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Making Her Mark: Bringing Australian Aboriginal Art to New Audiences

Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia is MOA’s first exhibition of all women artists—on view until March 31, 2019. To mark the occasion, the MOA Shop is carrying a wide selection of beautiful Australian products that are made by or directly support Aboriginal artists, particularly women.

One such artist is Arkeria Rose Armstrong, a Gamilaraay painter connecting traditional Aboriginal art with her own contemporary style. Jewellery featuring her work is now available at the MOA Shop. We interviewed her to gain insight into how her identity as a young Aboriginal woman influences her art, her process and inspirations.

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Arkeria Rose Armstrong’s dot-filled paintings are a sensory treat: a patchwork terrain of orange represents the mountains of Australia’s Kimberley region, while turquoise rings evoke rivers. In another piece, vivid turquoise forms represent the ocean, punctuated by tendrils of white sea foam. Across her evocative work, Armstrong references both the natural landscapes of Australia, as well as deeply personal cultural knowledge.

Armstrong, 30, was born in the town of Ceduna, Australia and now lives in Bendigo, Australia. Gabirra, a recent solo exhibition of her work at the Aboriginal Art Gallery in Rotterdam, explores Armstrong’s identity as a Gamilaraay woman.

Arkeria Rose Armstrong. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“As an Aboriginal artist, my Aboriginality is not just what is painted on the canvas,” she asserts. Rather, she sees this identity as an ongoing exploration, describing herself as “a learner in my culture and a young artist developing.”

Intergenerational knowledge and stories are frequently represented in Armstrong’s paintings. “My grandmother was a sand painter and language teacher, and it is the stories that she passed down that I explore on canvas,” she shares, also stating that her grandmother has been a “major influence” in her artistic and personal development. She has also been inspired by past generations of Aboriginal women artists, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who have paved the way for young artists to follow.

Lately, Armstrong has further explored this idea of intergenerational female knowledge. While preparing for her exhibition in Rotterdam, she “dove into the ideas of womanhood, our stories and becoming a mother,” in her paintings, sharing that these themes are “important to the growth of my identity at this point.”

Armstrong’s values of storytelling and intention are shared by the independent Australian jewellery line Occulture. They have partnered with Armstrong to produce handmade, anodised aluminium jewellery featuring her paintings. Armstrong’s work infuses both vivid colour and meaning into the pieces, which include bracelets, pendants, and earrings.

Kimberley Spirits by Arkeria Rose Armstrong. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Arkeria Rose Armstrong Kimberley Sprit Dreaming earrings by Occulture. $95 at the MOA Shop. Photo courtesy of Occulture.

Occulture’s aim is to “celebrate the songline of culture, knowledge, artists, and community” through sharing the stories and work of Aboriginal artists. The independent, female-owned company is also committed to compensating artists fairly, and supporting community charities such as Red Dust Role Models (an Aboriginal mentorship program) and Aussie Desert Dogs (a dog rehabilitation program run by the Warlukurlangu Art Centre).

Lisa Engeman, founder of Occulture, sees the medium of jewellery as a contemporary context for sharing the stories in Aboriginal artwork. For her, the jewellery “acts as a modern message stick where [the artist’s] dreamtime stories are shared.” Each piece is a work of wearable art that becomes a “creative way of continuing the songline” of cultural knowledge.

Arkeria Rose Armstrong Water Dreaming cuff by Occulture. $175 at the MOA Shop. Photo courtesy of Occulture.

She says that Armstrong is a “dream to work with” thanks to her meticulous yet whimsical depictions of nature, and her contemporary twist on traditional styles. Whether on a wall-sized canvas or captured in a handmade pendant, Armstrong’s work embodies her dedication to learning, preserving, and innovating cultural connections.