Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

Aboriginal artNo one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]