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ABORIGINAL THOUGHTS : Who Determines the Right Way to View Work From a Different Culture?

March 11, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

In a territory called Utopia, a swath of sun-baked desert in Australia's Northern Territory, aboriginal men and women still honor the history and spirits of the land their forebears had claimed for 40,000 years--until they were callously dispersed and disenfranchised by land-hungry 18th-Century European settlers.

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the Australian government tried to make amends by giving the aborigines official title to a portion of the Northern Territory. Official policy nowadays is to encourage the preservation of aboriginal culture and develop ways for this isolated people to support themselves without compromising their beliefs or close-knit social connections.

Although employment, health and education continue to rank far below the standards of white Australian society, the new policy has created one undeniable success story. Coached by government "craft advisers" and aided by a marketing system, aborigines who once drew symbolic patterns in the sand now render them with acrylic paint on canvases that are snapped up by collectors and museums worldwide.

The men's paintings have been shown widely, but the women's contributions are only now gaining an audience outside their homeland.

"Living the Land: Contemporary Art of Aboriginal Australia" was curated by Cal State Fullerton graduate student Sharon Blair, who grew up in Australia. On view in the Main Gallery (through March 21), the exhibit offers a sampling of aboriginal women's paintings and other art and craft objects made by both sexes.

Like the men's paintings, the women's canvases are filled with wiggly lines, circular patterns and colorful dots made by poking a stick into a can of paint. Although these designs look abstract, they represent the history of specific sites in terms of the actions of humans, animals and plants and natural phenomena. This philosophy of the world as a place of inextricably interwoven events is known in aboriginal cultures as dreamtime.

As catalogue essayist Diane Bell writes: "The red streaks of the cliff face recall the blood shed in a territorial dispute . . . the lush growth of berries is the legacy of prudent care by two old grandmothers; and the clear sweet water hole provides the home of the rainbow serpent."

Although this description helps give viewers a feel for cultural values, it's too bad that Bell--an anthropologist who has observed Utopia's residents for nearly two decades--avoids discussing precisely what the dots and circles and wiggly lines represent. After all, dreamtime symbolism in the paintings of male aborigines has been decoded elsewhere.

She also has nothing to say about possible differences between the men's and women's paintings, and she leaves the viewer wondering whether women painters were responsible for the addition of shocking pink to the traditional palette of colors found in nature.

Bell writes that the "occasional cryptic symbols" in the "Utopia Suite"--72 delicate, collaboratively crafted woodblock prints--are recognized "only by the initiated."

The naturalistic imagery, however, is easy to pick out: kangaroos, birds and fish; interlocking leaf patterns; trees and mountains; male figures with spears standing near huts and women tending children around the camp fire.

Unlike the dreamtime paintings, the batiks--fabrics dyed according to a technique developed in Indonesia--are made only by women. These banner-size lengths of silk incorporate designs Utopian women formerly painted on their breasts and shoulders during their rituals on ceremonial grounds. The brightly colored patterns--which Bell unfortunately doesn't interpret--include irregular bands of plant-like imagery, flaming suns, tightly packed blocks of parallel lines and small boomerang-shape objects.

The most positive aspect of the batik project--the relaxed, gossipy communal activity it involves--can't be deduced merely by looking at the fabric. A videotape accompanying the exhibit shows a group of chatting women in the desert, heating beeswax (used to block off areas not to be dyed) over small fires and boiling the cloth (to remove the wax) in miscellaneous containers. Holding the billowing, patterned lengths of silk in the wind to dry, the women look as they've just plucked sheets off a clothesline.

Both sexes make small sculptures from mulga wood, though six of the seven figures in the exhibit were carved by men. They seem to specialize in compact, ramrod-straight figures wearing T-shirts and trunks, and holding their arms held stiffly along their sides (probably because this position is easiest to carve).

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