Marking the Infinite: Contemporary aboriginal women artists from Australia

Marking the Infinite will make its Canadian debut at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in November. The show seeks to celebrate and preserve Indigenous knowledge, languages and traditions through the eyes of nine Aboriginal women’s artworks.

Artwork by Gulumbu Yunupingu. | Photo by Sid Hoeltzell

It is a series of firsts for us,” explains Carol E. Mayer, curator of the Pacific at MOA. “It is our first Australian exhibition, our first contemporary art exhibition and the first all woman exhibition we’ve ever held at MOA.”

The show was originally curated by art historian and curator Henry Skerritt. Mayer has worked with Skerritt almost daily to ensure that the exhibition stays true to his vision.

“It is his exhibit. He curated it. I don’t change the content of the exhibit. What we do at MOA is we take his curation and we ‘MOA-ise’ it. We really work at presenting it differently,” says Mayer.

Mayer is hoping that people’s experience of the exhibition will emulate her own first encounter with the show at the Phillips in Washington.

“Although I’ve worked with Australian material before, I had a preconception of contemporary Australian art being paintings on bark, lots of dots and being mainly by men. So when I walked into the exhibition for the first time I stopped in my tracks. It’s not the colours you would expect, it’s not the standard ochre that people use in Pacific art,” she says.“The paintings are about tradition. Their message is tradition. But the practice is contemporary. There is no history of painting on canvas in aboriginal life.”

The women were initially helped by individuals in Australian Outback Stations who provided canvases and then helped market the artworks.

“Once the buyers and curators saw what they were doing and how different it was to recognized aboriginal artwork it just leapt into the contemporary art world,” says Mayer

Borders and boundaries

Artwork by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. | Photo by Sid Hoeltzell

Almost all of the works featured in the exhibition are paintings, with the exception of one weaving. Other weavings were intended for the show but these were stopped by customs due to feathers being incorporated into the works.

“What is so interesting is that there are no borders in the women’s work and it took a border of our making to stop them coming across,” says Mayer.

The show also blurs the boundaries between museum and gallery displays.

“We have a lot of trouble with Indigenous art because we have this ethnographical debate that goes back and forth like ‘should this be in a gallery or museum?’” says Mayer. “This one is in a museum and in our museum we have shown many contemporary art shows and art. Many cultures do not have a word for ‘art’ so we’re the ones that angst about it. They don’t.”

A map of Indigenous territories in Australia has also been included in the exhibition to help contextualize the works. According to Mayer, the map looks like a dot painting because there are so many territories, and all the edges are fuzzy because there are no edges.

“All of the paintings are about land. It is not just land physical it is land spiritual because the land is walked. When you are walking you sing the world into existence, and when your song ends that’s the end of your territory,” she says.

Indigenous knowledge

When asked about how the exhibition helps to preserve Indigenous knowledge, Mayer simply states that it does so by being the real thing. She also adds that sharing their stories around the world is incredibly significant to them because they know that Indigenous knowledge is relevant.

“That is something we’ve accepted here in British Columbia but a lot of the world is still needing to learn that. Indigenous knowledge like much good knowledge is globally applicable,” she says.

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