One of the things that truly fascinates me about art of all times and places are the similarities in composition and not only that, but also how iconography and composition appear as intertwined in order to respond to a certain kind of very basic human need: change. I must confess being fascinated by the show ‘Australia’ currently at the Royal Academy of Art and especially, by Australian aboriginal art.
I am trying to get a bit more into it and my first step in that discovery process is the art of the tropical north of Australia, more specifically the Arnhem Land which seems to be one of the richest art-producing regions of the country. Covering an area of approximately 50,000 square kilometres, Arnhem Land encompasses a range of environments, from the great sandstone plateau in the west with its thousands of galleries of magnificent rock paintings, to countless rivers, freshwater lagoons, monsoon jungles, open forests, rugged stone areas, mud flats, coastal lands and islands.
Of the portable arts, Arnhem Land is renowned for bark painting, sculpture and weaving with a variation in emphasis and styles across the region. Among the artist that used to live there there is one in particular that caught my attention and is called Yirawala (1903-1976). He was a great ritual leader with a wealth of religious knowledge which gave him access to the entire range of the Kuninjku iconography, from simple secular images of animals through to the images of the great creation stories, and designs for sacred ceremonies and magic. His images for sorcery are circular and depict the metamorphosis of the soul (usually of an animal into another animal).
Not far from him, the school of art which developed at Minjilang is replicated today in the family groups who live together on the mainland. The Nganjmirras, a family of Kunwinjku people belong to the Djamalama clan, are some of the most renowned artists. In ‘Yingarna, the Rainbow Serpent’, one of Robert Nganjmirra’s protégés, Bruce Nabegeyo, depicts Yingarna as the creator, the First Mother of the Kunwinjku. The Serpent is depicted swallowing people whom it will regurgitate later, in a transformed state, as features of the landscape. The theme of swallowing and regurgitation is commonly used through much of Aboriginal Australia as a metaphor for the transition from one metaphysical state of being to another.
Having said this, what interests me is the self containment of the composition through its circularity. If we have a look at Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas or Pieter Paul Rubens’ Mars Being Ousted of Belgium, one can see that same circular (almost centripetal) drive which refers to the same human need of continuity through change, crisis and transformation. A few days ago, artist Angela Lyn drew my attention to the same movement in the Shunga Japanese erotica images that are currently on show at the British Museum. It seems that we all move from the circularity of the womb to the circularity of the earth. Just a thought.