Aboriginal Australia arrives in Modern China
There is an ancient Aboriginal proverb that goes ‘those who lose dreaming are lost’ and there is probably no better place to rediscover your dreaming than at the latest international blockbuster at the Shanghai Art Museum.
Our Land — Our Body (土地-身体 ~ Tu Di – Shen Ti) is the largest exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art to come to China and will continue to tour major cities over the coming months.
The exhibition features 65 works in painting, video, photography, sound and projection, but what makes this show unique is that all the work comes from the Warburton Ranges, one of the most remote places on earth. “The easiest way to think of this place is halfway between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia,” explains Mr Gary Proctor, the exhibition organiser and manager of the Warburton Arts Project.
Mr Proctor has worked for the last two decades with the Ngaanyatjarra people, a desert community that has now grown to about 3000 people. Most of his time has been spent developing artist skills and working with the elders to gather the ancient stories and songs, which have now become messages to the outside world.
While there are almost 800 works in the entire Warburton Arts Project collection, the curators worked closely together to select and install 65 of the best works to present here in China, ultimately taking visitors into the physical landscape and feeling of this faraway desert place.
Mr Li Lei, Executive Director of the Shanghai Art Museum, says the show has been a great success, having already had more then 40,000 visitors since the opening in mid March. “Australia is a deep cultural land with a wealthy cultural legacy,” says Mr Li. “Through this exhibition we can see that the Australian government is focusing on their country’s traditions and their Aboriginal art and culture.”
“What's important is not just the art, it's the pool of cultural consciousness from which these paintings emanate,” says Mr Proctor. “But how do you prepare a cultural group of people for a post-industrial world? There are real problems, not just for the artists, but for political bureaucracies, in a contemporary world, trying to fit in with modern society.”
When Mr Proctor approached the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the opportunity to travel to China became the perfect opportunity to take these ‘letters to the future’ abroad. Working with his wife, Zhou Ling Ling, a Chinese project manager, Mr Proctor has spent the last two years working with a Chinese team to develop the largest and most ambitious tour of Aboriginal culture to China.
The Australian Consul General in Shanghai, Mr Tom Connor, says the exhibition is a significant cultural exchange between the two countries. “Aboriginal Art is one of the great art movements of the modern world but is inspired by a culture that is thousands of years old,” says Mr Connor. “This is also the Year of Australian Culture in China, so it’s an exciting time for the exhibition to be here and I think it will be an eye-opener for Shanghai audiences.”
Trying to capture the feeling of the desert, the remote location, the vast skies and landscape of the Warburton Ranges area was the major obstacle to overcome for the exhibition team. “The challenge is to bring people into the space of the community, without having the actual landscape and the people present, because if we lose the relationships then we lose everything,” Mr Proctor explains.
Alongside the huge colourful paintings, there are audio-visual components, like the sound of the wind, “because you always hear the wind out there,” says Mr Proctor. There are also unique recordings of community members and elders speaking and singing songs as well as a wall size projection of vegetation moving in the wind. These elements were included to bring a sense of place and community.
Visitors will hear recordings of some of the sacred dreaming songs, also known as songlines, sung by the Ngaanyatjarra elders. These stories invoke the past and the present, the ancient landscape and the modern people, in one huge interconnected song. The Australian writer Bruce Chatwin brought Aboriginal songlines to international attention with his 1987 novel, The Songlines, but many of the dreaming spirit stories are so deeply tied to secret lore that they have only slowly been shared with non-Aboriginal people.
The walls in the exhibition are also covered in the names of people from the community, photographs of the artists, their children and the beautiful but harsh landscapes they call home. The curators consider the inclusion of modern photographs as a way to connect visitors more directly with the Ngaanyatjarra people, by creating what Mr Proctor calls “a theme of youthful consciousness that goes through this space”, one that will help people to make the conscious leap between ancient tradition and modern life.
“The whole installation is designed to remove certainty or to deepen your uncertainty,” says Mr Proctor. He hopes that visitors will first try to explore the exhibition for themselves, to make their own connections. “You could just buy the catalogue and have all the information there in your hands but I think it’s better to first just experience the works for yourself and let them sink in.”
With great energy and passion, Mr Proctor describes the paintings to our group as we walk around the museum. The colour combinations are truly extraordinary, even more so for Chinese visitors who are unfamiliar with the heavily textured and detailed colour combinations used in Aboriginal art.
We look at one beautiful series of paintings that describe the dreaming story of the Seven Sisters and the male creator spirit who unsuccessfully tried to seduce them by detaching his male member and sending it under the ground to appear where the sisters were dancing. I suddenly remembered that weird ‘90s song by King Missile but when you consider these Aboriginal works together with ancient sculptures about sex, like those at the Museum of Chinese Ancient Sex Culture in Tongli Village outside Shanghai, you start to see some common connections between people in Australia and China.
We stop at a major piece, vivid with pinks and blues and so deeply layered that you could be mistaken in thinking you were looking at one of those magic 3D drawings, the ones where an image is hidden inside a complex pattern. Actually you wouldn’t be far off in thinking about Aboriginal painting in this way. Many of the works can be considered as layered maps that reveal the contours of the landscape, water sources, meeting places, various people and animals, but then underneath all these elements are patterns of the dreamtime spirits who created the world.
Mr Proctor explains how difficult it is to talk about some of the works when even the titles themselves bear the sacred names of the creation spirits, so sacred that it is forbidden to say the names aloud. “These are the cultural spaces we have had to traverse,” he explains as he runs his hands over the creation spirit painting made up of thousands of dots and circles, “These works show the remote places in the desert, how things click together, the animals, the dreaming, travelling through the landscape where everything is connected in a collective world.”
“The important thing is the differences between people,” he says, “You need to be resourceful and have luck in the desert, you have to make your own life, but you also have to have a sense of joy and work as a team,” he says.
“In China, people love the arts with a deep soul, and the Chinese team here at the Shanghai Art Museum have been wonderful. In the end, I realised that we are all ordinary people who simply love the arts, and this is what brings us together, and this is what is important for us to understand in China and Australia.”
Our Land — Our Body (土地-身体 ~ Tu Di – Shen Ti)
Open until 6 April at the Shanghai Art Museum
325 Nanjing Xi Road (cross street Huangpi Bei Rd)
09:00-17:00 (last admission at 16:30)
The exhibition will also travel to Beijing, Hangzhou, Xian, and Wuhan.
Din Heagney is a freelance arts writer and editor. He is currently working on a project called The Foreign Art Office, which is supported by the Australian government through the Australia Council, its arts and funding advisory body. For more information about his work, visit his website.
And click here to find the gallery in ShanghaiExpat.