Live the Dream Time at the Art and History Museum

The Art and History Museum has such an enormous and fascinating collection that you could literally spend days there, wandering through a seemingly endless array of treasures.

However, if you’ve only got limited time, it’s worth stopping in to check out their latest exhibition – Before Time Began.

This is an exploration of the art and history of the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The First Peoples of Australia are the heirs to the oldest continuous culture in the world, which dates back over 60,000 years. This is a rich culture, and ancestral knowledge is passed from one generation to the next by means of an oral tradition centred around rituals and ceremonies.

The concept of Dreamings or Dreamtime is a central concept within the mythology of Aboriginal culture.

Dreamtime is when ancestral spirits created the earth, the plants, the animals, the people, the water and the stars. Dreamings refer to these spirits, as well as their travels throughout the land and their acts of creation. However, Dreamtime has no correlation with the Western concept of time – it is simultaneously past, present, and future.

This exhibition showcases the mythology of Aboriginal culture, but also explores the work of contemporary Aboriginal artists.

I caught up with Georges Petitjean and Nicolas Cauwe – the curators of the exhibition – for a behind-the-scenes look at Before Time Began.

This is the first time that the museum has exhibited Aboriginal art – what makes this exhibition a good entry point into the history and culture of indigenous Australia?

The Art & History Museum doesn’t hold permanent collections on Australia nor does it has contemporary art in its collections.

Before Time Began was created three years ago by the Fondation Opale in Switzerland, and consists primarily of contemporary paintings and installations. However, we added an introduction with objects from the Museum Volkenkunde in the Netherlands, and the Africa Museum, the Musée du Malgré-Tout, and the MAS – all in Belgium.

We also added an epilogue with the photographic tableaus of Michael Cook. His Civilised and Object series incite a reflection on the meaning of civilisation in the Australian and broader context across the past centuries.

Before Time Began shows the beginnings of the contemporary art movements in Aboriginal Australia in the 1970s as well as very recent developments.

Through the art, a number of fundamental ‘Dreamings’ or creation stories are put forward and explained.

The exhibition is a good introduction to contemporary Aboriginal art and culture, but also into the historical developments of Aboriginal cultures.

Colonialism is obviously a theme that connects Belgium and Australia, what is the Museum’s role in creating dialogue about colonisation?

This exhibition is not directly oriented towards colonialism, atlthough it obviously is inherently present in almost all of the artworks.

Some works – such as Mumu Mike Williams’ claim of country on a ‘stolen’ post bag – address colonialism rather directly.

The exhibition is a celebration of survival that is exemplified in today’s artistic expressions of Aboriginal peoples in Australia – a tradition that is a continuation of the longest cultural tradition still alive. A cultural tradition that has over 60,000 years of history.

The photography of Michael Cook creates a bridge to the colonial history of other continents. Taking the slavery past of Great Britain as its basis, it examines how form is given to the dehumanising process that follows when a person is enslaved and thereby becomes an object.

The general collection of the museum is so vast, which era or subject is generally the most popular with visitors?

Certainly the Egyptian antiquities, but also our Art Nouveau collection, or our great permanent exhibition about America, and the Music Instruments Museum.

Within the general collection of the museum, are there any items that could be described as being queer or representing a queer perspective on the world?

As the collections mainly reflect historical perspectives on societies, queer perspectives of the world are generally not directly represented. However, queer perspectives can be inherently present in some items of the collection.

It’s not a rejection or a disinterest of the museum in queer identities or perspectives on the world, but it is rather that the institution’s collections aren’t always suitable for discussing it.

How do you hope that people feel when they’re visiting Before Time Began?

We hope that visitors experience aesthetic pleasure and awe in discovering an art and culture that is still largely unknown in our regions, that they perceive the richness of other cultural contexts, and that they are inspired to appreciate the cultural splendour of the first Australians.

Before Time Began at the Art and History Museum will run until 29 May

One of the stand-out pieces in the exhibition is titled Kulata Tiuta, or Many Spears. This imposing installation was created by a group of artists from the region of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. Consisting of 1500 spears, the installation represents a kupi kupi – a funnel-shaped dust storm common in dry and arid parts of Australia. In some parts of Australia, these are referred to as a willy willy. This installation represents a kupi kupi that travels through time, picking up fragments of our lives on its uncertain path.