Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2019
Paul R. Davis and Georges Petitjean Mapa Wiya (Your Map's Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale Exh. cat. Houston: Menil Collection, 2019. 20 pp.; 11 color ills. Paper
Menil Collection, Houston, September 13, 2019–February 2, 2020
Mapa Wiya (Your Map’s Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale, Menil Collection, Houston, September 13, 2019–February 2, 2020 (photograph by Paul Hester, provided by Menil Collection)

The undulating dotted lines of Mamultjunkunya (2009; pictured at left), by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri of the Pintupi language group, depict a site that appears, within the painting, to be in constant motion: Lake Mackay. This salt lake “features prominently” in the Tingari ceremonial cycle of Tjapaltjarri’s Western Desert region (15). Through song and dance, the ceremony recounts the ancestors’ fashioning of their “Country.” Within the gallery, Mamultjunkunya’s ripples muddle the eye-brain connection and, by extension, destabilize a sense of seeing and perhaps even of knowing. To an extent, the painting may be understood as a metaphor for one argument emerging from Mapa Wiya (Your Map’s Not Needed): Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation Opale, the loan show on view at the Menil Collection in which it hangs (according to the Menil, Houston’s first large-scale museum display of twentieth-century art by Aboriginal peoples). The exhibition productively disrupts, if not upends, distinctions central to Western thought—between “art” and “artifact,” “religious” and “secular,” and “mapped” versus “terra incognita.” It emphasizes, first and foremost, that ways of relating to land can take a variety of forms and can have a variety of (un)ethical implications. To be sure, while the exhibition’s title, Mapa Wiya, literally means “no map,” many of the works on view, Mamultjunkunya included, offer topographies of their own. Together, the more than one hundred works from across rural Australia (of those with known dates, all were made after 1950) offer a visual journey defined not by a profit-focused definition of place but by “Country.”

“Country” refers to “physical land” and the “spiritual and social basis for Aboriginal peoples’ autonomous, seminomadic ways of living” (4). A related concept, “Dreaming,” is “a living foundation for their ways of knowing and being in Country, coalescing the ancestral past, the contemporary present, and the potential futures of Aboriginal peoples” (8). Both Country and Dreaming emphasize, at the fundamental level of language, the interwoven character of culture and land and of “sacred” and “profane.” It is therefore fitting that the two terms are present in the galleries and foregrounded in the exhibition’s only textual didactic component, a roughly 2,500-word gallery guide that visitors can pick up upon entry. A nonchronological, not regionally segregated installation shows lines of influence across the continent, in works by over sixty collectives and individual artists (some internationally known) from several language groups, among them Anmatyerr, Iwaidja, Kuninjku, Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri, and Wunambal. The arrangement invites viewers to see and, to a limited degree, learn about the signs and patterns marking their beliefs and visual cultures. As Paul R. Davis, curator of collections at the Menil, who organized the show, and art historian Georges Petitjean write: “To walk through the five galleries is to experience the diverse ways Aboriginal artists share their knowledge of Country with others” (4).

The scope of Mapa Wiya, including media and objects traditionally beyond the realm of Western art history, is dictated by the institution that owns the works: the newly formed Fondation Opale in Lens, Switzerland, encompassing the collection of Bérengère Primat (a relative of Menil cofounder Dominique de Menil). (For more on the collection, see Georges Petitjean, “Aimer, d’Abord: Aboriginal Art in Switzerland,” in Country of the Dreaming: Contemporary Aboriginal Art [Arteos, 2017], 23–43). Petitjean, curator of the Collection Bérengère Primat, has in fact previously noted that starting in the late nineteenth century Swiss collections of Aboriginal “art” and “artifacts” acquired through colonial networks were both housed not in museums of art but in museums of ethnology and ethnography (Country of the Dreaming, 29). Mapa Wiya commendably eschews distinctions between “art” and “artifact.” For instance, twentieth-century riji or lonka lonka (body ornaments, shown at center in the image above) from the Kimberley region made from carved pearl shell and natural earth pigments hang alongside and perch in a vitrine surrounded by acrylic paintings (including Mamultjunkunya). While they are “efficacious objects that healers and rainmakers use in their ceremonies,” they claim space in the galleries in conjunction with, and not secondarily to, several paintings informed by their symbolic designs (15).

The early Swiss collection history of Aboriginal art exemplifies art history’s intricate relationship to colonialism, and anticolonial sentiment permeates the space in ways both implicit and explicit. The works in the show speak from a perspective formed not only by Country and Dreaming and their respective cosmogonic myths but also by settler colonialism, which fundamentally shifted the lives of Aboriginal peoples (a term indeed originating with colonialism). Some of the artists (the oldest with a recorded birth year was born circa 1890 and the youngest in 1981) were alive during Australia’s official British colonial period, when white settlers segregated Aboriginal peoples into settlements, compulsorily relocating them from their ancestral lands. Some of the artists, moreover, partook in campaigns for land, voting, and citizenship rights. The latter were granted only in 1967 (5).

