Karrku (various artists), 1996, acrylic on canvas. Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, 1996
In the exhibition Lifelines: Indigenous Contemporary Art from Australia, now on at the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City, lines are viewed as the threads binding stories together. Featuring a groundbreaking selection of contemporary works by Indigenous Australian artists, Lifelines was three years in the making, and is the first comprehensive exhibition of its kind in Canada.
Lifelines is a vibrant kaleidoscopic collection featuring nearly 100 major works. Just over half come from the holdings of the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum. The exhibition also features works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). All of the works, selected by guest curator Françoise Dussart, are rooted in ancestral stories and relationships with the earth, with a strong theme of Indigenous dispossession.
Dussart, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, was invited to curate Lifelines, because of her important work in the field of Australian Aboriginal art and societies. “Lifelines are ways to hang on to something,” she said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “You want to be able to go along and survive and move forward.” She believes that Lifelines pays tribute to the artists and their families, by giving their work the mainstream recognition it deserves. The exhibition also explores the artists’ unwavering desire to pursue dialogue through art, despite the many ups and downs of their daily lives.
Johnny Perrurle Young, Kangourous (2008), copper wire and steel, dimensions variable. Australian Museum
The works in Lifelines are presented in an open space evoking the vastness of Australia. “Exhibitions of Indigenous art are often organized geographically,” says Dussart. “I wanted to challenge that convention.” She opted to divide it into three thematic zones instead: Lands of Dreams, Lands of Knowledge, and Lands of Power. “The themes are much more powerful,” she adds. “They speak a universal language in their desire to establish a dialogue.”
During the exhibition’s opening at the Musée de la civilisation, Executive Director Stéphan La Roche remarked that it was hard not to see a parallel between the aspirations and questions of identity faced by First Peoples in Australia, and those of Aboriginal nations in Canada. “Lifelines invites its visitors to go further in their understanding of our world,” he said.
In the exhibition, that world begins with the impressive Karrku Jukurrpa (Mount Stanley Dreaming) an aerial view of a giant red-ochre mine crisscrossed by the pathways of Ancestral Beings. This large and unusual collaborative painting involved the participation of 36 artists from the community of Yuendumu in the Tanami Desert.
Lifelines also features Cantchant (wegrewhere) (2009) by artist Vernon Ah Kee, on loan from the NGC. Featured in the 2013 National Gallery exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art, the installation is a response to the 2005 Cronulla Riots, when white Australians clashed with Muslim Australians over use of the local beach. Vernon Ah Kee saw this as ironic, since the beach belonged to his people before either of the other two groups arrived.
Vernon Ah Kee, Cantchant (2009), painted surfboards and acrylic on canvas, installation dimensions variable. NGC
Ah Kee addressed this oversight in Cantchant by digitally reproducing a series of impressions on the backs of surfboards that are also shaped as shields. On one side, there is iconography specific to his people group. The other side features text and photographs of people from among his kin who were taken away as children: the stolen generation. “He is using different kinds of sentences to really assert the fact that his people have a true ancestral deed to the land,” says Dussart, “and also to talk about colonial violence.”
Referring to a quote by Louise Bourgeois that defines art as a guarantee of sanity, Françoise Dussart takes the thought one step further, suggesting that “art is the guarantee of resilience.” In her view, the ultimate experience offered by the exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to engage with a wider variety of worldviews: “The simple level of communication is knowing that people have other ways of seeing the world than we do.”
Lifelines: Indigenous Contemporary Art from Australia is currently on view at the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City until September 5, 2016.
Colombia-born Antonio Aragon is a writer and educator who works frequently in the developing world. He has published two novels.
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