David and Alfred Smart Gallery

In the painting Kulijarra, dark ocher lines slash from concentric circles in the middle of the canvas out to each corner. Parallel lines of small gray, white, and mustard acrylic dots fill the triangular spaces between the ocher lines. The dots that curve along the circles seem to swell and sink as you stare at them; the center seems almost to beat. The medium is Western; its power is not.

Until recently, Australian aboriginal art was considered by Westerners to be the world’s least sophisticated. A few unattributed artifacts could be found in natural history museums, but almost nothing was shown in art museums or referred to in art history texts. The chance of seeing any of these works is still small. Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, the exhibit at the University of Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Gallery, is the first major show of this art outside Australia; its appearances are limited to New York and Chicago (where it shows through March 19) before returning home.

There is no single form of aboriginal art, but the same spirituality inspires each piece. The subjects of each painting and sculpture in the exhibit are “Dreamings,” the supernatural ancestral beings who once lived everywhere as rocks, fire, yams, birds, water, human beings, dead bodies–even as a sensation like itchiness. But the Dreamings are also the ancestral beings’ spirits, which are eternal and embodied in everything that now exists. The ancestral beings, who had every flaw, as as well as every good point among them, are not worshiped, they are simply part of the larger sacred continuity of all things.

Everything in the world has meaning to the aborigines, even if they don’t know what it is. A rock outcrop is a manifestation of its Dreaming; the painting of the design that represents that Dreaming is also a manifestation. All designs were created by Dreamings and are simply reproduced by individuals. Designs are passed down within families–though “new” ones are sometimes revealed in dreams–and the most sacred belong to the most important people in each clan.

Each design carries several levels of meaning. “The circle may represent a water hole, but the water hole is also a powerful symbol of life, a home destination, and frequently the focus of mythically significant events,” writes Peter Sutton, in the exhibit’s catalog. (The five authors of this excellent, detailed book are anthropologists or historians who have worked extensively with aborigines.) Circles may also represent campsites, holes in rocks, unity, and equality. The more direct meanings may be shown and explained to anyone; the deeper symbolic meanings are usually secret and closely held.

Different clans across Australia represent the Dreamings in different ways, several of which can be seen in the exhibit. There are traditional bark paintings–some old, some new–from Arnhem Land in the north, done in muted earth colors on wide flattened strips of eucalyptus bark. These are often exquisite, delicate figures that are easily recognized: There are kestrels, which seem suspended above the painted black surface of the bark; a huge crocodile, whose outline, skeleton, and inner organs are all visible, crosshatched and painted with dots; a “Mimi” spirit, which lives in rock crevices, shown as a long, thin, bent figure that seems about to spring out of its bark rectangle. There are painted wooden shields from south and central Australia, decorated wood carvings called toas from the Lake Eyre region in the south, and wood sculptures of people and animals from the Cape York Peninsula in the north, including a remarkable, graceful wallaby.

But the most stunning pieces are the abstract acrylic paintings from central Australia, some of the bleakest land in the country. While acrylic paints and canvas were only introduced to the aborigines in this area in 1971, the basic designs they use are part of the world’s oldest continuous artistic tradition, spanning more than 30,000 years. That tradition includes designs painted on shields, rock walls, ceremonial posts, and the ground. It’s an ephemeral tradition; the paintings were often destroyed during a ceremony or obliterated by the weather. The design itself–continually repeated and passed along–was the important thing, not a specific painting. When they first began using acrylics, these clans painted many identifiable, and sometimes secret, figures and ceremonial objects. When they realized that the paintings they sold were permanent and that they couldn’t control who saw the images, most began painting only abstract designs.

Some may wonder about the value or authenticity of work that’s based in ancient tradition being done in a new and foreign medium. It’s true that some artists have changed slightly the size, colors, and designs of their paintings to meet the perceived tastes of Western buyers. But there’s no question that the aborigines are using their new medium to express powerfully and innovatively what they already know and what belongs to them. The Westerner who wonders whether to pity the loss of “authenticity” should consider a story from the exhibit catalog in which a customer in a museum shop asked whether a carved boomerang was authentic. The artist, who happened to be in the shop, walked over to the person and asked, “Well, am I authentic?”

Most of the subjects of the acrylics on exhibit are Dreamings from a specific place. The artist to whom a painting is attributed is usually the owner of the Dreaming design and the one who laid out the basic pattern, even though several people may have helped paint it. Most of the paintings have a label describing the simplest meaning of the design. Burrowing Skink Dreaming at Parrikirlangu, by Darby Jampijinpa, for example, describes a lizard hunt, though the artist said it also describes a very secret ceremony for young men.

Although many of the acrylics have similar elements, and all have in common the closely dotted backgrounds, endless combinations are possible. The emotional range is enormous. There are small, still, and muted paintings, such as Wallaby Dreaming, by Mick Namarari Japaljarri, in which subtly shaded dots alone outline the impression a sleeping wallaby makes in the sand. There are large, brilliantly colored paintings, such as Water, Dreaming at Mikanji, by Tilo Nangala, in which ladders of red lines radiate out of the center and the dark background is filled in with small clusters of blue, mustard, black, and orange dots that nearly burst off the canvas. Perhaps it is the colors, perhaps the repeated roundness of the dots and circles, but there is life and warmth in every canvas, as if the artists found pleasure in making even the darkest work.

The aborigines don’t paint canvas for their own use, but to sell to nonaborigines. They say they also paint to teach the rest of the world about their culture, of which they’re very proud. (Some artists apparently hope that if the world sees their art, it will help them keep the tracts of land that were returned to their clans in 1972–the colonizers’ treatment of the aborigines was predictably ugly.) They paint to attract attention not to the individual artist but to the entire living, sacred tradition behind each design. It may be the force of that tradition and the sweep of its concerns that is almost palpable in these works, which seem remarkably whole and intimate–even though we cannot possibly understand all their simple and grand meanings. So many modern Western artists strain so visibly and fail so embarrassingly to achieve the effect that sits effortlessly in these works–a calm, weighted center in a whirl of color and pattern, symbols and secrets.