Expressly anticolonial works in the show include sculptures by John Mawurndjul, Baluka Maymuru, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Mick Kubarkku, and other artists from Arnhem Land, a region in the Northern Territory of Australia. The sculptures allude to a burial ceremony in which hollowed-out tree trunks planted into the ground “facilitate” the ancestors’ “rightful return journey to Country” (11). They are a tribute to Djon Mundine’s Aboriginal Memorial (1987–88), an installation of two hundred hollow-log coffins the artist commissioned from Arnhem Land artists. The work honors indigenous individuals who have lost their lives fighting the European settlement of their lands since 1788. Furthermore, the birth of contemporary Aboriginal painting is commonly attributed to collaborations during the 1970s between Mick Wallankarri Tjakamarra, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, and Uta Uta Tjangala, senior Aboriginal men who lived in the multilingual Papunya Native Settlement, and Geoffrey Bardon, an Anglo-Australian schoolteacher (5). The settlement was organized to assimilate Aboriginal peoples in central Australia. Arising in this context, then, contemporary Aboriginal painting in its many trajectories can be seen as inherently sociopolitically weighted, although it need not be overburdened with an expectation of overt political content.

The show’s title comes from the work of Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams, who served his community as a healer and church pastor and was a prominent figure within the fight for Aboriginal land rights in the 1970s and early 1980s. The circuitous plan of the exhibition allows the show to start and end with two of his recent works, giving viewers a message to carry through and beyond the exhibition. Postbag Painting, the first work visible when you enter the galleries, is made with an Australian government mail sack bearing a label that designates its “misuse” as a “criminal offence.” Williams struck through “bag” and transformed the warning: “Theft or misuse of this Manta munu Tjukurpa [Country and culture-law] is a criminal offence. Penalties apply.” The bag, transformed with pointed Pitjantjatjara-language text, now hangs on a spear made from toxic wood from the mulga tree. White settlers have, of course, discounted indigenous laws since arrival. Opposite hangs Mapa Wiya (We Don’t Need a Map; 2017). Song lines—“routes that creator beings traveled while singing the landscape’s physical features into existence” (4)—encircle a found twentieth-century map of Australia from the Edinburgh Geographical Institute. Williams drew the song lines directly upon the map and, on behalf of those who know their Country without it, inscribed a message against the map itself and against colonial enterprises (among them, bitumen mining and paving) that harm the land. Springing from land-rights protest songs and chants, it reads: “We don’t need a map. Listen: this is Aboriginal Country. We don’t need maps, or bitumen roads, or Government bore water. We don’t need all the borders and boundaries. In the north, the south, the east and the west, there are Aboriginal people who know their Country” (original text in the Pitjantjatjara language) (7). 

Perhaps the placement of Williams’s work at the beginning and end of the show is a covert curatorial comment on the fact that an Australian mining giant with colonial roots, BHP, is a major funder of the exhibition. Regardless, BHP’s support, and Primat and the Menil’s financial ties to the oil and gas industry, underscore the complex entanglement of the arts and disenfranchisement. BHP’s support also seems to demand that the stories and voices of the artists, some of whom came to the opening of the show, have a more prominent place throughout the galleries (perhaps they were given this option and declined, which would be, of course, another story). However, beyond basic labels and an extensive funding-source line, Williams’s texts are the only words viewers encounter on the exhibition walls (and they are the only words by an artist in the show, gallery guide included). This is in keeping with the Menil’s style, which notably does not tell viewers “how to look.”

Gulumbu Yunupingu, included in Mapa Wiya, said in another context that her art is “from [the] heart, to you, to share, for the whole world to understand [our] culture” (quoted in Wally Caruana, “Artists of the Dreaming,”  in Country of the Dreaming, 71). While the gallery guide stimulates reflection and provides key cultural information, what is thus gained or lost with an entirely voluntary engagement with the contextual material accompanying the show—and to what ends and stakes? Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, an artist of the Papunya community not included in the exhibition, suggests one way such limited textual framing could play out: “They [white people] want them [‘these dreamings that we paint’] as souvenirs to hang on their walls but they don’t realise that these paintings represent the country, all of this vast land” (quoted in Fred R. Meyers, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art [Duke University Press, 2002], 302). While not all artworks or artists hold the same intention, a viewer should not be able to leave Mapa Wiya without having learned this. Ideally, viewers should be prompted to reflect on their own relation to settler colonialism, including in the domestic context of the Menil. To start, a “Land Acknowledgment”—a statement recognizing the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples and their ongoing colonial displacement—might have encouraged such contemplation. The Menil is, after all, in a city on traditional territory of Atakapa, Karankawa, and Sana.

Adrienne Rooney
PhD Candidate, Art History, Rice University