An old Australian friend, Kerry Gardiner, whom I met when I was living and working in the Northern Territory in the early 1980s, emails to tell me that the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery in Fitzrovia, London, is mounting an exhibition of Aboriginal art that might interest me. He’s right. Ever since that sojourn, I’ve tried to remain connected with the creative world-view of Australia’s indigenous people – and also to stay in touch with the white Australians I met then, idealistic men and women who eschewed the affluent hippie trail to Earl’s Court and instead investigated the red centre and the beige hinterlands of their home country.
These Strine soixante-huitards were radicalised by the predicament of the Aboriginal people, who had been not so much subjected to colonialism as annihilated by it. The British doctrine of terra nullius denied them ownership of their land – and so opened the genocidal gates – while the Australian government refused them citizenship until the late 1960s. On my first journey across Australia, I was shocked to see children with trachoma and rickets at the outstations where the bus stopped. Though white Australia seems to have bucked the global economic downturn, I suspect that you can still look upon such sights today.
Australian Aboriginal painting is familiar to the western eye as a sort of primitivist pointillism: concentric circles of dots, stippled outlines and wavering borders, rendered in bright, primary colours. It is arresting and seems to hum with a visual intensity – as if op art had become a self-consciously mystic methodology. Such apprehensions would be correct: painting and carving are the tangible forms of cultural restoration adopted by a people who came, in recent decades, within spitting distance of total deracination. The superlative mental mapping of the Aboriginal mobs, which, between them, capture the surface of this vast island continent in a reticulation of so-called songlines, is given expression not just in topographic poetry – the “singing-up” of the country – but also by these graphic representations.
It is the abiding fallacy of the west to suppose that cultures that are athwart our notions of “progress” must, ipso facto, be up a cultural creek without a technological or aesthetic paddle. The full sequencing of the human genome now allows us to peek into the deep time of our diaspora and discover that the Aboriginal people of Australia were first out of the African omphalos some 60,000 years ago. By 45,000 years ago, they were in Australia and they have been there since, working hard at creating not a stockpile of food but a stockpile of cultural tradition. As a white Australian “political consultant” to the Aboriginal mobs once put it to me: “You have to think of these blokes as like Babylonian or Chaldean magicians who’ve been cultivating their hocus-pocus for longer than all the Near Eastern civilisations put together. If one of ’em tells me to jump, I ask, ‘How high?'”
Australian Aboriginal art is an evolving tradition and, if you go to Rebecca Hossack, instead of dots and swirls, you will be confronted by vivid, fauvist paintings that resist the denotation “naive” – their assimilation of recent, historically codified events to a millennia-old mode of landscape painting is highly sophisticated. Borroloola is known as the “Gateway to the Gulf”, and is situated in the south-western region of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Within this remote area, four main tribal groups exist, known as the Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Gurdanji. The Yanyuwa and Mara consider themselves “saltwater people”, and the Garrawa and Gurdanji “freshwater people”. Kerry thought I would be the ideal person to meet with these Garrawa artists because: “For you to say that you have motorcycled across the Barkly Tableland and know me will help convince them that people can travel across the sea and return and live to tell the tale. Many of their ancestors did not – Indonesian slavers as late as the 1890s took their toll.”
I’ve never visited Borroloola but I’m familiar with its landscape of rocky hills, billabongs and bigger-than-CinemaScope horizons from other travels in the Northern Territory. Given how big this country is, that I’ve been to Nhulunbuy – a mere 400km away as the crow flies – will, I hope, enable me to put Nancy McDinny, Madeline Dirdi and Stewart Hoosan at their ease. These are three of the artists exhibiting and they are the ones who will have travelled all the way from this far outpost to our bustling metropolis for the vernissage. An alternative perspective is that they will have left a place of ancient wisdom, with its deep humus of cultural capital, to visit this ancestor-forsaken antipode, with its hard scrabble of visual arts.
Borroloola: Paintings and Prints from the Gulf of Carpentaria, Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, London W1 runs until 27 August. For more details visit r-h-g.co.uk