Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Before Time Today: Reinventing Tradition in Aurukun Aboriginal Art

Currently at the University of Queensland Art Museum a number of disciplines within the University have come together to create an exhibition showcasing the past and present art of the Aurukun people. Located in far north Queensland this isolated aboriginal community was established as a mission by the Presbyterian Church in 1904 resulting in the residents spending the last 100 odd years in a bi-cultural environment.

This cultural cross between the indigenous and western culture has not compromised the traditions and customs of the original residents of Aurukun, known as the Wik and Kugu people. Instead, it is seen in the exhibition as a way that these people can reinvent and develop their cultural practices. This development is evident in the exhibition through the comparison of new and older works. While retaining a strong cultural and aesthetic connection, these works are becoming more distinguished as the tradition is continued.

Image: University of Queensland
‘Before Time Today’ develops a framework of understanding between the past and present and does this particularly through the use of sculpture, as it is a strong characteristic of Aurukun art. The Wik and Kugu people’s sculptural tradition dates back to before the mission was established, when sculptures were used in ceremonial rituals to represent mythical spirits and ancestors. Traditionally once the figures had served their purpose they were discarded in the bush, but since the 1970’s the Aurukun artists work has been increasingly in high demand. This development and interest from outside their culture has resulted in the aesthetic of the Wik people becoming more refined and distinctive.

This refinement of contemporary art is not just exclusive to this medium of sculpture but is recognized throughout the exhibition and can be attributed to the introduction of new products and skills with the arrival of the Presbyterian Church early in the twentieth century. This establishment of a new way of life resulted in many traditional practices for creating art being altered to accommodate for the change in lifestyle.

The characteristic aesthetic of the smooth, rounded sculptures originated from the ceremonial figures that were traditionally moulded in clay. This distinctive aesthetic has been preserved through the development of the production of these works. With clay work giving way to woodwork and more recently woodwork giving way to metal work. The traditional practices are continually being reinvented and reinvigorated to withstand the pressures of modern life.

A great example of this is seen in the display of crocodiles in the exhibition. Craig Koomeeta is one of Aurkun’s younger and most prominent contemporary artists and is a great ambassador for the development in Aurukun’s art. Two of his contemporary pieces, Pikkuw (Saltwater Crocodile) 2008 made from milkwood and Large Crocodile 2008 made from aluminium are on display next to Crocodile 1958 (Unknown Artist) and plainly present the relationship between old and new.

This juxtaposition of the past and contemporary works in different mediums really highlights the way the change in production is being used as a tool for cultural survival. Although these works are missing their original context of the ceremony they are not in anyway lacking any cultural tradition.  They are created as an expression of the artist’s spiritual identity and are strongly embedded in Wik and Kugu culture through the typical Aurukun aesthetic. The art throughout the exhibition is missing the ceremonial context, yet the works still command respect from their audience purely through their cultural heritage.

The exhibition does a fantastic job of presenting the development of cultural practises that have transpired due to the introduction of a westerm culture. This representation also communicates the importance the relationship of old and new works have on the continuation of Aurukun culture. More than just art, the pieces embody the spirit of a community that has constantly had to adapt in order to keep their culture alive. This idea of giving new light to old forms and great way to sum up the direction of the exhibition is best described by Stanley Kalkeeyorta, “the art we make today is the same as the past. It’s like the old testament and the new testament in the Bible – the oldway and the new way, both going in the same direction.”

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