A Beautiful Awakening

Where freshwater meets the salt water, by Josiah Omeenyo.
Source: University of Melbourne

The Awaken retrospective, in Arts West Gallery of the University of Melbourne, was outstanding. The broader community engaged accordingly. Throughout the guided tour, students descended upon the exhibits with inquiries of how the Australian Indigenous community lived.The backdrop of the exhibit was plain, designed to focus on the richness of the people of Arnhem Land,Cape York and the Pintupi Region.

I returned to the exhibition several times after the class trip, which featured 3 artworks, collection of artefacts of cultural significance, biological specimens, photographic, film, notes and personal items of Donald Thomson. Abstract art, and artefacts which highlighted the Indigenous tradition of conservation provided an intimate insight on their culture.The curators cared passionately about them, and emphasised how it aligned with the social values of inclusiveness. This was done by curating this collection in consultation with the communities to strengthen the two-way relationship between the Indigenous and non Indigenous community.

Thomson kept full control over his work, never obtaining the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. After his death, the immense significance of his work was recognized as one of the most important anthropological collections in the world.During his active years he supported Aboriginal rights, despite continual opposition in an era focused on forcing assimilation. His attitude towards the mistreatment of the Indigenous people was cultivated during his first visit to Aurukun in Cape York during the early 1930s.

While there has been other exhibitions, such as the Donald Thomson collection on long term loan in the Museum of Victoria devoted to his 50 years worth of work, the magical ability of Awaken to enkindle marvel and empathy within the non Indigenous community did not go unnoticed. Applause goes to Shanae Hobson, the lead curator with undeniable precision to select almost 200 items of vast cultural importance.

Source: Lochart River Arts,Josiah Omeenyo

In Arts West Gallery, the three artworks from Jessie Nungarrayi Bartlett Wilkinkarra (from Pintupi), Josiah Omeenyo (from Cape York) and Manini Gumana Garrapara (from Arnhem Land) from the 21st century benefited from their proximity to the entrance of the gallery. Knowing the cultural background of the younger generation Indigenous artists, allowed me insight into their connection with their cultural heritage.Following the arid desert of the Pintupi region, Wilkinkarra’s confident delivery of red, yellow and black acrylic dots and circular motions onto canvas paid homage to Pintupi’s hot climate. Additionally, two large yellow shapes representing community dominated the otherwise red background, and were surrounded by black strokes which depicted women surrounding the community.From the coastal area of Cape York, Omeenya brought a personal perspective into his tribe’s proximity to nature.His interpretation of coral reefs, viewed from above utilised strong, dreamlike strokes of colour.The peaceful blend of all seven colours of the rainbow was mesmerizing. But he did not stop at that.The circular, kernel-like textures of corals were dotted with gentle pinks, reds, yellows and greens, highlighted by warm hues of red, orange and yellow contrasted aesthetically with the cool tones of the blue and green background.The gentle strokes and dots of white balances out these two otherwise foreign pairings of colours.Needless to say, Coral Reef left me mesmerized. Last but not least, Garrapara’s structured screen print told a story of patience.Traditionally, the people of Arnhem Land created this style of artwork using sticks and seeds.It’s simple beauty lies in the consistency of crisscrossed lines with only 4 colours against a white backdrop, reflecting the patience of the artist,as not a single zigzagged line was out of place.Despite the chronological origin of all of these artworks from 2010 onwards,they were all equidistant from their forefathers.Bartlett’s style of artwork was only transferred onto canvas from the sand in the 1970s,Garrapara’s screenprint which uses sticks and seeds mirrored his tribes.Against a plain white wall,these three bold pieces revived a fresh eye into the artistic possibilities of the modern Indigenous communities.

Another part of the exhibit has everyday objects utilised by the communities enclosed in a glass space.Each community was sectioned by a large board,with contained a description of where the artefacts were collected,and a brief explanation of Thomson’s experience in each region.It was implied his journey was filled with various revelations.He considered the superiority white men approached the Indigenous with, and criticised their intent to eliminate their identity.Moreover, his personal stories spoke of the Aboriginal people being friendly and loving, inviting him into every facet of their lives.He detailed material cultures ,leisure activities ,languages, household items, organic specimens and lastly, personal experiences with various members of the communities.It was suggested by him these communities should be preserved .He fought valiantly for the protection of Indigenous spaces, as evidenced by his exclusion of non Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land. Eventually, his work hit its stride, and now Awaken generates education of the rich Indigenous culture.The ornate designs of the Arnhem Land collection stole the show. From a galigali(percussion stick) dotted with white and brown on the ends, yira (vegetable fibre string bag) knitted and dyed with ten different colours using vegetable dye and bark painting with detailed painting of four men on a ship.The multitude of colours and dyes are due the diversity flora of Arnhem Land, nurtured by tropical monsoon climate.Distinctively, the Pintupi exhibits were not colourful which reflected the absence of diverse fauna in the desert lands.Strong plaited ropes,pikurru (spearthrower)and piti(container)were all carved of hard wood. Unadorned, but still practical.Cape York’s specialty revolved around woven feathers into bags, fans and body ornaments.Woven baskets of different techniques were also displayed.Despite the immense honour the exhibits displayed ,there is a poignant inside of me as I reflect on my personal ignorance, disconnected to their glories and injustices.

It was easy to regard each aspect of the exhibit with equal respect, as the spacious layout of the Gallery allowed for full focus on a singular artefact’s complexities. Dim lighting highlighted the clarity of Awaken’s vibrant stories.The lighting is kept dim to prevent artefacts, which were all made from organic material, from deterioration.In addition, it suited the intent of the exhibition too. It showcased the dimensions of the artefacts, as opposed to using harsh lighting to parade the items of cultural importance as a “performance”.The pairing of the lighting, and heartfelt curated artefacts captured the emotional range of the Indigenous experience.From artefacts collected in the 1930s to the modern artworks, we become aware of how important it is for preservation of their culture to be translated into society.It teaches the need to help secure the survival of the Indigenous identity.


Allen, L. (2012). Donald Thomson in Museums Victoria Collections. Retrieved from https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/collections/14141

Awaken exhibition opens in Arts West Gallery.(2018,October). Retrieved from https://arts.unimelb.edu.au/news/past-news/awaken-exhibition-opens-in-arts-west-gallery

Morphy,H. (2002).Thomson,Donald Finlay Ferguson. Retrieved from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-donald-finlay-fergusson-11851



B.A in Economics and Minor in Chinese Studies @unimelb. I write about art,economics and finance.

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Lynette Hew

B.A in Economics and Minor in Chinese Studies @unimelb. I write about art,economics and finance.