On a day that threatened (and finally delivered) rain, we rode the tram up to Amsterdam Centraal to catch the train 40 kms southeast to the medieval and modern city of Utrecht. A university town of about 300,000 inhabitants, the site of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the Wars of Spanish Succession 401 years ago, Utrecht is in some ways a smaller, quieter version of Amsterdam. Laced with canals, full of centuries-old buildings that sport upscale boutiques and excellent, tiny restaurants, it’s a charming city, once you get your bearings. The train station seemed larger than Amsterdam’s and it disgorged into a leviathan shopping mall. Our destination was little more than ten minutes walk away, but we wandered, not quite lost, for nearly an hour before arriving there.
We were on our way to visit the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU), the only museum in Europe dedicated entirely to the contemporary art of the Indigenous people of Australia. Over the last 40+ years, a transformation of traditional iconography and artistic practice from impermanent, ceremonial creations into durable expression in acrylic painting, sculpture, photography, and even a new form of traditional painting with earth pigments on the flattened bark of eucalyptus trees has blossomed into what the late critic Robert Hughes described as “the last great art movement of the twentieth century.” An expression of the Indigenous people’s enduring connection to the land they belong to, contemporary Aboriginal art is best recognized in a format in which thousands of colorful tiny dots create seemingly abstract patterns of startling geometric design and intensity. Starting in 1988, the bicentennial year of Australian settlement by the British, and accelerating through the 2001 Sydney Olympics, Australia has adopted (and co-opted) this art form as a badge of national identity. Sadly, Australia’s long history of mistreatment of its tiny percentage of Aboriginal people (roughly 2% of the population of 23 million) has not been materially altered by their recognition of this unique and vibrant aesthetic culture.
That culture has inspired international partisans, and there are numerous large and important collections of Aboriginal art worldwide, including several in The Netherlands. Several of these have found a permanent or long-term loan-based home at the AAMU, which lies in the city center on the picturesque Oudegracht. We had met the Museum’s curator Georges Petitjean at the 2006 opening of the Musée du quay Branly in Paris, which features a significant public art commission that incorporates the work of eight prominent Aboriginal artists in the architectural design of its administrative and curatorial headquarters building. We have been eager to visit Utrecht and the AAMU ever since, and we were not disappointed when we finally arrived there.
Georges and Director Mike Anderson were our hosts for the day and they gave us a comprehensive tour of the museum. The major exhibition of the moment, Country to Coast, focuses on art from the Kimberley region in Australia’s vast and sparsely populated northwest corner. It is an area where mining dominates, whence iron ore and uranium feed the wealth of the nation via exports to Asia. And apart from the tiny concentrated settlements that serve the mining industry, it is largely populated by Aboriginal people, who primarily use ocher pigments extracted from the earth to create their stories of ancestral creation myths and continuing contemporary connections to the land.
It is an art as diverse as the country from which it springs. Paddy Bedford and Queenie MacKenzie are among its most famous practitioners, with major canvases by the late Bedford often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the secondary auction market. Camel Creek, from 2005, is typical of the master’s late period, in which features of the landscape—hills, desert tracks, waterholes that provide sustenance in the often forbidding environment—are represented with extraordinary delicacy and nuance.
Lily Karedada uses the same ocher-based paints to recreate the figures of Wandjinas that have adorned the walls of caves and rock shelters for thousands of years. These spirit beings are associated with the coming of rain—again marking the importance of water—and the rock art depictions of them are regularly refreshed by new applications of color in their caves, as well as being reproduced and re-interpreted on bark supports for sale in the contemporary art market.
Away on the Pacific coast of Australia, in the tiny mission town of Bidyadanga a talented and self-assured young man named Daniel Walbidi decided ten years ago, when he was barely out of his teens, to encourage the elders in his community to take up acrylic paints to preserve a cultural connection that was on the point of vanishing forever. The Yulparija people originated in the inland deserts of the Kimberley. But late in the twentieth century a combination of drought and the draining off of underground reservoirs of fresh water by the mining industry’s insatiable thirst forced them to abandon their homeland for a trek to a more sustainable coastal home. Under Daniel’s precocious leadership they began to paint the stories of their desert homeland, but with a palette inspired by the vivid blues and greens of their new oceanside settlement beside the traditional reds and oranges of the desert.
After touring the exhibition with us, Georges and Mike led us back out into the misty streets of Utrecht in search of lunch and further conversations about the collecting and exhibition programs of the AAMU. In addition to showcasing the tradition-based arts of Aboriginal Australia, the AAMU does excellent work in demonstrating the breadth of this art form and its connections to contemporary artistic practice, taking the discussion out of the realm of ethnographic curiosity into the arena of installation art, video, and photography. A year ago, BOMB! celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Peace of Utrecht with a large, multimedia installation of work created in concert by Aboriginal artist Adam Hill (aka Blak Dougles) and Adam Geczy, a Sydney artist who has lived and worked extensively in Europe. This coming fall, a new exhibition called BLAK: Forced into images will focus on representations of Indigenous Australian identity through the mediums of video and photography.
After lunch, we returned to view the installation of works from the permanent collection of the Museum, which showcased the variety of styles, media, and content that characterizes current practice. And then we were taken down into the subterranean vaults of the museum for a quick look at the innovative ways Petitjean and Alexander have transformed the potentially humid canal-side environment of an old Dutch building into a climate-controlled storage facility where the bulk of the collection can be safely housed.
We ended our visit, as one does, inspecting the museum shop. We somehow managed to resist the temptation to take a bit of Australia and Utrecht back home with us. Like any good museum shop, AAMU’s is crowded with plenty of good books that help to interpret the collections. But unlike many, it is also well stocked with the art itself. Although modestly priced for the most part, the canvases and paintings on bark, along with fiber art and prints, were truly museum quality pieces themselves that would not have looked out of place on the walls of the gallery instead of the walls of the shop. We said our goodbyes with regret, and headed off under Georges’ direction through the narrow, winding streets of the city to regain the train station and settle in for the 45-minute ride back to Amsterdam. Along the way we enjoyed watching the deep green fields of the Dutch countryside slide past us, spotting the occasional windmill in the distance and following the progress of barges along the canals. But our minds’ eyes were full of images of Australia that the visit had captured for us. Our short trip had taken us four centuries away from the Golden Age of Dutch painting that we’d been enjoying in Amsterdam, and thousands of miles from the lowlands of Holland to the worn hills of a continent half a world away. It’s a journey I suggest you take if you’re ever in the neighborhood.