Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Joanna, Mort, Baci, and Aboriginal Art



Several times, over the years, we have found that a mistake made while traveling often delivers unexpected experiences that become highlights of your trip. That was certainly the case with our meeting of Joanna, Mort, and their charming cat, Baci.

I had neglected to reserve a room in Sydney on our return from Perth. When I realized that, I immediately began searching for accommodation on AirBnb.  We found a room at Joanna’s and Mort’s house in an attractive residential area with many trees among the Victorian- and Edwardian-style houses and bungalows.

Joanna is a writer in the field of health and wellness, so we swapped stories about the joys and trials of writing for a living. Baci, who must surely have some Burmese in his background, delighted us as well with his friendly demeanor and antics, including crawling into his own kitchen cupboard where he hides out from the world. We had needed a “kitty fix” and he certainly filled the bill. He is gray-blue with golden eyes and bit round, and sadly, my photo of him did not turn out! (And yes, "baci" means kisses in Italian.)

Here, however, is our photo of Kevin with Joanna and Mort, who is also a writer, as well as a musician, and expert in indigenous cultures and art.

Mort is holding his children's book Stumpy, The Talking Tree. Note the artwork behind them
It was almost as if the universe had sent us to their door. We had visited several museums in both Sydney and Perth to view aboriginal art. The Seattle Art Museum had hosted a marvelous show on Australian aboriginal art a few years ago, and we felt certain we would encounter more high quality artworks in Australia, but it seemed that everywhere we went, we kept missing special exhibitions. We did see some excellent work, but we hungered for more.  Meeting Joanna and Mort was truly serendipitous, for they had some of the finest aboriginal art we had seen—even a large canvas by renowned artist Betty West.

 Mort is a personal friend of Betty West and has spent a lot of time teaching music and circus performance (for example, the high wire) to aboriginal youths. He has a deep appreciation of the native Australian cultures.  As he says, “Can you imagine that the Europeans called the aboriginal people ‘uncivilized’? Yet they lived here sustainably for more than 50,000 years!”

In 1958, several Tiwi artists were commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales to create these 17 Tutuni or Pukumani grave posts.The artists used traditional carving designs, but a different wood than the one that they use for ceremonial purposes. These striking posts were considered ground-breaking, establishing Australian aboriginal cultural creations as an important, and now recognized, part of the art world.

I don’t pretend to understand the rich symbols and spirit in the culture of aboriginal Australians. Artists draw on the rich symbology of The Dreaming or Dreamtime, which can't really be expressed in English. Dreamtime is eternal; it exists before the individual and after, it is “time out of time.” I may not fully understand it, but I find when I closely observe a work of aboriginal art and am open to it, I can sense the spirit infused in the work. Yet, as Mort recounts, when the artists are creating their work, the canvases just sit amid the dust and distractions of everyday life; dogs and children may walk right over them. It makes me realize that, as in most ancient cultures, there is no separation between the spiritual and the everyday; it is integral to all of life.

Currently, Mort is tracing the ancestral stories from many cultures, in Australia and around the world, that are concerned with the star cluster the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. I find it fascinating that so many different peoples have similar mythologies about those stars, as though there is some primordial shared knowledge that we, in the modern world, have forgotten.

How tragic that in colonizing other places, the Europeans destroyed so many of the native inhabitants throughout the world, including the Americas and Down Under--nowhere more so than in Australia, where 99% of the aboriginal peoples were eradicated.  If we look at modern European-influenced cultures from the dawn of the Industrial Age forward, I think it highly unlikely that they will leave a sustainable world for 50,000 years, particularly when we seem to be hanging by a thread. What have we lost?

This thought-provoking installation by Fiona Hall. Called "Slash and Burn, includes sculptures of heads and body parts tied to videos of war films. It is part of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibit, called "When Silence Falls" showcases works by artists worldwide who, through their work, speak for those who have been victims of massacres, ethnic cleansing, or political events.
Note: I  can also highly recommend the book, European Passengers, an historical novel by Matthew Kneale, which won the Whitbread Book Award in 2000. A heartbreaking story, it tells of the early Europeans in Tasmania and their treatment of the Tasmanian aboriginal people.

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