Explosions of pattern and shapes coupled with familiar and soothing earth tones surround me as I walk into the gallery. Tiny dots swirl in careful order jumping from painting to painting. Indigenous art seems anything but archaic or irrelevant in the sweeping new exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums’ Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia.
The exhibition features more than 70 works, many of which have never been seen outside of Australia, by some of the most significant contemporary Indigenous artists who, through their work, comment on issues ranging from climate change and political activism, to colonial oppression and land rights issues.
Everywhen takes its title from a term used to understand the Indigenous peoples sense of time— “a cyclical and circular order where past, present, and future are interconnected.” Guest Curator and Indigenous Australian Stephen Gilchrist, says, “This is the art that is being produced now. It references the past, but it’s about the future. Most importantly these are big picture ideas of our time—of caring for land, fitting in with the world, and global climate change.”
This is the art that is being produced now. It references the past, but it’s about the future. Most importantly these are big picture ideas of our time—of caring for land, fitting in with the world, and global climate change.
I had the chance to walk through the galleries and listen to Gilchrist speak about the exhibition. Working with Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, I was particularly interested in the exhibition’s connection with the environment. Stopping at various pieces Gilchrist compelled with his storytelling, translating colors and shapes into vibrant visual narratives steeped in history and tradition. However, the purpose of these important works is to push memory into the present, offering lessons and urging the viewer to be aware.
The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections: Seasonality, Transformation, Performance, and Remembrance. In Seasonality we recognize organic and natural forms in the artists’ representation of seasonal patterns: We see the cycle of a bunya seed into the tree’s signature cone in Judy Watson’s Bunya and Emily Kam Kngwarray shows us the ripening of yams through her swirling composition Anwerlarr anger (Big yam). The artists are not only painting the land, but know and respect it as well—forty thousand years of living on the continent of Australia has provided Indigenous people with an extensive understanding. Additionally, many of the works in the exhibition are from the land; artists are telling these stories of past, present, and future through traditional bark painting, using colors derived from minerals.
The artists grapple with self-regulation and regeneration, reminding us of the special relationship between people and planet and asking for a way of being in the world that is not transactional but sustainable. On Seasonality Gilchrist explains, “To sustain the life of the earth, we must be open to perceiving the relationships between all things and must interrogate our responsibilities.” There is a sense in these works that confronting the issues of climate change is not only urgent, but also necessary, and it is not local, but global.
There is a sense in these works that confronting the issues of climate change is not only urgent, but also necessary, and it is not local, but global.
Gilchrist writes “Works of art in this section explore what it means to be responsive to the natural world. They invite the viewer to observe environmental transitions and consider larger issues that shape the current cultural landscape: how we have denaturalized our relationship to the natural world, the impact of global climate change, and the way we can re-energize our interconnectedness with the world around us.”
The exhibition runs February 5 through September 18, 2016 and I highly recommend a visit. Discover a new understanding of time and let these beautiful works teach you new and important stories.
Top image caption: Rover Thomas, Yari country, 1989. Earth pigments and natural binders on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased through the Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Pacific Dunlop Limited, Fellow, 1990, O.7-1990. © Rover Thomas / © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VISCOPY Australia.