BOOKER-LOWE GALLERY PRESENTS Patterns of our Past: Australian Aboriginal Paintings from the Pilbara and Beyond this summer. The exhibit contains 15 paintings from the Pilbara community in Roebourne, West Australia, as well as 35 pieces from Australia’s northern and saltwater communities.
Roebourne is a sparsely populated and remote region in mining country, with many of the paintings in this collection depicting the dramatic bright red rocks scattered throughout the flat desert. The people of the desert tend to use more of the traditional Aboriginal colors (rust, black, gold and white) as opposed to the brightly colored seashells you see painted by the people of the coast.
Aboriginals are the world’s oldest living continuous culture, containing 240 distinct language groups and discrete tribes in Western Australia. Though being well developed orally, the culture’s visual language was not on a canvas. Originally, people would use sand, their bodies and little trinkets to express themselves. The sand paintings are mainly what influenced the contemporary style of the first Aboriginal painters in the 1970s: the meticulous blotting of hundreds of dots and symbols onto a canvas to depict a certain sacred area, landscape or myth.
“Everything in their environment has a story,” says Nana Booker, owner of the Booker-Lowe Gallery, as she points to a painting by Kudditji Kngwarreye. The red blocks in the painting, randomly stacked bricks surrounding an oddball orange block, depict an “Emu Dreaming.” Often regarded as the “Rothko of Aboriginal Art,” the half brother of famous Aboriginal painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye uses these bold blocks of color to tell a story passed on for generations.
Aboriginal people, especially desert people, are born with a connection to their history. They are obligated to own a certain amount of information or “dreamings” within the oral culture and pass these down to future generations in order for the culture to survive.
Booker tries to make sure that when her clients buy these pieces, they know as much about this history, culture and myths behind the creations as she does by giving them booklets full of information. She does this because when she was first exposed to the art movement 20 years ago in St. Louis, she was immediately inspired to find out as much as possible.
For example, the story depicted in Napaljarri-Warnu Jukurrpa and Alma Nungarrayi Granites’ painting “Seven Sisters Dreaming,” shown in the Booker-Lowe Gallery, is as robust as the painting itself. In the Warlpiri tribe, it was customary to not interact or create relationships with another family. A Jakamara magician, however, couldn’t resist the seven Warlpiri sisters. He would sit in the mouth of a cave, chanting magical ballads while combing his luxurious hair, enticing the sisters to come in. His advances proved to be of no use. So, the Jakamara magician started to stalk the sisters. The sisters started to flee, ending up in the middle of Australia at the red rocks of Uluru. Growing tired and hungry, they built a fire to rest only to realize the Jakamara magician had followed them all the way to Uluru. The spirits of Uluru heard the anguish of the seven sisters, and thrust them into the sky, creating Pleiades constellation. The magician saw this, and followed the girls once more into the sky, only to thrust himself into Orion’s Belt. Forever stuck, the Jakamara magician can never reach the seven sisters for all of eternity.
The Booker-Lowe Gallery features the largest collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal fine art in the Country, showcasing many paintings like these that are shipped from remote tribes in Australia and depict a particular part of history that has been passed down by elders for 50,000 years.
“I was absolutely blown away by them. I’d never seen anything like these works,” said Booker, describing her first sight of “Emily” [Kame Kngwarreye painting]. “Her work was spiritual, with no direct imagery at all…[the painting] was incredibly deep and powerful.”
This began Booker’s journey to owning the only Aboriginal art gallery in Houston.
Shortly after seeing the paintings in 1997, Booker was approached to serve as the Honorary Consul of Australia for the State of Texas. She decided a good way to call attention to Australia for Houstonians would be to host a bi-annual exhibition showcasing the continent’s art and culture.
She approached Hank Ebes, a dealer in Melbourne, Australia, to use an exhibition stored in San Francisco on a consignment basis. The exhibit contained a few “Emily’s”, as well as paintings done by elders. Booker brought all the paintings back to the Central Houston bungalow that is the Booker-Lowe Gallery today, and opened in May of 2002. After 14 years, the gallery has become the first gallery outside of Australia admitted to the Professional Association for Aboriginal Dealers, as well as the first one allowed to sign the code of ethics.
The gallery also tries to do off-site exhibitions to showcase the art movement to more Houstonians, such as the one being shown at the Pearl Fincher Museum in late September.
Don’t worry if you miss the off-site exhibits, however. Plenty of spiritual dreamings can be found in the gallery year-round, ready to share the 50,000-year-old tradition.
Thru September 3. Booker-Lowe Gallery, 4623 Feagan St. 713-880-1541.
Originally published in Houstoniamag.com on June 17, 2016.