New York

“The Urban Aboriginal”

Jan Weiss Gallery

Featuring four contemporary Australian artists of Aboriginal heritage—Lin Onus, Bronwyn Bancroft, Sally Morgan, and Karen Casey—this show presented work actively involved in the reclamation of Koori (Aboriginal) identity. Though marked by a diversity of styles, the paintings presented here shared a self-conscious connection to Aboriginal culture, whether through the recovery of traditional Koori art, or through a profoundly spiritual connection to the earth.

Inspired by traditional Aboriginal bark painting (practiced in the region of northern Australia known as Arnhem Land), Lin Onus concocts his own potent synthesis of realistic landscape painting and traditional pictographic images. In a recent work, Jerrawah 2, artificially patterned, mythical lizards crawl up realistically rendered trees—a subtle, jolting combination of nature and culture. Here, Western constructions of vision are replaced by Aboriginal notions of the spiritual aspect of nature. In her own exploration of the past, Bronwyn Bancroft reinvents the “dot” painting tradition of the Australian Central Desert, used for thousands of years to recount the creation narrative of Dream Time. In Treaty, 1991, an explosive field of concentric rings hovers over a pair of iconic figures, one white and one black, engaged in negotiating an agreement, a scene that alludes to the two hundred years of broken promises and genocide that has characterized the Aboriginal experience in colonial Australia.

The connection to Aboriginal culture is less visually obvious but nevertheless pervasive in the paintings of Sally Morgan and Karen Casey. Morgan was represented here both by her brightly colored, stylized landscapes, such as Kalgoorlie Country, 1991, and by works, such as Inner Child I, 1992, which place a clearly Modernist formal vocabulary in the service of Australian identity politics; this piece is a surrealistic fantasy in which a tearful, black mother holds up a white baby. Although perhaps the furthest from traditional Aboriginal art, Karen Casey’s symbolist abstractions resonate powerfully within the context of the Aboriginal connection to the land. The warm browns and hovering, ovoid shape in Transformation, 1993, evoke an earthy, maternal essence. In this and similar works, Casey makes a case for the possibility of expressing her Aboriginal identity in a decidedly nontraditional way.

Despite their divergent styles, these artists share a common concern. As in the case of contemporary Native American artists, their work, in its mix of traditional and nontraditional elements, has been rejected by purist art-historians as not truly Aboriginal. Ironically, they have also been constrained by the label “Aboriginal,” especially in their homeland, where all-important state funding is embarrassingly limited. In this show, Onus, Bancroft, Morgan, and Casey proved that Aboriginal and contemporary do not have to be mutually exclusive categories.

Jenifer P. Borum