'Indigenous Australia’: six must-see pieces

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Major exhibition: discover one of the world’s oldest cultures

Last edited: 28 May 2015

A BP exhibition at London’s British Museum explores the 60,000-year history of Indigenous Australians. The museum’s curator for Oceania and Australia, Gaye Sculthorpe, suggests six ‘must-see’ objects for visitors to look out for

From a club belonging to a member of the first Australian cricket team to tour the UK, to delicate craftwork made from rainforest materials, there is “something for everyone” at the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, according to its curator.

Gaye Sculthorpe, whose ancestors include Tasmanian Aborigines, says the exhibition is the culmination of years of research and consultation with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. “We’re telling the story of Indigenous Australians in the broadest sense, across an entire continent; it’s an ongoing story with many issues still being discussed today.

“This story also forms part of British history as well, and although audiences here may have seen works of Aboriginal art before, it’s the first time we’re telling a national narrative of history and culture. Every object here has a special significance to the community it comes from.”
"We’re telling the story of Indigenous Australians in the broadest sense, across an entire continent; it’s an ongoing story with many issues still being discussed today."
Gaye Sculthorpe

Mask, Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre © The Trustees of the British Museum

1. Mask, before 1855

“This is a significant piece [see left] in the exhibition not only because it’s one of the earliest objects to be collected, but thanks to its stunning beauty. It comes from Mer, one of the Torres Strait Islands, and is made from sheets of turtle shell sewn together. Masks were worn for various forms of initiation and ceremonial use – and continue to be made by Islanders today, with fibreglass replacing turtle shell.” 

2. Bicornual baskets, before 1900

“The wet, tropical rainforests of northern Queensland offered a ‘supermarket’ of natural products for Aboriginal people to use in daily life. These sculptural baskets have a distinctive shape and are decorated beautifully, with designs that often relate to a particular clan. Made from split lawyer cane – or ‘Wait-a-while (named after its tendency for hooked stems to catch on people), the baskets come in different sizes and have a practical purpose too – from carrying babies to holding  plant seeds in streams where the toxins would drain away.”

3. 'Yumari', painting by Uta Uta Tjangala, 1981

“This masterpiece is a great example of the complexity of Aboriginal art, and desert painting in particular. It is an iconic painting; Australians may recognize part of the motif as the watermark on the pages of their passports. On loan from the National Museum of Australia, it’s the first time that this painting has been on display in Europe, so we’re delighted to host it here.

Yumari depicts several of the artist’s ‘Dreaming’ stories. Broadly speaking, the concept of ‘Dreaming’ refers to creation and how ancestral beings emerged from the landscape, with the stories of their travels encoding the social, moral and ecological for humans to live by. Here, the artist depicts the story of an old man, Yina, who transgressed Aboriginal law, but there are many different layers of narrative.”

‘Yumari’, Uta Uta Tjangala (c. 1926–1990), Pintupi people, Papunya, Northern Territory, 1981, Acrylic on canvas. National Museum of Australia. [See right]

4. Shield, c. 1770

“This unadorned wooden shield is highly significant as it is likely to come from the first face-to-face encounter between Aboriginal people and British explorers at Botany Bay in 1770. We believe it was collected by one of (later Captain) James Cook’s men in a dramatic meeting that is described in the Endeavour’s voyage records.

Ultimately, this episode led to British colonization so it represents a turning point in Australia’s history – one that is weighted with cultural and political significance for Aboriginal people. The impact of Captain Cook lives on today, as demonstrated in Vincent Namatjira’s 2014 painting – also on display – that portrays Cook’s written claim of possession of the east coast in 1770 as an extension of his naval uniform.”

Shield believed to have been collected during Captain Cook's visit to Botany Bay, 1770. Mangrove bark © The Trustees of the British Museum. [See above]

5. Notebooks of William Dawes, c.1790

“These small diaries could be easy to overlook but I’m really pleased that they form part of the exhibition. They show the notes of a British lieutenant, William Dawes, and his attempts to record a conversation with Patyegarang, a young Aboriginal woman, from the Sydney area.

He has written Aboriginal words with an English translation alongside – and his efforts demonstrate that, at first, among some British colonisers, there was a genuine desire to communicate with local people. After all, the settlers often needed the Aboriginal people - their knowledge of the land and the flora and fauna, as well as their fishing skills – in order to survive. Meanwhile, they are also a testament to the young Eora (as the Sydney people are known) people’s willingness to show the newcomers something of their world”.

6. 'Kungkarangkalpa' (Seven Sisters) painting, 2013

“This recent acquisition to the museum’s permanent collection – made possible by BP’s support – depicts a women’s ‘Dreaming’ story that crosses a broad territory of the Spinifex people whose traditional lands are situated in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia. Their name comes from the Spinifex grasses that dominate the landscape in this desert region.

The painting involves the travels of a group of women – four of whom are represented by the horse-shoe like shape, bottom right – and illustrates their rituals and sacred places. There are many levels of meaning and we’re not privy to all the details of the narrative. What we do know is the journeys of the Seven Sisters provide people with pathways through the land, maps to important sites and moral lessons. Six senior Spinifex women, Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington, painted the Kungkarangkalpa – their knowledge is passed from generation to generation through this artistic practice, as well as everyday learning.” [See below]

'Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington,; 2013; Acrylic on canvas. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

  • The BP exhibition 'Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation' ran until August 2 at the British Museum. A similar exhibition will take place at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra later this year.

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