Aboriginal Art in London

I've just had a quick trip to London, partly to see Neil off to Cambodia with his granddaughter, but also to take the opportunity to catch the last day of the British Museum's exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art, which seemed to be essential viewing as part of my research for my work-in-progress on the First Nation people of British Columbia. I wasn't disappointed - it was fascinating. Most of the exhibits were gathered from the Museum's own vaults, but also from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  Some had been obtained from Australia.  The whole collection is highly controversial, since ownership of artifacts held by museums is now being contested by indigenous people all over the world.  For further discussion on this aspect of the exhibition see 'The Conversation' here.

A haunting painting from Indigenous Australia
The curator, Gaye Sculthorpe, is herself of Tasmanian aboriginal ancestry and she defends the exhibition on educational grounds. And it certainly is educational.  'Aboriginal art represents one of the longest unbroken art traditions in the world,' writes the curator, and the Australian tradition is one of the oldest.  It goes back at least 40,000 years. There are some early artworks in this exhibition, drawings in red ochre on tree bark, like this Barramundi fish, whose anatomy is very carefully drawn.

There were beautiful masks, including crocodile masks for ceremonial wear, but because photography was prohibited, I'm restricted to showing only the advance publicity photographs for the exhibition.  This mask is from the Torres Island community, alongside a contemporary painting.

One of the high points of the exhibition for me was the space it gave to depicting the cultural genocide that occurred, particularly in Tasmania. This honesty has been criticised.  The Sunday Telegraph blasted it for being 'insultingly negative'.  However the Guardian gave it five stars for "wisdom the world needs to listen to".  Canada is currently owning up to its colonial sins - perhaps it's time for Britain and Australia to do so too? There is a very good book on the subject; The Last Man, by Tom Lawson, which identifies 'genocide by policy and ideology' and tells the story of what happened in Tasmania.

A mother of pearl pendant that would have been worn by an aboriginal woman of status
Some of the most beautiful exhibits were the contemporary paintings by artists still working in the tradition.  This one depicts the story of two snakes, father and son, on a journey, encountering many hazards, including the poisonous snakes at the bottom of the picture.

The artworks are tied, inextricably, to the 'country' of the indigenous people, which is so much a part of their lives as to be one with them - there is no separate word for it, because it is part of themselves. One artist writes that, "Removed from the land, we are literally removed from ourselves."  There is a very moving paragraph by Tania Major, one of the Kokoberra people of Queensland, that attempts to explain the relationship. "If you can imagine then, one family continuously occupying the same land for 40,000 years or more, using it not just to sustain life, but as a place of reverence and worship, where every tree, rock and water hole has significance, you will get some understanding of the importance of land to the Indigenous people."


  1. Thanks Kathleen, looks like a fabulous exhibition, shall try to go if time, love the pictures, tantalising work I've not seen before. Love the final quote about people and their land: "Removed from the land, we are literally removed from ourselves".
    Pascale x

    1. Thanks Pascale - I found it very moving.

  2. It's great to see this art being shown and I hope it gives many the chance to better understand 'aboriginal' culture. I have had the good fortune to see a number of rock paintings in the outback off the tourist trail. And am awed by relationship of this people to their land. This is a special post. Thanks Kathy

    1. Thanks Helen - I was lucky enough to see some in Western Australia and very impressed by the stories they told.

  3. It sounds a fascinating exhibition. I'm sorry I missed it but thank you for giving me the flavour of it.


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