Some years ago, when I was still living in South Africa, I read a wonderful book by Victoria Finlay called Colour: Travels through the Paintbox . I had borrowed the book from a friend but enjoyed it so much that I bought my own copy.
However, I scarcely remembered reading the section called The Australian Paintbox. I’m really glad now that I have the book because when I picked it up recently, I re-read it from a completely different perspective. Living in a different country with its own particular history has changed my perception of what Finlay has written.
On discovering that a shaped piece of rock / lump of earth was in fact a chunk of ochre pigment, Finlay realised that it was possibly used by an artist some 5000 years ago. In Greek the word means pale yellow – iron oxide – it was the first pigment. Her search for the origins of the colour led her to the heart of Australia.
The light and heat here is much like South Africa. But if anything it’s brighter and hotter, and the hole in the ozone layer just above us is threatening. The colours of Africa, yellow ochre, burnt sienna and earthy reds have a kinship with Australian earth colours. And then, because the sky here is so blue some days the red earth is even redder.
The Aboriginal painting tradition, the oldest continuous painting tradition, goes back for 40,000 years. The colours are bound up in age-old stories, rituals, mysteries and secrets. So much is hidden below the surface. Ochre was for many years a valuable commodity used as a bartering tool amongst various aboriginal peoples.
Last week I visited GoMA. One of the exhibitions celebrating GoMAs 5th Birthday was Across Country : Five years of Indigenous Art from the Collection.
I turned a corner in the Gallery and walked into an ochre room.
The colour glowed, highlighting the work on the walls and plinths.Indigenous artists from across the country have continued to find innovative ways to interpret their stories and experiences in an increasing range of mediums.