The new exhibit “Dotted Dialogues: Contemporary Indigenous Art from Central Australia” demonstrates the importance of land, spirituality and history to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia through acrylic paintings on wood and on canvas.
The exhibit, which opened at the Benton Museum on Tuesday, Sept. 1, was curated by Professor Françoise Dussart’s Anthropological Perspectives in Art class.
It is the first exhibit on display at the Benton to have been curated entirely by liberal arts and sciences students, according to Dussart.
“The students had absolutely no background in fine arts, no background in museum curatorship,” Dussart said. “We had the possibility to experiment. I brought my anthropological expertise and the experience of being a curator and the students brought their own expertise from their fields, such as psychology, neurobiology, animal sciences and history. It was very interesting for them to engage with these issues from their own disciplinary perspectives.”
In many of the paintings, Aboriginal artists use dots, circles and animal-like ancestral figures to represent what’s known as the Dreamtime, or Dreaming, and to tell sacred ancestral stories.
“Dreaming is composed of conceptual stories. Aboriginal people believed that in the very distant past that the earth was very very flat, and ancestral beings emerged from the earth and shaped the earth,” Dussart said. “They traveled across the land and performed extraordinary deeds, and the stories then became the official stories given to human beings during their dreams. The entire identity is in the annotated landscape.”
Many of the acrylic paintings appear to be similar to maps or landscape paintings from an aerial view. They serve to emphasize the importance of the tie between Aboriginal people and their land, marking the places where ancestral beings lived and traveled.
Neelam Patel, a 3rd-semester allied health major who took Dussart’s class, said she and other students designed the labels for each of the paintings. They determined what information should be provided and whether it should be conveyed through writing or through audio aids.
“We had to decide what our goal was, and then decide on the physical presentation and content,” Patel said. “We saw there were some paintings that had a similar meaning or story but looked very different, and we included them to show variety in the artwork.”
Dussart had her students think critically about the presentation of the art. “I introduced them to different theories about how western museums are exhibiting art from others, and we asked questions about how you engage with art and histories of others,” Dussart said.
She these types of artworks are often categorized as “primitive” rather than high art or contemporary art, and asked her students to think of ways to extract the work from that category.
Patel said that she and other students saw the collection, much of which was produced in the 1980s or later, as contemporary. “It’s contemporary art but it has a historical background,” Patel said.
The exhibit’s title, “Dotted Dialogues,” was chosen by the students. “It took about three weeks to figure it out,” Patel said. “It comes from the fact that dotted paint is a common quality in the artwork, and every painting has a meaning that needs to be conveyed.”
“The students really focused on how the exhibition could pay tribute to the artists and the families for showing us their visions of the world,” Dussart said.
There will be a reception for “Dotted Dialogues” at the Benton from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 3.