Over the past two decades, Aboriginal art from Australia has been gathering momentum as a major international art movement. Christie's, Sotheby's and other auction houses hold regular, successful sales of paintings and artifacts produced at Aboriginal settlements across Australia. Major historical figures such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarre can command several hundred thousand dollars for a single painting. Even though indigenous people make up less than three percent of the population, their art in recent years reportedly accounts for about half of the total dollar value of all art sold in Australia.
The appeal of Aboriginal art to non-indigenous collectors is many-sided. On a purely aesthetic level, the work is multi-layered and vibrant. Western eyes familiar with Abstract Expressionism and other post-modern art movements have a conceptual bin in which to place Aboriginal painting. Those who dig beneath the surface appeal discover that many of the paintings record the creation myths of the Aboriginal people, documenting how the land was created by mythical Ancestors during the Dreamtime. Unlike much abstract western art, which concerns itself with technical issues - "flatness" or "shininess" or "color saturation" - Aboriginal art is about something complex and sacred that's been passed down from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years. Collectors with a political bent can take satisfaction in knowing that works purchased from reputable galleries and community art centers provide money to economically downtrodden indigenous settlements while helping to validate the importance of Aboriginal culture.
In this excellent book, Howard Morphy uses art scholarship, his experience in the settlements, and a deep empathy to place Aboriginal art firmly within the context of modern Aboriginal life. The book shows how art making is a part of ritual practices used to summon and honor the Ancestors who made the world. Art - whether it's done as rock paintings or sand drawings, body painting, wood carving, or the application of ochres to bark or acrylics to canvas - is a way of animating the past by making it come alive in the present. Only designated clans or individuals have the right to perform certain rituals or tell certain Dreaming stories. Art becomes a way of asserting and establishing those rights, as well as a way of establishing rights to the land where the dreaming story occurs. Their art also enables Aborigines to open up a dialog with the dominant European culture in a way that expresses and asserts the value of their belief system.
A significant part of Morphy's achievement is granting us access to the rich body of inherited myths, rituals and symbols that Aboriginal artists draw upon to create their art. Like all great religious art, the best of this work expresses eternity in the context of a present moment. Aboriginal artists such as Uta Uta Tjangala, Paddy Sims, and John Mawurndjul, like the Italian Renaissance masters, allow us to experience something sublime. A number of women artists have also created major bodies of work. Dorothy Napangardi, Judy Watson, and Eubena Nampitjin, for example, use sweeping lines and bold colors to tell their Dreaming stories and to express personal visions of everyday bush life. In the works of the great Aboriginal artists, we are witnessing the expression of an enduring vision that has triumphed over time and, since the arrival of the Whitefellas, extremely adverse social circumstances.
Morphy covers the evolution of this art from the Wandjina and Bradshaw rock art done thousands of years ago through printmaking and photography produced today by young urban Aboriginals. He also discusses the historical and cultural circumstances that led to diverse artistic expressions on bark and wood across Arnhelm Land, and is informative on the multiplicity of painting styles that evolved out of ritual practice in the central and western deserts. He provides us with a broad and sympathetic look at artists from southern Australia, where greater exposure to European settlers led to greater suffering and cultural disruption. The concluding section on art produced by urban Aboriginals is convincing in its assertion that even though it differs from the "traditional" art produced in the settlements, it still says something important about the Aboriginal experience.
The book is lavishly and expertly illustrated, and the reader will be struck by the sheer variety of forms and methods of artistic expression. The most rewarding way to see this art is to travel to the places where it's being created and meet the artists who do it. If that's not in your budget, the best public collection of Aboriginal art in the Unites States is the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, which is housed at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Howard Morphy is associated the Kluge-Ruhe Collection and helped to assemble it.) If you read the book, then stand in front of some of these paintings, you will tap into one of the world's oldest continuous cultures while simultaneously experiencing the "shock of the new." As Howard Morphy amply demonstrates, the effort richly rewards you at multiple levels.