art museum visit 3.29.2018

Earlier this week I visited the Chazen Museum of Art, located in the city I currently live –  Madison, Wisconsin – on the University of Wisconsin campus. It’s a wonderful, free museum with plenty of delicious art, and I went specifically to see an exhibit they have up through April 22, titled “Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection.”

From the Chazen website: “Since the 1960s, Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander artists have spearheaded a renaissance in the world’s oldest continuous artistic tradition, innovating within the idioms of visual languages that have developed over the course of millennia. While these dazzling paintings and beguiling sculptures often share formal characteristics with Western modern art, they represent conscientious efforts on the part of Aboriginal artists to share their culture with outsiders.”

Here are my favorite pieces from the exhibit.

Gunungu the Black-Headed Python, George Milpurrurru, 1987. This is just the top half of the piece. In the bottom half, there are three smaller snakes. It depicts the passage of time throughout seasons.


Mardayin Design, John Mawurndjul, 2006. I love the abstract lines in this piece – how they break at other lines and often head in a different direction. These markings are similar to sacred markings Mawurndjul paints on bodies in ceremonies.
Kurtal, Ngilpirr Spider Snell, 2005. So bright! So in your face! So LOOK AT ME! Snell communicates with Kurtal, a snake spirit, through songs and dances. The blue represents living water that provides life sustaining properties.
Marrapinti Rockhole, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, 2007. This one, as I thought, is too full of lines for my camera to get a clear image. Even looking at it with my human eyes, I had to look away pretty quickly! Rockholes are natural depressions where rain collects. These lines represent the flow of the water and the surrounding ridge of hills.
Walu, Tommy Mitchell, 2008. This one is my favorite. The curved lines that create shapes appear to overlap each other. This painting tells a story of a boy who stole food, stole an emu’s heart, and ended up dissolving into wind because of his misdeeds.

According to a brochure I picked up at the museum, there is no word for “art” in Aboriginal languages. They use a “visual alphabet composed of symbols,” to map how ancestral lands came to be, how one is attached to those lands, and which ancestral beings are responsible for the resources found on that land. So even though I look at these pieces and could describe them in terms of the art elements – color, form, line,shape, space, texture, and value – these artists use their own visual language to pass on knowledge, cultural values, and belief systems – or to put it more simply, to tell a story. Any way one wants to put words to this art or these stories, my eyes and brain LOVE the imagery!



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