Arts

Eye-opening Australian Aboriginal art at Harvard

Emily Kngwarreye’s “Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam),” on view in “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia” at Harvard Art Museums.
© Emily Kam Kngwarray / © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia
Emily Kngwarreye’s “Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam),” on view in “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia” at Harvard Art Museums.

When any compelling new way of picturing the world shivers into being, it can’t help but enthrall us. Think what it is like to see the early Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso, or the very first sensationally realist, shadow-filled paintings of Caravaggio.

the University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Christian Thompson’s “Lamenting the Flowers.”

Many may see “Everywhen,” a succinct survey of Australian Aboriginal art at the Harvard Art Museums, and feel similarly fascinated and awed.

But does the work in the show present a new way of picturing the world, or rather a vastly ancient one? Both. Aboriginal art has roots in a culture that is tens of thousands of years old, but it didn’t begin to take its prevailing present shape — colored paints on canvas — until the early 1970s.

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That’s when Geoffrey Bardon, a white schoolteacher, encouraged senior Aboriginal men to paint designs they had shown him onto small pieces of hardboard, using cheap but colorful acrylic paint. This occurred at a remote government settlement in the Northern Territory called Papunya.

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Once a ration depot, later a Lutheran mission, Papunya was known for its “intensely assimilationist” environment. It was not a happy place. But something extraordinary happened there.

“Everywhen” includes a handful of early Papunya paintings and even earlier works on paper by such artists as Anatjari Tjakamarra, Uta Uta Tjangala, and the brilliant Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. In their fusing of rudimentary means with secret, inherited knowledge, there’s something magical about these pieces.

Against a dark ground evocative of nighttime ritual, Mick Namarari’s “Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object” shows two rounded, slightly off-kilter shapes emerging from the small painting’s top and bottom edges. Each is divided and subdivided into small segments filled with intricate stripes, cross-hatching, dots, and repeating curves. The gauche but intricate visual syntax combines topographical knowledge with diagrammatic marks that indicate a sacred object surrounded by initiated men performing a ceremony.

The very act of painting the piece can be thought of as a performance, or the reiteration of a sacred action. That goes also for a lot of the larger, more visually immersive art that flourished in indigenous communities across Australia in subsequent decades — although inevitably (given the intervention of market forces) with diminishing returns.

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If “Everywhen” is not quite the show of Aboriginal art I’ve always secretly longed to see, it is probably the best I’ve actually seen. (And as an Australian art critic, believe me, I’ve seen a few). In around 70 works, it provides a smooth and enlightening introduction to forms of art celebrated in their home country not only as beautiful, but salvific: the aesthetic equivalent of balm applied to shameful national wounds.

If the elders painting at Papunya were conjuring sacred knowledge, they were also, at times, stretching the rules that governed the dissemination of that knowledge. The quandary about what knowledge should be revealed and what concealed creates a titillating dynamic around the reception of Aboriginal art, one that has long beguiled outsiders. But too much can be made of it.

Aboriginal art is perhaps best thought of as a political expression of cultural identity and resilience, and an ongoing quest for images of concentrated power and beauty.

Individuality, innovation, and authenticity are not concepts that have the same prestige in Aboriginal cultures as they do in the West. But the two Aboriginal artists most acclaimed by western audiences are Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas.

Kngwarreye, who died in 1996, is represented by one of her “big yam” paintings, a huge tangle of meandering pink, red, yellow, and white lines painted in acrylic on four adjoining black panels. The lines in each color congregate in certain areas, but not according to any easily grasped logic. It’s not her most overwhelming work, but it will do very nicely.

Thomas’s “Yari Country.”
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Thomas’s “Yari Country.”
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Thomas, who died in 1998, was from the Great Sandy Desert. His painting, in natural ochres, is much more austere. “Yari Country,” painted in 1989, is a rectangle divided by dotted lines into four quadrants. It may remind Western viewers of formats developed by Piet Mondrian or Mark Rothko, but any resemblance is coincidental. The work is in fact the distillation of an ancestral narrative that tells of a man’s death by fire during a drought.

