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Aboriginal Art and Traditional Batik

The Aboriginal art on the wall at Art Forum

Visitors who have visited Art Forum recently and seen the two works on the wall and almost instinctively remark, "Batik"? It is an interesting observation.

I read that Aboriginal art dates back 60,000 to 80,000 years and that it may be the oldest living art form. Today, contemporary Aboriginal art may be roughly divided into two types.

One style of painting comes from the Arnhem region, east of Darwin. These works are interpretations of how artists see ‘the beginning of time', according to ‘Dreamtime', an Aboriginal account of traditions and philosophies based on their beliefs of how time begun.

Aborigines used lines and patterns to recall the creation of the world, depicting their understanding of the animal anatomy with ‘x-ray' eyes.

Seeing the works again brought me back to 1997 when I took a group of artists, the late Chua Ek Kay, the late Dr Earl Lu, Goh Beng Kwan, Milenko and Delia Prvacki, Jeremey Ramsey and Tung Yew Nang, to the Northern Territory of Australia. I had wanted to take artists on a field trip to experience the sensation of outdoor spaces. There, we were struck by the vastness of the night skies with the stars so close and dense in darkness. I suppose that must be how the Aborigines felt about their ancestral land at the time of creation.

We walked among rocks worn smooth by erosion and time and saw paintings on the rocks in archaeological sites, depicting animals and humans. Here was a picture I painted from that trip.

Marjorie Chu, Cave Painting at Kakadu, 1997

Marjorie Chu, Cave Painting at Kakadu

The second style of painting is drawn by women living in the central desert region, around the area of Uluru Rock. The women there gather leaves and shrubs that are known to have healing powers and represent them as dots on canvases. These dots, first used in body painting and sand drawing as part of their rituals and ceremonies, are part of the Aboriginal tradition.

These artists also recall ‘Dreamtime' in their accounts, that include rivers, streams, waterholes, rocks, plants and animals. Here, these organic motifs tend to be less figurative but filled with movement and energy. In the early 1970s, the women painted mostly in earth tones of ochre, yellow, red, black and brown. When acrylic paint was introduced, artists broke away from earthy tones and burst forth with new colours and vibrancy.

The majority of my collection of Aboriginal art is of this style. I somehow gravitated towards this more ‘organic' style because I prefer its painterly rendering. After all, I am an art dealer and not steeped in the study of anthropology.

Barbara Weir, Grass Seed.

Gracie Morton Pwerle, Bush Plum Dreaming

Gloria Petyarre, Bush Medicine

Jessie Petyarre Hunter, Awelye (A-wool-ya)

See, Gloria Petyarre's Bush Medicine' and Barbara Weir ‘s ‘Grass Seed' appear swirling in the wind.

Nancy Kunoth Petyarre, Women’s Ceremony

Eunice Napangadi, Bush Banana

Looking at it again, the few visitors to Art Forum who have likened these dot paintings to Batik may have a point. Aesthetically, we can certainly draw parallels, though in truth, as far as I know, there is no formal link between Aboriginal art and Batik. That is the wonderful thing about how art and how it connects cultures and civilisations -- artists have always painted from their observations of nature and things around them.

These remarks made me take a closer look at my own collection of Peranakan style Batik. These are from Pekalongan in the northern coast of Java. These designs were made especially for the Peranakan community. The dots in the Batik form the background to the main motif of flora and fauna and insects in the examples above, whereas dots in Aboriginal art are the main motif.

There are lots to talk about. For those who are interested, come visit me in the gallery and we can discuss further.

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