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Diversity of Aboriginal art at Olympic Museum

Detail from "Tiddal in the Great Sandy Desert" by Richard Tax. David Paterson

To mark this year’s Sydney Olympics, the Olympic Museum in Lausanne has opened an exhibition devoted to an important yet often misunderstood aspect of Australian culture: Aboriginal art.

This content was published on July 31, 2000 - 15:05

Until the 1970s, Aboriginal culture was dismissed out of hand as something rather primitive. Now works by top Aborigine artists are much sought-after and fetch a great deal of money.

The works on display in Lausanne are typically intricate and colourful. They belong to a Swiss diplomat, Jean-Jacques de Dardel, whose love of Aboriginal art developed during a posting to Australia:

"It was love at first sight," he told swissinfo. "I quickly discovered there was a lot more to Aboriginal art than what was known in the white Australian cities. It’s a completely different world. The main reason I collect it is that it’s wonderful art. It’s so beautiful and powerful," says de Dardel.

In 1971, Mick Namaran Tjapaitjam became perhaps the first Aborigine to use acrylic paint on canvas, and by the mid-1980s virtually every Australia art museum had a section devoted to Aborigine art.

Within the space of about 15 years, it had gone from being a traditional craft confined to anthropology museums to being considered worth displaying in the best galleries.

Although Aboriginal art is so ancient, all the paintings and sculptures being shown at the Olympic Museum are contemporary.

"We wanted to show the strength and diversity of contemporary Aboriginal art. It has evolved out of its traditions into new fields of expression. The personalities come through much more than in older paintings," said de Dardel.

The social problems experienced by Aborigines in modern Australia are well-documented: the stolen generation, poverty, loss of identity, high suicide rates, drug-abuse and alcoholism. Yet rather than having explicitly political themes, the paintings seem to reflect the traditional lives and religious beliefs of Aborigines, not least their close relationship with the animals and plants of the outback.

"The Aboriginal outlook on life is such that establishing the links between your culture and the land is a highly political statement, because the land goes to the very core of their culture," said de Dardel. "What we may perceive to be something quite passive is in fact a more active way of establishing who you are."

Exhibitions of Aboriginal art are still relatively rare in Europe, but the public is gradually beginning to appreciate its intricate patterns and the complex culture that lies behind it.

"It is a very diverse art, and it doesn’t just boil down to a few dot paintings. Even people who have become acquainted with this art often overlook that diversity," said de Dardel.

by Roy Probert

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