Preserving the Aboriginal Culture in Australia with an Exhibition About Traditional Bush Medicine

The exhibition “Desert Blossoms of Bush Medicine” at Michael Reid Berlin revealed more about the traditions and rich stories of Aboriginals, that invite to be discovered.

February 28th, 2020
Annika Mayer, News from Berlin
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Photo: Laura Thompson – Gallery Manager in Berlin and Annika Mayer

In the Michael Reid art gallery in Berlin, paintings by the Aboriginal artists of Ampilatwatja revealed more about Aboriginal traditions, beauty and happiness. An exclusive interview, which I could have with the Australian center manager Caroline gave more insight into the cooperation with the artists, their art works and circumstances.

From the 10th of January until 1st of February, there was an exhibition at the only Australian gallery with a permanent space in Europe - Michael Reid Berlin featuring the Aboriginal, Australian artists of Ampilatwatja. The Michael Reid art gallery has an exhibition space in Sydney as well as in Berlin. More information about their dynamic exhibition program can be found on their website. For details on available artworks, please have a look at the Aboriginal art gallery in Ampilatwatja in the heart of Australia.

During our Skype interview, Caroline, the center manager of the arts center excitedly told me how the independent artists make her feel like it is Christmas everyday whenever they bring her a finished, bright, acrylic painting. So let us find out more about the cooperation with the Aboriginals and how cultural diplomacy is a part of it:

Caroline, could you tell me a bit more about the history of the art gallery? How did the project and collaboration with the artists start and develop?
The arts center is an incorporation that is owned and operated by Indigenous artists, by its members, the artists of Ampilatwatja. But anybody could be a member. The artists determine the  emphasis of their work. There is an executive committee of the artists that decides how the business is going to be run and who they are going to do business with. Specifically, my job is to implement their decisions. The arts center has been going well over 20 years and that has been netwised since 2005.

What is your task as the center manager?
I run the business, so my tasks include many administrative works. I am responsible for it, because English is often the third or fourth language of the artists. I handle the funding as well as the correspondence by e-mails. I also work with the artists to decide which paintings will contribute to particular exhibitions that we will have. In addition, I also organize travel opportunities with the artists. Other administrative tasks include dealing with the paint bills, the materials or the corrections like the stretching of the canvas, as well as talking to the artists about composition and their careers. It is a very big job. It also comes down to finding a vehicle or a washing machine. It is a job that has a lot of legs, but I love it! They are wonderful artists and they mean what they do.

Sounds like you’re holding it together. What led to the second location in Berlin? Because I read that it is the only permanent Australian exhibition in Europe.
In 2017, the artists of Ampilatwatja had a successful exhibition with the Australian embassy in Berlin. It was a sell-out show, a beautiful show. Michael contacts in the Australian embassy led to the beautiful gallery in Berlin, because the connection was made. Now the artists have got a solid reputation with their beautiful art works and it was so well-supported by the people who saw the show at the Australian embassy in Berlin and also the staff of the Australian embassy in Berlin really praised the show and promoted it beautifully.

That’s great!
They came and offered us a January show in Berlin and I thought that is an interesting time of year, but also given that you are in the deepest, darkest part of winter, some beautiful, bright, contemporary, Aboriginal art would bring a lot of joy into people’s life’s. I think that is what art needs to resonate: something people can respond to and feel good about.

What would you describe as the main message of the exhibition? What do you think do visitors take home after visiting the gallery?
I don’t think that they can come away not feeling anything. There is hope and there is happiness and they reveal on a very surface level beauty and that is something that everybody can understand. Like wall flowers, bush medicine and traditional medicine. It is still very much a part of the culture in Australian Aboriginal society, because it is what they keep alive: The bush medicine and the remedies that they still use, the healing. It is quite beautiful and it resonates healing and happiness.

Do you also exhibit in other cities or countries?
We sell in Paris, Florence, Singapore and Shanghai in China, but also Houston, Texas and Seoul in South Korea. There are not many places where we actually haven’t exhibited. Our great success though is in Berlin and in the USA.

Wow, that’s really international.
Yeah, definitely. It is very different from a lot of Aboriginal art, because they don’t paint their creation stories or their Chukapa. They paint the landscape or the bush medicine where their ancestral stories belong. Their stories are way too sacred to reveal. The bright acrylic, fine detailed work is so beautiful and unique to the Ampilatwatja artists.

That’s true, it is indeed very beautiful. May I ask you about your definition and vision of Cultural Diplomacy?
I suppose all of our exhibitions and opportunities to travel is about promoting and preserving culture. It is an exchange and about fostering that mutual understanding. There are people that are so intrigued about what this ancient Aboriginal culture has to offer and it is such a wonderful opportunity for these artists to be able to talk about it more expressively through that beautiful visual art of painting. People can discover it and just feel enlightened. On another level, I suppose, they can also turn a bit of a blind eye to the fact that Aboriginal Australians are still second-world citizens in their own country since these people live in the most extreme, disadvantaged circumstances. They live in third-world conditions in a first-world country. Ampilatwatja has been rated one of the poorest places in Australia. Luckily their art work subsidizes an income for them and they produce their art work with love. The sales reflect the fact that people just love what they do. And it’s boutique since they don’t produce a lot of art work every year. 

It also seems pretty honest what they paint. About their stories and their knowledge. So do the artists of Ampilatwatja still live traditionally even though they now have an artistic profession? Did this change their lifestyles?
It is right, it is honest: Because it is what they know and what they do. They still go out to traditionally hunt and to make this bush medicine and the remedies. The fact is that some of them still live that very traditional, remote life, which is still really intact. Their culture is preserved. They’re not being made to paint. Instead, they’re independent, bringing back these price pieces. It is always a joy when artists come back with their final paintings. It is like Christmas every day. 

Thanks for all these great insights! May I ask you how the situation is concerning the bush fires?
We are one of the very few places here on the South coast of NSW bracing for fire. We have been since New Years Eve and it is really bad. I am sitting here a little bit in a smokey space, but it’s been far worse before. Out in the community it has got 47 degrees, so that’s just revolting. This country is going to uninhabitable. But Ampilatwatja is still going to produce amazing art work. Next year, they propose for February or March. I will come over for an exhibition in Berlin with a couple of artists. We’ll catch up then hopefully.

Yeah, would be great! Thanks for the interview, Caroline!


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