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Winter Arts guide

Illuminating indigenous Australian art at Harvard

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s “Two Women Dreaming.”
Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s “Two Women Dreaming.”(Ronnie Tjampitjinpa/Aboriginal Artists Agency)

“Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art From Australia,” opening at the Harvard Art Museums on Feb. 5, dares museum visitors to imagine time in ways most of us are not used to. It invites us to see as indigenous Australians do — weaving time, the land, creation narratives, and social order into a great, ever-present generative force known as “the Dreaming.”

“One cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time,” wrote Australian anthropologist William Stanner. “It was, and is, everywhen.

Indigenous Australian Stephen Gilchrist, the museums’ Australian Studies Visiting Curator, organized the exhibition. Gilchrist belongs to the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia.

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To emphasize time’s elasticity, Gilchrist showcases historic objects from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside art made over the last 45 years by indigenous Australians.

“Many people assume indigeneity is something of the past, and museums have been a part of that narrative,” says Gilchrist. “Indigenous people don’t live in the past. They carry the past, and make provisions for the future.”

Indigenous Australians, like Native Americans, were subject to massacres, displacement, and erasure of their culture.

“I want these objects to reference the history, but also to be an intervention into these histories,” says Gilchrist.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, natural history museums built collections on notions that propped up empire-building: Indigenous peoples were seen as primitive. They were studied, classified, and fit into a racial typology devised to prove white superiority.

Their art was not recognized as art, but as artifact. We can read the colonialist power dynamic in the way some indigenous objects were labeled: a vessel in the Peabody’s collection had its inventory number written right on it, in ink. We can sense the objectifying gaze in century-old photos of indigenous people from almost anywhere. How do you intervene into a past that can feel fossilized in our institutions?

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Gilchrist points to Christian Thompson, an indigenous artist who confronted the collection at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University’s equivalent of the Peabody. Thompson studied old photographs there of indigenous people taken by non-indigenous people.

Viewing images of deceased people is taboo for many indigenous Australians. Thompson stretched and respected his own cultural guidelines: He would look at the photographs, but he would not reproduce them or carry them with him.

“If we don’t look at history, if you don’t look at these images,” Gilchrist says, “you make these people disappear again.” Thompson’s “We Bury Our Own” photo series, some of which is on view in “Everywhen,” responds to what he saw. In each, he obscures his own face or eyes, refuting the camera’s possessive gaze. Taking self-portraits, he becomes subject, not object, and a mysterious and evasive one.

In indigenous Australian communities, a fever for painting took hold in the 1970s, as artists began to translate iconography and rhythms from ceremonial rituals into visual art. Gilchrist says that in the 1990s, iconography gave way to abstraction as a form of cultural code.

“There are archives of knowledge that need to be protected,” he says.

All of the contemporary works in “Everywhen” are imbedded with purposely obscured meaning. With its grid of concentric boxes, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s painting “Two Women Dreaming” resembles a dotty riff on 1960s-era Frank Stella, but it’s a treasure map threaded with story, place, and ancestral wisdom about water in the desert.

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As with the Dreaming itself, every painting, every story, simply adds another depth. “This notion — that one is only ever viewing a detail of a much larger picture — is the persistent lesson of Aboriginal art,” writes Henry F. Skerritt, a doctoral candidate in history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, in his catalog essay for “Everywhen.”

Emily Kam Kngwarray’s “Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam).”
Emily Kam Kngwarray’s “Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam).”(Emily Kam Kngwarray/ARS)

American art lovers may look at the polka-dot extravaganza in Timmy Payungka Tjapangati’s “Bush Tucker Dreaming” or the hot, noodly tangles in Emily Kam Kngwarray’s “Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam)” and see them as abstract paintings in direct conversation with contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Brice Marden.

“I read them as being very representational,” says Gilchrist, “condensing a breadth of knowledge about place, ways of being, and social order. Ancestors teaching you the correct models of life.”

There’s a dissonance, if not a disconnect, between the Western canon celebrated in encyclopedic museums, and art by indigenous people. “The tension of indigenous art in a Western art museum never really goes away, and I think that’s good,” Gilchrist says.

“Everywhen,” then, may look from one angle like reclamation, but the curator has another end in mind.

“This is not about rescuing indigenous art,” Gilchrist says. “We are indigenizing art history.”

Everywhen : The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art From Australia

At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, Feb. 5-Sept. 18.617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

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