In his show “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia” at the Harvard Art Museums, visiting curator Stephen Gilchrist showcases the unparalleled, often-mysterious artwork of Australia’s indigenous populations. While these native groups have been creating work for an as-yet-undetermined number of years (millennia, even), what most audiences would consider “modern” or “contemporary” work only emerged when people like Geoffrey Bardon interacted with Aboriginal people and supplied them with adequate supplies. Notably, this sort of transition from traditional to modern started in 1971, much later than the art world’s stereotypical definition of “modern.”
In creating a show to teach others about Australia’s history, Gilchrist, who has roots in the Yamatji people of Western Australia, illustrates the tension between “revelation and concealment” inherent in indigenous peoples’ relationships with colonizers and urban dwellers. Revelation, in this case, means sharing a part of the Aboriginal identity with outsiders, while concealment means keeping some traditions and symbols sacred. While much of the art on display includes a modern take on traditional indigenous art forms, the artists never shake the most distinct elements characteristic of Aboriginal work. From an outsiders perspective, one distinctive feature, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, is not actually a visible part of the work; rather, it’s that the audience is “denied the tools to decode [the abstract forms’] meaning.” That is, these Aboriginal artists allow audiences to glimpse a part of their sacred history but keep the meaning and significance of certain symbols and images under wraps. In doing so, the artists maintain core parts of their treasured identity still untouched by the colonizing of Australia.
This contrast between revelation and concealment does not apply to just Aboriginal artwork coming out of Australia. In America, the preservation of African American history through art is an important task assumed by artists, curators, and collectors alike. While work in this vein aims to share a part of the black experience with viewers, there always remains some sort of obstacle in knowing that most viewers will never quite understand the feeling or experience depicted within a piece. That total understanding is left to the creator of the piece and, perhaps, the subject of the painting. While viewers can glean a significant amount of information from the artistic record, they will always be somewhat removed from the history and experience that is not their own.