IMAGES FROM ANOTHER WORLD
– Every picture is a story; and every story a picture. This is how the Austra-lian gallery owner Hank Ebes describes the fascinating Aboriginal world of images. He first came across it in the early 1970s when he went into the Aus-tralian bush and met the country’s indigenous people. His efforts have been a significant factor in Aboriginal art’s current status as a recognised part of the international, contemporary art scene. In the spring of 2006 more than 100 Aboriginal paintings from Ebes’s extraordinary private collection will be presented in the exhibition DREAMTIME at ARKEN.
All stories in the Aboriginals’ images take place in the mythological Dreamtime during which, according to Aboriginal belief, the world was created: This was when the spirits of the ancestors awoke. They founded the law regulating conduct between people and created the landscape and all things living. Thereupon the spirits lay down to rest in the landscape, taking the form of natural phenomena such as stones and rocks. Thus even today the landscape houses the essence of the ancestors, literally constituting the roots of the population and the culture.
Every picture is a story; every story a picture
At first glance the large pictures with their characteristic, decorative patterns resemble the abstract paintings we know from the art of the inter-war years in Europe and USA. Think again, though: For what a western observer may perceive as impassioned paintings with no concrete content are actually figurative pictures. They depict specific landscapes, holy places, vegetation and animal trails with both symbolic and practical significance to the Aboriginals’ identity and day-to-day existence in the bush.
The Aboriginal images speak of life and death, the quest for food, the rules of conduct between members of the group, and not least of the group’s and the individual’s relation to the ancestral beings that are an ingrained part of the identity of the Aboriginals and the history of the country. Like all other idioms – that of the western world’s images included – Aboriginal art is culturally coded. To make the story emerge from the seemingly abstract patterns one has to act the explorer in uncharted territories. The reward comes in the form of a number of dramatic stories.
However, first one needs to learn the Aboriginal signs and symbols for things like a moving kangaroo, a snake trail, a water-hole or a group of men or women. It is important to understand that the pictures are both topographical, mental and mythical maps of the landscape. And one has to accept that even ardent scrutiny will not fully reveal what the work portrays. Certain symbols are so hermetic that only the members of a particular group are able to read them correctly. Moreover, the Aboriginals always tell an entire story in one image regardless of the events depicted having taken place in an instant or over several days. A picture seemingly depicting five men e.g. may turn out to portray one man travelling through the landscape over five days; five men present in the landscape at the same time; or – by far the most opaque meaning – three men, one of whom is so important that the artist has chosen to depict him more times than the others.
Tjirilpatja Dreaming, 1992