Twenty two years ago in New York an Australian art critic invited me to a reception at the Asia Society for an exhibition of Aboriginal art. A few of the artists in the show had traveled from the other side of the world to be there. One shook my hand. His name was Clifford Tjapaltjarri Possum and I never forgot him.
I remember how he nodded to me with a slight smile. His black eyes were bewitching, like burning coals buried deep inside their sockets. As I stood there, I felt the effects of this man’s shamanic trance. It sent me falling into a sort of space/time continuum, a journey without past, present or future. After only a few minutes in that room overlooking Park Avenue, it was as if Clifford Possum had seen everything and passed along a gift so that I might have vision too.
Then he turned around, melted into the crowd and I never saw him again.
This past week I was again able to experience something close to magic at Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts Gallery in Wynwood. The Inspired Dream/Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art is an exhibition featuring 11 artists who still have the power to enchant. I was thrilled to see that Clifford Possum’s daughters, Michelle Possum and Gabriella Possum Nungurray are carrying on the tradition of their late father. He taught them how to draw the distinctive designs and symbols of earth and sky, and offer revelations about the secret legends of Aboriginal history they call Dreamtime. (The time of creation approximately 40 to 60 thousand years ago when the world and all its contents came into being.) Gabriella’s Seven Sisters (Milky Way) Dreaming is a stunning work, acrylic on linen. The shimmering blue of a night sky with its seven concentric circles represent the seven sisters who fled from danger and found a safe haven on the Milky Way to become the stars of the Pleiades.
I have read that an outsider looking at Aboriginal art can assimilate only a fraction of its spiritual significance. That’s no doubt true, but I was interested to see people in the gallery who skipped reading the wall texts altogether. A father and mother and teenage son stood staring at the overlapping whorl patterns of Walangkura Napananka’s Old Womans Travelling Story. The fact that the dreaming picture here portrayed a “devil devil” woman who kills and eats people or that the circles denote rocks and the dots symbolize berries were irrelevant details for this family. They were mesmerized by a picture that stood proudly on its own.
Ningura Napurrula, born in 1938, is now nearly blind. She is represented here with the largest and most expensive painting in the show. Ngaminya is distinguished by its rich linear designs and heavy layers of ochre and chocolate colored acrylic paint. I was told to look closely to discover the tiny white dots which build up into lines and circles, which in turn reveal darker colors underneath. Her themes emphasize women travelling to sacred birthing sites (her circles) for ceremonies and dancing. Ningura Napurrula is one of 50 of Australia’s most collected artists and she is exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the world.
George Ward Tjungurrayi is a leading Pintupi artist whose four richly colored paintings here document and explore the legend of the ancient Tingari Cycle. The mythic Tingari people appeared out of smoke as grown men with beards. They roamed an unforgiving land on epic journeys and in effect became absorbed by the Western Deserts. George’s remarkable works are like aerial-view landscapes that reflect the vastness of the country and the wonders of its spiritual wealth.
After an hour I left the gallery on North Miami Avenue only slightly disoriented. I was grateful that I had thought to bring along a pal to provide me with a reality check and keep me grounded. When I got home I decided to call an Australian painter, Fran O’Neill, who works out of her studio in Brooklyn. I was curious to get her take on Aboriginal art and to see how it may have affected and inspired her work. She told me she grew up in a small rural town near Melbourne. “From childhood I’d always had an interest in sewing and fabrics, so when I emerged as an artist in the States I began exploring patterns and colors and sometimes breaking the mark to delve deeper into themes of isolation and absence.
“So Fran, it sounds as if you were influenced by the Aborigines.”
“Not at all consciously,” she said. “My heroes then were painters like Gorky and Klee. I loved how their work told stories within stories. And there was Rothko, of course, with his color saturations. When I came to America I first worked on landscapes; then I moved into combining patterns. Then the landscapes disappeared altogether and I started layering. I discovered that intricately patterned fields often work as a sort of veiled entry into another world.
When I look at my work today it becomes more of an unknown state. It’s hard to decipher. But maybe,” she added, “there is that earth connection. In Australia the ground has its own soul. It breathes. And, you know, I miss it.”
Images: Images: Walangkura Napanangka, Ngaminya (2007), acrylic on linen, 79 x 8 inches; Michelle Possum, Dancing Ceremony (2009), acrylic on linen, 66 x 37 inches; George Ward Tjungurrayi, Tingari Cycle (2005), acrylic on linen, 55 x 55 inches; Jeannie Petyarre, Bush Medicine (Bush Leaves) (2008), acrylic on linen. All Courtesy Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts Gallery; Fran O'Neill, Lean (2009), Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy the artist.