Aboriginal painting on canvas reached, in my opinion, an apogee of beauty in works by such artists as Turkey Tolson, Mick Namarari, Dorothy Napangardi, Kitty Kantilla, and more recently, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, whose recent show in New York drew rave reviews.

All these artists, and others like them, achieved subtle optical effects by painting closely repeating lines and dots in subtle colors without too much fastidiousness or predetermined designs. The resulting patterns suggest mythical “songlines” (mythological stories from the so-called “dreamtime” that relate to place and becoming), but also aerial views, Western contour maps, and, via their optical dazzle, desert haze.

Dorothy Napangardi’s “Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa.”
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Dorothy Napangardi’s “Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa.”

The only work in “Everywhen” that reaches these heights is Napangardi’s “Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa,” 2002. In hues of glinting bronze, the painting evokes rhythmic women’s ceremonies that relate to digging for sustenance, as well as the rocky terrain of the vast and spinifex-strewn Tanami desert. It seems to me a masterpiece, an austere yet shimmering thing that squirms with life, suggesting tremendous complexity within a deeper, inexpressible simplicity.

The show includes terrific loans from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, as well as from private and college collections in the US.

There are especially fine paintings by Paddy Bedford, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Tommy Watson, Alec Mingelmanganu, Tutuma Tjapangati, and Regina Pilawuk Wilson. But what’s missing are genuinely high quality bark paintings by such artists as John Mawurndjul and others from Maningrida, an indigenous community in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Mawurndjul, in particular, is a potent and innovative artist, who has long been acclaimed on the international stage.

Although it focuses on works from the past 40 years, “Everywhen,” which was organized by Stephen Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator at Harvard Art Museums, is enhanced by the inclusion of some wonderful objects from the collection of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. These include painted baskets, wooden bowls, engraved pearl shells, and a woven skirt.

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Julie Gough’s “Dark Valley.

The show also devotes space to work in a more conceptual and explicitly political vein by such artists as Yhonni Scarce, Christian Thompson, and Julie Gough. Gough’s work — an oversize necklace made from pieces of coal with antlers attached — addresses the horrendous history of indigenous people of Tasmania, who were dispossessed and undone by imported disease, with those remaining sent into exile on a small island in the strait that separates Tasmania from the mainland.

“Everywhen” is supported by Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For more than three decades, Australia has been trying to export Aboriginal art to foreign shores, with only intermittent success.

The exhibit’s subtitle, “The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia,” helps explain the somewhat maladroit title. The suggestion, as the museums’ former director Tom Lentz explains in the catalog’s foreword, is that “for Indigenous Australians, past, present, and future overlap and influence one another in ways that defy Western notions of time as a forward-flying arrow.”

Contemplating this can lead the mind to beautiful places. A cynic — or perhaps merely a sad-eyed realist — might say that the British colonization of Australia two centuries ago sentenced the continent’s indigenous people to an experience of time as circular and overlapping as Dante’s hell.

Disease, slaughter, dispossession, and lack of recourse (thanks in part to the British designation of the continent, which had been occupied for 50,000 years, as “terra nullius” — nobody’s land) almost destroyed Aboriginal culture. It certainly made a mockery of the idea of time as a forward-flying arrow.

Many Aboriginals today — including those from the remote communities where some of the most celebrated art is made — live in conditions that everyone across the political spectrum agrees are a national disgrace.

I say this not to pour cold water over an encounter that is likely to be agreeable and even inspiring for American audiences, but to point out that all the good intentions and romance that congregate around people’s initial discovery of Aboriginal art should not blind them to many unpleasant realities.

Those realities include far-flung communities that are riven by alcohol and child abuse, a preponderance of really bad art made either in dismal or overly controlled conditions, and a dissonance between political rhetoric and reality that pains the brain to think upon.

Art, in such circumstances, should be — and is — a source of pride and hope. But it also carries a heavy and, I would say, an unrealistic burden of expectation.

Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia

At Harvard Art Museums, through Sept. 18. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.