Heist gallery founder, Mashael Al Rushaid, says her new exhibition ‘Origins’ draws on the narratives of ‘indigenous peoples on the corners of the planet, whose lives have remained unchanged for centuries’.
It’s bound to raise a few eyebrows, especially when one of its principal contributors, photographer Jimmy Nelson, has previously been accused of presenting a “damaging” picture of tribal peoples.
But, if you can leave aside the politics of portrayal, the collection of photographs – many of them portraits – from a range of international photographers, is stunning.
A single Rankin eyescape at the gallery’s entrance focuses the viewer on the eyes in other works.
Often belonging to bodies that are decorated in paint, lavish jewellery, headgear, they connect us: the large brown irises in Mario Mariono’s gypsy girl Suman; those staring from behind a mask of jewellery in Xavier Guardans’ Rembes; from a mass of white fur, or under a hat of flowers, in Nelson’s Nenet and Dropka.
A dot painting shows Antara, a place where tribal members perform a traditional dance or song to produce a bounty of witchetty grubs. (Art Gallery of South Australia).
The search for reconciliation between black and white Australia is a constant theme for Raymond Walters Japanangka, a commercial painter based in the Northern Territory.
“I’m very passionate about building relationships between all cultures, and I want to look at exploring art in that way also,” he tells BBC Culture.
He comes from a rich artistic bloodline. His late uncle was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, one of the most collected and distinguished Aboriginal painters. ‘Warlugulong’, his celebrated piece of acrylic on canvas that tells the tale of the power of a hallowed bushfire, was sold at auction for more than AUD$2 million in 2007.
Like other Aboriginal artists, Raymond Walters Japanangka draws inspiration from those closest to him.
“The foundation for a lot of my art is based on my spiritual upbringing, and my connection with my grandfather and grandmother’s country and also my connection with our belief system and family.
Acrylic paint and brushstrokes are just a way of expressing that,” he explains.
Ancestral spirits also inspire the brushstrokes of veteran Aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft as she depicts the divinity of the lands of her tribe, the Djanbun clan, in northern New South Wales.
A founding member of Boomalli, an Aboriginal artists’ collective in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, Bronwyn Bancroft surveys a gallery full of charcoal drawings, works in acrylic and art made from felt.
Her work is deeply personal and is “drenched with symbolism” as it explores an unbreakable connection to the earth.