Saturday, 1 August 2015

'Indigenous Australia' at The British Museum

I went to see the 'Indigenous Australia' exhibition at The British Museum just before it closes this weekend - leaving it o the last minute again - and I'm pleased I managed to catch it. It's a mix of objects from the Museum's collection, things on loan and some artworks created specially for the exhibition.

It's one of those exhibitions that starts off with a lot of writing on boards with photos and maps to help centre you so you can be exposed to what you're about to see. We learn that people were in Australia over 60,000 years ago, that the sea rose to create the island of Tasmania and that the peoples of Australia lived close to and in harmony with the earth and sea.  So far so good. It then tries to explain the Dreamtime which people going back millennia have tried to depict in arts and crafts, the ancient people, the spirit people that helped to create what we see today.

The exhibition starts of with woodworks and other objects dating back to 1770 when Cook went to Australia and that's about when various European people started collecting things from the people they found, odd curios that were collectable but not understood. Some of the indigenous peoples had traditions about giving gifts and that's where some of the objects come from. Others were stolen or looted.

We see spears and shields, ceremonial masks and bowls, woven pouches for carrying a version of tobacco leaves, coral jewellery, figures made from clay and twine, baskets using traditional weaving techniques and all sorts, all decorated, some with simple and some with complex designs. Something I noticed that I don't think I've seen anywhere else was a set of 'message sticks', short, thin wooden sticks between 4 and 6 inches in length with designs cut into them. Apparently these conferred a special status on the carriers and could be used for anything from telling far off relatives about the birth of a child to almost anything.

As well as a fascinating story there's also the downside, the way the European invaders treated the indigenous folks, enshrining discrimination in the constitutions of the early states that now make up Australia and, even then, only removing those statutes in my lifetime. There are videos of civil rights marches and banners seeking equality and freedom. There are two small reproductions of painting by an indigenous artist whose name I didn't catch in the 50s who was granted honorary citizenship because of is art but, because he allowed one of his relatives to drink alcohol at a celebration was imprisoned for six months because it was against the law to give alcohol to indigenous people.

The standout pieces for me were two massive artworks by indigenous people, one by a man (above) and one by a women's collective (below). The sign beside the women's piece said that the women didn't want to explain the symbolism in their art because it was personal and the Museum has followed that wish.

You can try to 'read' these paintings for hours and not understand them without a deep understanding of the peoples who made them and their traditions. Australia is a vast place and the traditions of one people aren't the same as those in another part of the land. The painting above is, in part, about the tale of Little Leg (and you can see his little legs) and you can see the undulating serpent towards the bottom of the work - serpents are often in artworks as symbols of the first peoples and ancestors. In the very bottom left of the women's art you can roughly humanoid decorated shapes that match the skin painting on women and to the right the vague shapes of footprints (heel indents) showing travel and movement. But what these mean is beyond me. Fascinating though.

Outside the rotunda which houses the exhibition are two huge sculptures that welcome you to the exhibition. I've no idea what they're meant to be but I liked them.

The exhibition closes on 2 August so if you missed it then that's it. I really must try to visit exhibitions when they open rather than when they're closing...

No comments: