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Indepth Arts News:

"Origin Stories: Creation Narratives in Australian Aboriginal Art"
2001-09-26 until 2001-12-09
University of Richmond Museums
Richmond, VA, USA United States of America

Origin Stories: Creation Narratives in Australian Aboriginal Art features paintings on canvas and bark made over the past 30 years by Australian Aboriginal artists. This selection of art focuses on the tales of the Dreamtime -- a time when powerful ancestral beings created the landscape, animals, and human beings, and they established laws for Aboriginal peoples.

Origin Stories is organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and curated by Margo Smith. All of the paintings are from the permanent collection of the Kluge-Ruhe museum.

As the earliest settlers in Australia, Aborigines arrived by boat to the continent from Southeast Asia approximately 40,000 years ago. By the time European explorers began colonizing in the late 1700s, the indigenous peoples were largely hunting and gathering societies that reached more than 1,000,000 in number. According to a 1986 census, fewer than 228,000 Aborigines made up less than 2 percent of the total population of Australia. Although the symbols and stories represented in Aboriginal painting stem from the age-old traditions and ceremonies, painting on bark and canvas is a relatively new mode of expression. Canvas was only made available to people in the Papunya region in 1971. Bark painting production has recently increased dramatically in response to its popularity.

The reason for painting on transportable surfaces is twofold. First, paintings on canvas and bark can be sold to collectors and traders, thus providing a source of income for the community. Second, the act of painting allows artists the opportunity to retell their origin stories, keeping them fresh in their memory and passing them on to the next generation. The artists also contribute to one of the world’s oldest and richest traditions of cultural heritage.

Although the creation era is believed to have taken place long ago, the Dreamtime is vital and ongoing, continuing in the present. Many believe that the ancestral beings still inhabit the landscape. For example, near the community of Raminginging, a rock known as Mewal represents the female Wild Honey Spirit who turned to stone after a tree fell on her. Bark painter Jimmy Moduk immortalized Mewal in his 1990 painting Mewal: Female Honey Spirit Sacred Stone. Painting provides visual cues for the origin narratives, both in the symbols representing site and characters, and in the detailed crosshatching or dot work, which adds layers of meaning to the story.

On view through December 9, 2001, at the Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond Museums, the exhibition is made possible with the generous support of the University of Richmond Cultural Affairs Committee and the Office of International Education.

Peter Maralwanga (1916-1987)
Oenpelli, Northern Territory
Crocodile of theDreaming, circa 1980,
natural ochres on bark,
62 1/4 x 29 3/4 inches
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection,
University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
© Estate of the artist,
photograph by Ron Hurst,
Photoworks Creative Group.

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