Closer Look at the Menil Collection’s Mapa Wiya (Your Map's Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from Fondation Opale
Rebecca Rabinow, Director of The Menil Collection, cordially invites you for a first look of Mapa Wiya (Your Map's Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale
As any damn fool knows, art writing is hardly lucrative. It does however provide the chance to meet interesting people. This is particularly true in regards to the Menil Collection. At the Menil, I got to meet Rauschenberg. Weak and approaching death, using a wheel chair, that guy exuded dynamism. When I wrote a newspaper article about her, I got to hang out with Marlene Dumas in the gallery before her show opened. God, that woman was charming. Marlene’s artworks command stratospheric prices, yet she chit-chatted with me as if we were friends. She gave me a book from her collection as a gift.
Last week I met Teresa Baker. Teresa traveled from Australia to the Menil to speak about her art.
Teresa does not speak English, so Sally Scales interpreted. Teresa’s language group is Pitjantjatjara. Pitjantjatjara is one of over 200 indigenous languages spoken in Australia.
The chance to meet Teresa came about the day the Menil invited me along with some writers and journalists to tour Mapa Wiya (Your Map's Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale. Curator Paul R. Davis led the gang through the exhibition, accompanied by Georges Petitjean, a scholar of Australian Aboriginal art, as well as Teresa Baker and Sally Scales. The purpose of this article is to share with readers a few images, and some of what I learned.
Mapa Wiya, which will be exhibited through February 2, 2020, features over 100 paintings, shields, hollow log coffins, and engraved mother-of-pearl shell body adornments. According to the Menil’s press release, the Fondation Opale collection, considered one of the most significant collections of Aboriginal art outside of Australia, has never before been shown in the United States.
Australian Aboriginal Peoples’ Concept of “Country”
“Country” is more than the physical land, however. It is the spiritual and social basis for the Aboriginal peoples’ autonomous, seminomadic ways of living. The laws and primordial creations of their ancestors are always present in Country. They are visible in song lines, which are routes that creator beings traveled while singing the landscape’s physical features into existence. - Menil curator Paul R. Davis and art historian Georges Petitjean
Essentially, Australian Aboriginal peoples use the word “Country” to refer to their ancestral lands. However the word encompasses a great deal more than landscape and terrain. Within the broader notion of Country is a mythological belief in descent from creator-god-like ancestors who formed the land, people, culture and laws. Aboriginal peoples refer to this ancestral realm as “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime.”
Teresa Baker’s painting Minyma Tjutangku Kunpu Kanyini evokes the broad concept of Country. Using ocher-toned acrylic paint, Teresa and her collaborators fabricated dotted, circular and curved linear motifs, with roots in traditional iconographic language found on historical rock painting. These forms hold complex symbolism related to various aspects of the land, including waterholes, ceremonial locations and ancestral paths. “It’s not solely Dream language,” Teresa elaborated, “but ancestry, mythology, sacred law. The land is tied to ourselves.”
Emily Kame Kngwarreye used luscious colors and irregular forms to represent Country. Abstracted dots and curved lines in Winter Abstraction (1993) are linked to her intimate knowledge of her region’s plant life. Winter Abstraction depicts flowers, vegetables and fruit.
The Tingari Shaped a Landscape of Song Lines and Ceremonial Sites
A song line is one of the paths across the land (or sometimes the sky) which marks the route followed by creator beings during the Dreaming. The paths of the song lines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting. By repeating the words of the song, which describe the locations of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena, one can navigate across the land.
According to Aboriginal belief, the Tingari are a group of ancestral spirit beings that brought the law and the culture to the people who live in the Western and Central Desert regions. While moving from one water hole to another, the Tingari performed rituals, taught the law, created land forms, and shaped sacred ceremonial sites. Just as song and dance cycles recount their epic journey and sacred ceremonies, rock paintings bespeak Dreamtime creation stories.
Similar to Teresa’s use of dots, circles and curved lines, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa paints geometric shapes and bold lines to reference locations associated with the Tingari. His mysterious abstracted forms in Tingari Cycle at a Site Adjacent to Wilkinkarra and Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) make direct reference to the people, the land and Dreamtime.
While going through the gallery, I tried to imagine what an Aboriginal person who believes his primordial ancestors sang the landscape’s physical features into existence would feel about white men’s ownership and bordering of his ancestral lands. Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams showed precisely how he felt when he defaced an official map of Australia. In Mapa Wiya / We Don’t Need a Map (2017), the artwork from which this exhibition takes its name, Williams painted and drew onto the map contour lines to represent song lines, and Pitjantjatjara language text, including the words “mapa wiya” which translate to “no map.” His message: Aboriginal people don’t need a map.
Paul Davis and Georges Petitjean offered up the juicy biographical tidbit that Williams, like many Aboriginal men, worked as a stockman for white Australian-owned cattle ranches in the southern desert region. One gathers William’s ranch gigs possibly placed him in the ironic situation of building or repairing fences on land he believed to be ancestral.
What is the Definition of Ownership?
After the tour I learned a bit more about Sally Scales who acted as Teresa Baker’s interpreter. Sally Scales is APY Lands Executive Board Council Chairperson. Ignorant at first of the meaning of APY Lands, I looked into it, and discovered APY is a “local government area” for Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, and Ngaanyatjarra language people in the north west of South Australia. The APY Lands Executive Board’s role is to ascertain the indigenous owners’ desires and opinions in relation to management, use and control of the land, and to try to implement such. Essentially, the Board protects the interests of traditional owners in relation to management, use and control of the lands, and negotiates with persons desiring to use, occupy or gain access to the lands.
It is so that the Australian government handed back some ancestral land to indigenous owners. But are indigenous owners actually “owners” according to our understanding of the definition? Surely the answer varies among individuals and regions. In some cases native owners possess title.
The definition of land use and control becomes particularly intriguing in the face of hydrocarbon production. Australia is a leading shale gas producer, and is hell bent on increasing its production of Liquefied Natural Gas to sell to Asian markets. Australia has a gigantic stake in granting Oil and Gas leases and drilling permits to companies who sniff out and book shale gas reserves, and naturally engage in high pressure fracking of fluids into rocks that are deep underground. Do indigenous owners have the right to negotiate lucrative exploration and production contracts? I don’t know the answers.
As my readers know, I’m not a critic. Critics annoy me. I do however enjoy sharing with readers when I come face to face with beautiful artworks and objects. In my opinion the Menil’s show is lovely, presentation is superb. I’m writing this fully aware that art historians get in a snit over aesthetic judgements about intensely spiritual anthropological objects created in an indigenous context. Nevertheless, the objects are both, indigenous and lovely.