In Lens, Aboriginal art tells the turbulent history of a land

The Opale Foundation is discussing ritual paintings and photographic works until November 6, 2022. A staging that explores contemporary Aboriginal art, questions Australian colonial history and raises questions of identity.

‘Contemporary Aboriginal art is not limited to pointillist works. It is much larger and is constantly reinventing itself, ‘explains the director of the Gautier Chiarini foundation to Keystone-ATS. The new exhibition presented in Lens (VS), entitled Present Fugitive, shows part of this multiplicity.

First room: ocher concentric circles, dancing lines, black arrows on a beige background. The work seems to crack like the earth in lack of water. Beneath these relief motifs appears the territory of the Australian desert, its water points, its emus. A cartography that has been passed down for tens of thousands of years through songs and ritual paintings.

‘We wanted to start this exhibition with works that take up motifs from Dreams, an expression used to describe the stories and beliefs that underlie the creation of the natural world,’ explains Gautier Chiarini. This cosmology, which understands the human being as belonging to the earth and not the reverse, provides information on sacred sites, water points, or even on the topography seen from the sky with great precision.

sing the work

Rêve Eau, Rêve Emu, Rêve Feu: the exhibition brings together several of these ‘wamulu’, works made from a yellow desert flower, harvested, crushed and mixed with natural pigments. Usually these paintings are made on the bodies, the ground, small or large, but disappear once the ritual is over.

As part of an artistic project initiated in the early 2000s in the vicinity of Alice Springs by art collector Arnaud Serval, a fervent defender of Aboriginal art, four men – Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa, Ted Egan Jangala, Johnny Possum Japaljarri and Albie Morris Jampijinpa – made 65 works by mixing their material with a synthetic binder before applying it to wooden panels. From ephemeral, the creations have become permanent.

In Lens, some are suspended, others placed on the ground, as they were designed. These works are ‘transdisciplinary paintings which combine song and dance. But they don’t have an explicitly sacred dimension’, explains the director of the foundation. The artists knew they were meant to be exhibited. By reinventing them, these thousand-year-old works are now part of contemporary Aboriginal art.

colonial history

Second room: rusty, dented, pierced seals are installed in a corner, light illuminates them from within, like candle jars, they cast their dotted shadows on the ground. These seals, on which we read Paka, Pulawa, Tilipi and Tjuka (tobacco, flour, tea and sugar), were used to remunerate the work of the Aborigines in the cattle stations until the 1960s. They announce the photographic series Objects of origin of Robert Fielding.

The tone is set: if the works in the first part are dedicated to Dreams, the ‘photographs and installations in the second room highlight Australian colonial history with its dispossession and subjugation’, notes Gautier Chiarini.

Four artists evoke in turn the impact that this colonization had and still has today on the traditions of the first inhabitants of the continent but also on the questions of identity that result from it. ‘The tension is visible in the works presented which always suggest another reading of these stagings’, underlines the director.

Committed art

With Up in the Sky, Tracey Moffatt tackles the Stolen Generations, the name given to the generations of children born of a mixed union and removed from Aboriginal families for a century until the end of the 1960s to place them in boarding schools, in missions or white families. Michael Riley shows the conflict between Aboriginal spirituality and Christianity brought by the settlers, and the resulting cultural and territorial losses.

While Tony Albert denounces, with the Brothers series, the racism that Aboriginal Australians still bear the brunt of today. On the wall, three photos of men, a red target painted on the naked torsos. Our past, our present, our future: the titles complete what the image, which is inspired by a brutal incident that occurred in 2012 in the heart of Sydney and which gave rise to strong racial tensions and mobilizations, already suggest.

In Present Fugitive, museology allows very different mediums to enter into discussion, to show what is invisible at first glance, believes Gautier Chiarini. A way also to tell the turbulent history of a land.


In Lens, Aboriginal art tells the turbulent history of a land