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Past, present and future

'Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia' on display at Harvard Art Museums through Sept. 18

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Past, present and future
“Wipu Rockhole” by Tommy Watson (2004). Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors’ Group. (Photo: Photo: Tommy Watson/Courtesy of Yanda Aboriginal Art.)

“Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia,” a compelling exhibition on display at the Harvard Art Museums through September 18, presents works of timeless immediacy by original inhabitants of Australia and their contemporary descendants.

Curated by Stephen Gilchrist, an art historian at the University of Sydney, Australia, the exhibition borrows the word “everywhen,” from Australian anthropologist William Stanner, who when studying Indigenous people in his country, coined the term to describe their understanding of time as an intertwining of past, present, and future.

Author: Photo: Licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.“The Burala Rite” by Tom Djawa (1972). Earth pigments on bark. Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

The works speak for themselves with their arresting beauty and power. Yet the back stories of individual works as well as the recent development of an Indigenous art community are concisely presented by the show’s excellent wall texts and catalogue, which includes images of the works and essays by Gilchrist, its editor, and four other scholars.

Like cliff paintings or cave art, many works on display are universal in their reach across time and geography. Some resemble paintings by Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock and such movements as minimalism and optical art.

Drawn from public and private collections in Australia and the U.S, the exhibition presents more than 70 works, most produced within the last 40 years and shown for the first time outside Australia. Some of the artists represented by this show have exhibited at blockbuster venues such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta and the Istanbul Biennial.

Here, works by both renowned and lesser-known mingle with beguiling traditional objects from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Presented side by side with contemporary works, objects usually regarded as anthropological artifacts gain deserved respect as art works too.

Organized not chronologically but instead, by themes — Seasonality, Transformation, Performance and Remembrance — this revelatory show enables viewers to discover the kinship of works old and new and experience the “eternal present” that animates them.

Traditional as well as contemporary alike, they embed the responsiveness of Indigenous people to the natural world that they have inhabited more than 40,000 years. Works evoke seasons and celestial movements and incorporate native pigments and plants.

The first of four galleries focuses on “Seasonality.” Three contemporary larrakitj, tall, tubular vessels used to hold the ashes of the dead, are grouped in a stately grove like a stand of birches. Nearby “Yukawa” (2010) is an exquisite bark painting by Djirrirra Wunungmurra that intertwines young branches and leaves. Another by Gulumbu Yunupingu, “Garak IV (The Universe)” (2004) is a spellbinding array of dots and lines that suggest the whirls and eddies of tides and stars.

Interweaving old and new practices, renowned fiber artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson honors what she regards as a lost art in her painting that combines synthetic polymer paint with digital imagery, “Syaw (Fish Net)” (2008). Crisscrossing fine lines over patches of yellow pigment to sugget the movement of a spindle as well as the shape of a water hole, the painting pulses with energy.

Grouped together in a gallery on the theme of “Transformation” are works that evoke shape-shifting ancestors that inhabit the natural world as well as hallowed sites they endow with life-giving forces.

A vibrating celebration of creation, Tommy Watson’s painting “Wipu Rockhole” (2004) is a gorgeous mosaic of colorful dots and snaking lines suggesting streams and footpaths. Manydjarri Ganambarr’s bark painting “Djambarrpuyngu märna” (1996) enfolds shark and human figures within bold vertical geometric patterns. A composition of intricate circles and rectangles rendered in earth pigments of black, white and tan, Gunybi Ganambarr’s “Buyku” (2011) is a mesmerizing mandala.

Accompanying these contemporary works are traditional ones, including hand-carved vessels of amber wood used to gather food and cradle babies.

Works in the “Performance” gallery present artmaking as a medium of summoning spirits, a physical act no less potent than ceremonial dances. Some works evoke the rhythms of ritual dances and the movements of nature.

Two commanding paintings — “Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa” (2002) by Dorothy Napangardi, and Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s “Untitled” (2007) — echo the ripples of wind on sand and grass in their desert homelands in patterns of tiny dots and lines. They call to mind Jackson Pollock’s abstractions and his process of dripping paint while standing over his canvas. Pollock sought immediacy and transcendence. Both qualities are palpable in this pair of paintings.

In the same gallery are traditional works, including woven baskets, a skirt and a handsome drum that could have been crafted by modernist sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Constructed of ebony wood in an elongated hourglass shape and mounted at an angle, the drum resembles a big fish cresting a wave.

Black and white is the dominant palette of the gallery entitled “Remembrance,” where works bear witness to historic events from an Indigenous perspective.

When Dutch traders colonized Tasmania, an island off the Australian coast, they renamed it Van Diemen’s Land in honor of their governor, and turned it into a penal colony. The newcomers’ diseases soon devastated the local population. A necklace composed of coal, oak and antlers from Tasmania, Julie Gough’s “Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land” (2008), casts a shadow in the shape of the island.

Combining digital imagery with the warmth and delicacy of hand drawings, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s “Untitled (Drawings for light painting)” (2010-11) is a wall mural of shiny, reflective tiles, each a riff on a traditional motif.

The catalog also includes a summary of research by the Harvard museum’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, which analyzed the materials used in the pigments of bark paintings. Its table of ingredients reads like the recipe for a magician’s concoction: orchid bark juice, gull and sea turtle eggs, mango resin, honey, saliva and dry cell batteries.

The evidence suggests that improvisation is at the heart of Indigenous art, both old and new.