid paintings by Dolly Snell, who won the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin in 2015, just a few months before her death at over 82 years of age. A large piece featuring sinuous shapes and blocks of vivid colours draws our gaze and holds its own with as much effect as a Western painting. Backed by thousands of years of history, the artist conveys in her works feelings which are both eternal and utterly alive. A dive into the magical waters of this gallery off the beaten track is a must!
Entre deux eaux
Estrangin Fine Arts
101 rue Jules Besme
Until 19 March
Wednesdays – Saturdays, from 14:00 to 19:00