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Unique Indigenous art exhibition seizes more than the moment

19 February 2016
Many of the artworks have never before been seen outside Australia

'Everywhen: the Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia' spans four decades of artwork and runs at the Harvard Art Museums until September.

Stephen Gilchrist (centre) with artist Vernon Ah Kee (left) and Narayan Khandekar.

Stephen Gilchrist (centre) with artist Vernon Ah Kee (left) and Narayan Khandekar. The artwork displayed in the background is Emily Kam Kngwarray's Anwelarr angerr (Big Yam). Image: Harvard Arts Museums

While scientists debate new discoveries that confirm and challenge our understandings of space, a major new exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art guest-curated by the University of Sydney’s Stephen Gilchrist is making waves of its own, by addressing space’s close cosmic friend: time.

Everywhen: the Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia opened at Harvard Art Museums in February and has been guest-curated by Mr Gilchrist, of the Yamatji people of Western Australia, an Associate Lecturer in Art History at the University of Sydney and Australian Studies Visiting Curator at Harvard Art Museums.

“The central idea of the exhibition is time,” said Mr Gilchrist. “But it is also about who gets to claim it.”

“This exhibition asks people to think about time from an Indigenous perspective, to consider how it is marked, observed, sensed and remembered. It offers a corrective to the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been imprisoned in time, in history books, in museums and in art history.”

“For Indigenous peoples the Dreaming does not merely preserve the past. Rather it speaks of eternal becoming. It is the totality of Indigenous knowledge and its future potential made alive through its immediate and continued transmission. Gesturing insistently towards the future, the Dreaming pushes ancestral memory into the present,” he said.

Understanding Everywhen

In his 1953 publication The Dreaming, Australian anthropologist William Stanner wrote, “One cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time; it was, and is, everywhen.” The everywhen was not necessarily offered to suggest a synonym for the Dreaming, but rather to provide that concept with nuance. The everywhen is used in this exhibition to explore the ways in which time is folded into Indigenous artistic, social, ecological historical and philosophical life.

Five years in the making, Everywhen includes works by artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, Rover Thomas, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Judy Watson, Christian Thompson, and Yhonnie Scarce. Many works in the show have never been seen outside of Australia.

The exhibition features loans from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, and a number of private and college collections in the United States.  Historic pieces loaned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University are important interventions in the exhibition and speak to the politics of contemporary museology.

Chemical analysis of bark paintings provides new insight into artistry

The exhibition also occasioned the first detailed analysis of pigments and binders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bark paintings. Led by Australian Narayan Khandekar, Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and Senior Conservation Scientist at Harvard Art Museums, the results of the study provide a new understanding of how artists worked, adding to knowledge from existing eyewitness accounts and artist interviews.

The study was the first successful effort to use chemical analyses to identify the presence of orchid juice as a binder. Orchid juice was identified in the oldest existing bark paintings from the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney (dating to 1878 or earlier), indicating that a binder was used prior to trade instigated by anthropologists and missionaries in the 1920s.

The elemental composition of pigments from historic bark paintings were analysed and mapped and then compared those pigments to ochres that Khandekar and Gilchrist had collected while touring Indigenous art centres and conducting artist interviews in 2013.

Although this work on the traditional materials and techniques of Indigenous artists is just beginning, it can be used to help inform museum visitors about the nature of these works, and provide conservators with the details needed to make informed decisions about storage and treatment. It offers deeper insight into the choices of binders and pigments made by the artists, and demonstrates the adaptive and innovative practices that have always shaped Indigenous art and culture.

The exhibition, which runs until 18 September 2016, features more than 70 works of art from the 1970s until today.