By Elaine Halleck
A smidgen of seemingly very exotic culture is enlivening a corner of Guadalajara, and the funny thing is that it seems quite at home here.
As part of the Festival Cultural de Mayo (May Cultural Festival), Instituto Cultural Cabañas in downtown Guadalajara is hosting an exhibition of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art entitled “Tiempo de Soñar” (Dreamtime). The large show, consisting of 40 works by 37 artists and housed in several salons south of the famed chapel with José Orozco’s monumental murals, was introduced enthusiastically Tuesday by David Engel, the Australian ambassador in Mexico, and area dignitaries. One of them, Jalisco Secretary of Culture Giovana Jaspersen, whose tenure has been marked by a bear hug for “diversity” and indigenous culture, could hardly have expressed more warmth.
“We find similarities between Mexico and Australia, and I don’t think the comparison is forced,” she declared, going on to mention the unique vision promulgated in the work of the indigenous people of both countries, and underscoring one of the similarities she sees – that in both cases the art is rooted outside Europe or the United States, the presumed giants of contemporary art.
The Aboriginal art of Australia, according to show curators, focuses on dreams (hence, the title) and a world view that is quite distinct from that reflected in the European art tradition. Aboriginal art even uses some marks shared by different groups in that society, which lacked writing – symbols, explained in show literature, that are icons or hieroglyphs. Thus, the art may strike those viewing the show as enigmatic, primitive or alien.
But the word “primitive,” although it may have seemed apt to Pablo Picasso’s generation, who were galvanized nearly a century ago by art entering Europe from Africa and the Pacific islands, has fallen out of favor to describe such styles as indigenous Australian art. And this development seems appropriate considering that the work in this show came out of a movement that began in the 1970s and that, at least judging by the artists’ names, is bicultural – Aboriginal and of British heritage.
Despite this aversion for “primitive,” which now has a derogatory taint, one might be struck by the similarity, at first glance, between the imagery and styles of Aboriginal and indigenous Mexican artists. Both are often filled with a busy and stark mixture of human, animal and vegetable forms, as well as geometric and repetitive shapes and icons or hieroglyphs. And the human figures in indigenous Mexican and Australian art, for example, are far simpler and more similar to each other than to, say, the famous 4th-century-BCE sculpture of Aphrodite by Praxiteles of Athens.
But there are differences too. Much of the Australian art on display in “Tiempo de Soñar,” is notably less eye-zapping than the indigenous art so familiar in Jalisco – embroidery, beadwork, animal sculptures, and so on. The reason is that, as noted at the show, much of the Aboriginal work is traditionally made from natural earth pigments and done on the bark of eucalyptus, native to Australia. A classic example of both these features is “Kangaroo” by elder artist Thompson Yulidjirri (now 98 years old), in the show’s first salon. Yulidjirri’s muted image also typifies the “x-ray style” by depicting the kangaroo’s bones and entrails.
The colorful work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, perhaps the most outstanding of the show, is a notable exception to the tendency to use earth tones, although even her shimmering confections of dots, wormlike lines and other non-representational elements, said to be inspired by the desert landscape, are far less brilliant than Mexican indigenous art can be. (Notably, not all the artists shown in this contemporary show are still living, including Emily Kame, who died in 1996 at the age of 86, as well as Rover Thomas, who produced captivating, earth-tone work and died in 1998.)
It should also be noted that many of the artists in the show, even those who lived and worked in the outback, do not use outback media at all, but such techniques as acrylic paint, silk-screening, oil pastels and etching.
It is also interesting to realize that this Aboriginal art sometimes depicts the harrowing facts of oppression. Richard Bell’s work, informed by politics and utilizing comic book elements at times, is one example of political relevance in the show. The somewhat spooky work of Linda Syddick, born around 1941 and educated as an artist partly by white teachers and a government program, while difficult to interpret, reflects timely themes such as Christianity combined with Aboriginal spirituality.
“Tiempo de Soñar” (Dreamtime) shows until August 11 at Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Plaza Tapatia (Cabañas 8) about five blocks behind Teatro Degollado. (33) 3818-2800, 3668-1800, ex. 31051, 31065, 31642. Cost: $70 pesos for adult foreigners. Officials say that showing a “Residente” card gets foreigners in for the normal price of 45 pesos. 20 pesos for seniors and children 6 to 12 years old. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tuesdays free. Website: hospiciocabanas.jalisco.gob.mx.