“A Place in the Country” is an exhibition of collaborative Aboriginal Women’s art works from the Dolan collection in Nevada. It is 6 paintings from various Aboriginal nations around Australia. Until recently women’s art has been temporal, part of rituals and secret ceremonies deeply connected solely to women and their role as nurturers and caretakers of the land. This series of paintings show that the women are not only guardians and caretakers, but wonderfully dynamic strategists, selling publicly viewable works to help impart some of their sacred power and mystery, establish self-determination and reinforce political agendas. They have managed this while maintaining the Aboriginal gender codes and adhering to cultural and tribal laws. What we can be sure of is that these works are not the full story, and that secret Aboriginal business remains deftly locked away from outsiders.
The dot paintings are large, vibrant, painted in acrylics, and contain stories that are encoded maps of their tribal country, describing physical and spiritual trails, landmarks and creation stories as well as myths about the wildlife and plant life they must attend to for their survival. Several women work on each piece ensuring that the stories are recounted visually in the correct and respectful way. The canvases are divided into compartments each filled with tiny dots creating visually vibrating organic shapes and designs, some hinting at representational subjects. New colors like blue have entered the paintings as the Aboriginal people have had access to acrylic paint instead of the natural elements, ochres, charcoal and rock they used earlier. The paintings are full of movement and energy, each named for a place or a story.
In Aboriginal culture “women’s business” and “men’s business” are entirely exclusive. Women and men both have their own stories and ways of presenting and representing the Aboriginal laws. They are not shared. Each Aboriginal nation has its own story and genealogy and relation to the land. Within each nation the stories and sacred rituals are secret, divided between men and women. The women’s business is then further divided as to who can see the rituals, who can participate in the rituals, and finally who can impart the rituals, and who can then pass on the sacred rituals. It is known as “secret women’s business,” and it is carried out in locations that males may never trespass. Take this one step further and there is yet another division, art works that can be seen by outsiders. These works may be seen by all and cannot violate tribal laws because they do not contain the ancient’s wisdom and secret traditions in a discernible way for the uninitiated.
“Women’s business” with the deepest meaning was generally temporal, painted on bodies during rituals or drawn in sand as the power, wisdom and knowledge was activated, memorized and then swept away after its ritual and religious use, to return the power to the land.
This is ancient tradition, women embracing defined gender performance, but with deliberately limited viewers, and no remaining artifacts.
Since the 1970’s there has been a big push in Australia to attempt to rebalance the atrocities done to the Aboriginal people, and many land rights cases have gone to court. Using painting and ceremonies the various tribes have illustrated their genealogy, position of ancestral lands and heritage of diverse regions. After the historic success of men’s painting women began to tell their own publicly viewable stories, to establish their place, political and feminist activism, self-determination and part in the historical narrative. The paintings have gathered an audience. As women’s stories gained traction, respect and global interest, the women used the money generated for community gatherings, to continue spiritual ceremonies. They also began to create friendships and new connections between Aboriginal nations across Australia, and further the land rights processes. As caretakers of the land they found a way to represent themselves, their land and their message in today’s patriarchal, neo colonial system without denigrating their own heritage, spirituality and beliefs. This wonderful series of paintings are a representation of the powerful voice of the Aboriginal women, minus much of the secret content. The wisdom of these tribal women is magnificent.