At the Alice Springs Desert Park in the center of Australia’s vast red desert an Aboriginal guide uses a long wooden staff to draw lines, circles and dots in the sand. “This is how my people pass on our culture,” he explains—by drawing their tribal stories in the sand, on their bodies and on rocks, typically in conjunction with a ritual. In the 1970s Aboriginals—whose 40,000-year history makes theirs the planet’s oldest continuous culture—began painting their customary dots and lines with acrylics on canvas and linen, initiating one of the world’s largest and most dynamic contemporary-art movements, but one whose appreciation has been largely limited to Australia.
Aboriginal painting is a unique junction of ethnographic, outsider and contemporary art. Artists, mainly self-taught, use abstract lines and dots to tell traditional stories about their creation myths (Dreamtime), tribal history and desert topography. But since these stories are kept largely secret even within the indigenous communities—access to stories depends on gender, age, family and ceremonial experience—Westerners get only a smattering of the story; whole layers remain hidden, mysterious. Tribally imposed restrictions on subject matter notwithstanding, artists are free to experiment wildly with color and form and self-expression, creating an exuberant variety of work. For instance, Christopher Poulson’s “Vaughn Springs Dreaming” conveys stories about mythical rainbow serpent ancestors, women collecting water from underground springs and women cooking grubs—almost entirely through dots on a bright red ground.
Now Chicagoans can interact with these vibrant paintings at a new River North gallery, the Aboriginal Art Collection. Owners Rena and Manuel Pulido, who hail from Sydney, buy directly from the art centers in the outback, and focus on artists who have exhibited in museums, won prizes and for whose work a secondary market already exists. They plan to double their inventory, which currently totals about two dozen pieces, over the next few months; prices range from $400 to $28,000, with a median around $4000—roughly in line with gallery prices we saw for comparably vetted work in Alice Springs, and lower than most in Sydney. (Burt Michaels)
Aboriginal Art Collection, 435 East Illinois, (312)573-2063.