Australian aboriginals reclaim their history in Antwerp

'Restricted Images', an exhibition at Antwerp's photography museum, FOMU, offers a rare insight into the art of the aboriginal people of Australia. British artist and photographer Patrick Waterhouse enlisted the help of the aboriginal people of Warlpiri in central Australia to provide a new view on the country's history.

Exhibition curator Joachim Naudts: "All too often the history of Australia is seen through western eyes. The British "discovered" the country in the 1770's and saw it as the 'Terra Nullius', a No Man's Land. They ignored the original, aboriginal population, brought in the railroad and mining without taking any account of Australia’s pre-colonial people."

Briton Patrick Waterhouse was keen to provide a new look on the history of Australia, one that incorporated both the traditions of the British colonists and the original population. He spent seven years looking for material, taking photographs and getting the aboriginal people of Warlpiri to reclaim their history with their art. The results of their work are now on show in Antwerp.

Patrick Waterhouse spent much of his time in Australia collecting historical objects, flags, maps and pictures from Australian school books, cartoons and photographs. These he showed to the aboriginal people of Warlpiri, artists at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre who reclaimed these historical objects by adding their own art.

Joachim Naudts: "The aboriginal communities of Australia form part of the world's longest surviving culture whose roots go back over 50,000 years. Their world view is very different to that of people in the West. They possess a vibrant oral culture. Storylines hand on information for thousands of years. Fathers pass stories on to sons, mothers on to daughters".

"Line paintings are an important part of their culture. These were originally made in the sand, but later as nomadic aboriginals settled down these drawings were also created on doors and fixed objects. This oral tradition that includes 'dreamings' allows aboriginals to retrace their ancestors’ footprints and find spots that are important to their family history. Information allowing them to find herds and edible plants is also passed down in this way."

Patrick Waterhouse enabled Warlpiri artists to give their own interpretation to existing historic documents. Aboriginals added their own art to British flags of Australia allowing historic objects like these to be read in a new way. They used traditional dot paintings to reclaim historic objects.

Joachim Naudts: "Painting for aboriginals is somewhat like writing to us. Everybody learns it and everybody does it. Half of all aboriginals are involved in making art. Portraits are a different matter. Colonials documented history and Australia's original population with photography, but for aboriginals a photographic portrait is somewhat of an infringement. Nowadays access to historic portrait photographs is restricted to immediate family. Patrick Waterhouse allowed aboriginal people to reclaim historic portrait photos as well photographs that he himself made by getting aboriginal artists to overpaint them with their dot paintings. In this way the photos are no longer restricted”.

'Restricted Images' runs at FOMU, Waalsekaai 47 in Antwerp until 9 June 2019.