Art exhibit offers glimpse into Australian culture

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The newest art exhibit is on display at the Nora Eccles Harrison Art Museum. “Abstraction and the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia’s West Desert,” is now open for Utah State University students and the public to experience.

The art exhibition, consisting of more than 50 paintings from Aboriginal men and women, extends unique insight into a culture some know little about.

“A lot of people think Aborignoal art is going to be ancient, but this particular art began in 1971,” said guest curator Margo Smith. She is also the director and curator of Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia.

The art began being produced in a government settlement called Papunya, where a white school teacher supplied a group of Aboriginal men with painting supplies. The Aboriginal men soon began using iconography, or images, to illustrate their knowledge about their surroundings and their connection to the landscape.

“Papanuya was set up by the government to house people of many different language groups who were misplaced from living as hunters and gathers,” Smith said. “All the while they were longing to be in their homelands where they had spiritual connections to the land. So all of these paintings really have close ties to a very deep, vast body of knowledge about the Australian landscape.”

The Aboriginal pieces within the exhibit come from the private collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson. As to why they felt inspired to collect Aboriginal art, Barbara said, “It was love at first sight.”

“We went to visit our son in Australia and we went to a museum on Darwin,” she said. “John went one way. I went the other. We came around and I said, ‘I don’t like this stuff. I love it.’ And he said he loved it too. We were hooked.”

In regards to placing their collection on display, John chalks it up to exposing and sharing the art. He began by talking to the former director of relations at the Museum of Modern Art.

“I asked her if she could put this subject on the map,” he said. “Not just in the U.S., but globally. She asked, ‘How do you want to measure that?’ I said, ‘I want 20,000,000 impressions.’ Prior to this exhibition, we had about 19,600,000 impressions. Whether by internet or reading about it.”

And with increasing the number of impressions or views came the notion of sending the indigenous Australian art to Logan. A notion that the USU alumni would not have liked 50 years ago.

John said in the ’60s if he had been given $1,000,000 to explain why he would be back at Utah State, he would not be able to come up with a reason.

“It’s inconceivable,” John said.

Yet the executive director and chief curator for Nora Eccles Harrison Art Museum, Katie Lee Koven, said that the conversation about bringing the collection to Logan began before she stepped into her current role.

“About six months after I had started, President Albrecht asked me into his office and said, ‘There’s this collection. What do you think about bringing it to Utah State?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, this would be amazing,'” Koven said.

And after years of preparation, “the wonderful gift” is now ready thanks to the Wilkerson couple, said Stan Albrecht, the president of USU.

Along with a sense of culture, John said.

“What I saw is that when these painters were putting work on canvas,” John said. “I didn’t see that they had a paintbrush or a knowledge that pastels are ‘in’ this year. Rather, I saw that they had sticks and what ever was going on those boards was coming from their soul. I wanted people to understand the humanity of these people.”

Koven said that collaborative efforts to bring this exhibit to Logan was not only an opportunity to see art students or members of the community might be able to see otherwise.

It’s also a way to “think about the connection to place, to broaden our thinking about artist practice. To think about dialog between those indigenous and those not indigenous to a place and to show how the creative output of those individuals are transformed by their experiences,” she said.

“Abstraction and the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia’s West Desert” is open to the public until Dec. 12 at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art. Open every Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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