Published on November 11, 2013 | by Nina Hoogstraate

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Discover art from down under

Wide open spaces: Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly, 1946 [couressy of Royal Academy of Arts]

★★★★-

Australia, now at the Royal Academy of the Arts, is the first UK exhibition in more than 50 years to encapsulate 200 years of one nation’s art, culture and history.

Divided into 13 sections, it takes you chronologically from traditional Aboriginal art through Renaissance-style paintings from the 1800s, to early modernism and ends with political and contemporary Australian art.

Opening the doors to the exhibition, you walk into a dark, dome-shaped room with a huge projection of artist Shaun Gladwell riding on a motorcycle down a dusty, desert-like highway.

Moving into the next room, huge canvases with mesmerising patterns fill the walls, and you start to feel engrossed in the tradition of the Aboriginal culture.

Seeing the set of large canvases made by the Martumili artists from Newman, it becomes evident how much of a central role art plays in their life.

Ancestors

The Martu people of Western Australia, whose ancestors date from the earliest human habitation of the country, some 45,000 years ago, are just one of hundreds of Aboriginal communities.

This artistic collective focuses on projects that have strong links to their heritage and culture, and once they finish their large collaborative paintings they perform a ritual to honour their ancestors.

The concept is called Dreaming, which is “a belief and philosophy that describes the balance between spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world”.

Most traditional Aboriginal art makes use of earthy colours, and detailed dotted and mosaic- esque swirls, with many of the conventional works created on eucalyptus bark with natural pigments.

Landscapes

Also featured in the exhibition is the wondrous photograph-like painting, Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia by H.J. Johnstone, which hangs in the gallery, and is the most copied painting of Australian landscapes.

Approaching the Australian Impressionism section of the exhibition, you can’t help but notice Sidney Nolan’s harsh, bright and colourful The Ned Kelly Series pieces. The Irish-Australian Robin Hood is a notorious part of Australia’s history, making this collection of work by Nolan as a distinct part of the exhibition.

Coming into the contemporary section, there are a number of attention-grasping designs and photography. The tricky thing with modern art is you often feel you lose the origin of where the piece is made.

There seems to be no direct, obvious connection that a particular work is from a specific place; it can be from everywhere. This can be seen as both positive and negative; in this case, I believe it was the least exciting selection in the exhibition.

Overall though, it was a fascinating, beautiful and culturally enriching display of authentic artwork; something you can experience for yourself until December 8.

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