Last Friday, I visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (The Wright) to view a new art exhibit called The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles. It’s a fascinating exhibit which highlights the traditional Aboriginal Australian ceremony from centuries ago and how the Aborigines honored their loved ones who passed away. Contemporary Aborigine artists recreated beautiful memorial poles — known as lorrkon, ḏupun, or ḻarrakitj — for the art exhibit.
“Centuries and even millenniums ago, poles similar to the ones included in this exhibition—known as lorrkkon, ḏupun, or ḻarrakitj—were used to house the bones of the deceased. Traditionally, this internment marked the final point in a long and complex mortuary process designed to guide the spirit of the deceased on its final journey—when they have left the “outside” world and become one with the “inside” realm of the ancestral world.”— The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
The Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles exhibit was originally organized by the Nevada Museum of Art, while the artwork comes from the Dennis and Debra Scholl collection. In October 2017, the Scholls donated 200 works of contemporary Aboriginal Australian art from their art collection to the Nevada Museum of Art, the Frost Art Museum FIU, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
LEARNING ABOUT ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN CULTURE
I was eager to view the Aboriginal art exhibit because I have always been very fascinated with Aboriginal Australian culture. This might sound a little silly, but the first time I learned about Aborigines was when I watched the movie Australia (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman). Admittedly, I didn’t take World Geography in high school so this important cultural fact is one that, unfortunately, I was not familiar with in my younger years.
Australia the movie didn’t come out until 2008 and I was in graduate school at the time so that means I was 28ish when I discovered the Aboriginal Australian culture. I remember watching the movie and feeling very amazed and surprised. “Whoa! There were Black people in Australia back in the day?!” I quickly researched a little bit of information about the movie and it was then that I discovered the Aboriginal Australian culture.
ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN CULTURE’S CONNECTION TO AFRICA
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘Australia’?” This is what Museum Educator and Outreach Coordinator Jonathan Jones asked me as our tour was getting started. My response was Koalas, kangaroos, and Sydney. Jonathan nodded and smiled. He shared with me a few other answers other visitors had shared with him.
“What never really pops into our heads– Black people,” he continued. “No one thinks of Black people when they think of Australia.” Jonathan brought up a good point. I know for me, before watching the movie Australia, I honestly didn’t know about the Australian Aboriginal culture.
Something else I didn’t know was Aborigines are of African descent. I learned this while discussing Aboriginal Australian culture with Jonathan. He explained to me how European settlers colonized the Australian continent in 1788. “There were people that were already living there, as with most places that have been colonized around the world, long before [the settlers] ever arrived, and for Black people, we’re talking about the Aborigines.”
Jonathan told me before the Aborigines migrated to the continent of Australia, they had lived on the continent of Africa for 100,000 years. “They were the first people to actually migrate from the continent of Africa to what is now known as Australia” he explained.
“There used to be a land bridge [the Aborigines crossed] to migrate and settle there. They have maintained their culture since that time. It is actually the longest, continuous belief system in the world.”
ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN CULTURE’S CONNECTION TO AFRICAN AMERICANS
Jonathan also told me many museum visitors often ask why The Wright would feature an Aboriginal Australian exhibit in an African American history museum. He said The Wright encompasses both African and African American history.
“What we talk about and celebrate here is African and African American culture. Aborigines are a strong, large part of African culture because they hold onto a lot of the traditions that a lot of people of African descent don’t have.”
According to The Wright, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) hosted a similar exhibition. MoCADA Director Kalia Brooks explained the connection between Aboriginal Australian history and African Americans:
“There has existed a Black Panther Party in Australia, as well as a Black Power Movement. It is the recognition of blackness and the struggle over the rights to representation that fuel our interests in the exhibition. Both of these themes are issues that are embedded in the concept of an African diaspora.”Kalia Brooks, Director of MoCADA
Jonathan explained to me, “Aborigines identify with African Americans here in the states in terms of our Civil Rights Movement, our energy, our culture.” He said their art, music, and even the way they express themselves also connects to African American culture.
HOW A MEMORIAL POLE IS MADE (THE SHORT VERSION)
Mindblowing, right?! This is why I love visiting art and history museums. It gives me the chance to learn about new cultures and historical topics.
“The memorial totem poles were their ways of showing respect. Generally, when we think of memorials we think about Memorial Day” Jonathan continued. “We think about a wake. You’re there to honor someone who has passed on. The thing– this the way they would do it. They would take a Eucalyptus tree. Hollow it out. And then they placed the bones of the person who has passed on, right inside.
Then they would decorate it and place it back into their community so the people of that community could just honor and reverence to the people who had passed on. It was a way for them to connect to the person who has passed to the spirit world.”
THE INSIDE WORLD: CONTEMPORARY ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN MEMORIAL POLES ART EXHIBITION
There are 103 memorial poles featured in the Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles art exhibit. Forty-nine artists created a memorial pole that represented the region in which they live in Australia. Jonathan told me the artists also dedicated their art pieces to celebrate their culture and family.
Jonathan explained the in the Aboriginal Australian culture, “Dreamtime” is an expression used to describe death. The memorial poles were a way for people to connect to their loved ones and their roots.
Along with celebrating African and African American culture, Jonathan said The Wright hopes to connect African Americans to their ancestry and their roots. The Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles art exhibition is a wonderful way to connect people to their roots, or as Jonathan put it: the art exhibit and The Wright are all about “connecting people to their past to understand their present a little bit better so that you can truly excel to [in] future.”
Special thanks to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for inviting Good Life Detroit to view the new art exhibit! Visit The Wright’s official website for more information about The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles art exhibit.
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All images were taken by Jennifer Hamra (for Good Life Detroit) with permission from The Wright.