Museums have often mixed Aboriginal art works with disparate objects in their collections, producing taxonomies that are not very faithful to the reality of those people. It is also frequent that these museums’ scientific focus treats objects produced by non-Western peoples as part of the history of nature rather than of their culture.
Coinciding with the choice of Australia as guest country to the ARCO 2002 fair, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, will exhibit at the Palacio de Velázquez del Parque del Retiro a selection of one hundred and seventy works from the Ramingining Collection, dedicated to Aboriginal art from the Land of Arnhem, a region in the north of Australia.
This collection is by artists living in the north-central part of Arnhem. There we find two important centres of artistic activity: the town of Ramingining and the island settlement of Milingimbi; established in the Twenties as a place for missions on Crocodile Islands and which have been a source for the distribution of artworks during most of the twentieth century.
In 1984 the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Sydney commissioned Djon Mundine, curator of this exhibition and artistic adviser for the Ramingining community, to organise an exhibition that would reflect the various representations created by the artists from Arnhem. Mundine organised the exhibition as a visual record of social and intellectual patterns in this society through their designs and symbolic representations. Following the success of the exhibition the Power Gallery decided to purchase and integrate the entire collection. Turning its artistic line completely around, it would later become the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The Ramingining Collection expands in 1991 with the acquisition of the Maningrida Collection adding pieces from the homonymous region and in 1993 with the Artnott's Collection which includes, among others, forty pieces by the artist Yirawala.
This exhibition is divided into six sections related to six geographic areas: Gulunbuy (freshwater swamps), Larrtha'puy (mangroves), Rangipuy (oceans and beaches) Diltjipuy (forest), Retjapuy (jungles) and Ninydjiya (plains). Mundine’s thorough knowledge of Aboriginal art is essential to structure the exhibition and to facilitate the visitor’s understanding of what the pieces allude to and what their intrinsic meaning is. The division is due to the different themes that appear in each of them. The artists from Arnhem Land are inspired by nature in their development of political, social and religious themes, so often the animals depicted in their works function as metaphors.
The artists represented in the collection use tree bark with the same frequency with which Western painters turn to canvas. Highlights include the work of artists David Daymirringu, Paddy Dhathangu, Mick Daypurryum, Alec Djirrigulu and Tom Djumburpur who have been followed by a new generation of artists born in the Fifties such as Djardi Ashley, Charlie Djurritjini, Daisy Mithilguwuy, Richard Birrinbirrin, James Memawuy, Jimmy Banabul, Dhapalany Dhalatjngu and Johnny Buniyira.
Simultaneous to this exhibition is the projection of Screen Life, a virtual representation of videos on Australian and Asian artists projected on the giant screen installed onto the Sabatini building's main facade.
Sprengel Museum Hannover (July 8 – September 9, 2001); Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (June 29 – August 11, 2002); Asia Society, New York (September 19, 2002 – January 5, 2003)