The location of the Indigenous Art Collection at the Ian Potter Centre has always been disappointing for me. In a country that is rightfully theirs, the relatively small number of indigenous artwork displayed left me wanting. As if giving it a bit more flair would cause the country to really return into their rightful hands. An artistic suppression disguised as freedom by assigning it a cosy corner beside the ticketing counters on the ground floor. If this is not in itself an expression of colonialism at work, I cannot think of a better example.

 Warmun Mandala, 2002. Photo Credit: Trevor Nickolls

Warmun Mandala, 2002. Photo Credit: Trevor Nickolls

The art of the first Australians is often likened to child-like wonderment, but we do not hear the same narrative about modernism or cubism. I can't help but think that this is because white artists are considered genius, no matter how simple their work might be, whereas native artists struggle to find a place in a gallery let alone in the serious discourse of art critiques. Twirls, simplistic figures and shapes, the use of colour in wild abandonment or occasionally with finesse were all characteristics of most works that were displayed. Similarly, most of the artworks portrayed Dreamtime, adding a spiritual layer to the art that white art is often missing entirely, often defiantly. Shouldn't we take this art more seriously for its earnest portrayals of the human spirit? What is child-like about that?

The Dreamtime to the Native Australians is a condition beyond time and space. Commonly termed the ‘all-at-once’ time, it includes coexisting principles of the beginning of all things; the life and influence of ancestors and concepts of life and death.

This ‘all-at-once’ time, instead of ‘one-thing-after-another’ time is a belief universally held among more than 500 divisions of tribal groups.

Upon further reflection and after learning more about the Dreamtime, folding childhood expressions into the artworks, and seeing them as encompassing all stages of life, including early memories and their ability to speak in a language that makes sense to every stage is profound. It is beyond words. Time in contemporary life is simply a passing phase – a gap in eternity. It has a beginning and it has an end. In the Dreamtime, past, present and future coexist; there is no beginning and no end. Similarly, I remember as a child, time was a much more irrelevant concept. Time was measured in anything but time itself. Space was also measured in anything but space itself. Is indigenous art the real human expression untarnished by orchestrated influences like toy commercials or culturally loaded cartoons? What can architecture learn from this?

There is a free flowing vibrancy in the paintings that raises the spirit, and I am fond of it.

The communal concept of Dreamtime and the indigenous artwork opposes the idea of the total work, considered as a tyranny towards the needs of the human being. It is beyond time, beyond age. The juxtapositions of shapes, colour and lines are fabulously executed, of the few that are displayed at least. This relates well to the meta-cultural aspirations of the Vienna Secession.

Contemporary architecture can certainly do with a lot of Dreamtime. This ‘all-at-once’ time easily translates to a communal, unified space; multiple activities happening all at once, all in the same space. The concept of infinity is opened up, slowed down and by some miracle displayed in a way that can be read by many people, simultaneously and separately. Delight!


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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Steven ChuArt, Indigenous