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]

Outback Australia: Kakadu Culture Camp

Yesterday I told you about the wonders of Kakadu National Park. What made my experience there all the more organic was the unique place that I called home for three days. I’m not much of a hotel person and I certainly wouldn’t want to stay at a resort while trying to appreciate a national park (even if one is shaped like a crocodile). Ideally, I would camp in my own tent and cook my meals on an open fire. But short of that, a cabin and personal time with people know that land better than anyone else may be the next best (or even better) option. And that’s exactly what I found at Kakadu Culture Camp.

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By no means is Kakadu Culture Camp a Colonial Williamsburg of Aboriginal culture. Rather, it is the only accommodation in Kakadu that is owned and operated by indigenous people whose have called the region home for countless generations. The Hunter family runs Kakadu Culture Camp to provide not only accommodations for visitors, but a learning experience for anyone who visits the park. Jenny, Fred, Dell and Douglas were all born and raised in what is now Kakadu National Park. Jenny and Fred work as park rangers while also operating the camp. In other words, my hosts had a wealth of knowledge about the region, the land, its history and the local cultures.

I was greeted at Kakadu Culture Camp by Andy Ralph, who is noticeably white. He’s married to Jenny and helps operate the camp and leads various talks and tours as well. He would prove to be a valuable source of guidance on what to see and do while at Kakadu National Park and also hosted a fascinating talk on water buffalo and the history of hunting in the park.

I was housed in a safari tent, which was nestled in the woods and provided both privacy and comfort. All of the structures in Kakadu Culture Camp save the restroom facilities are temporary, as the area is under several feet of water come wet season. I had a full-sized bed, screened windows to allow for airflow and was situated a fair distance from the campsites that can also be reserved on the property. While the accommodations were basic, they were perfect for a national park visit, as I spent most of my time exploring hiking trails and rock art rather than relaxing in bed. And in the evenings, the pitch black surroundings and near total silence allowed me to sleep off the day’s activities.

Kakadu Culture Camp offers a variety of tours and demonstrations to educate the public on indigenous culture. One does not need to be staying at the camp to attend these tours, so they also provided me with an opportunity to meet other travelers and share tips on what to see and do. I attended a discussion on bush tucker, a demonstration of didgeridoo playing (Douglas is fantastic while I am horrendous) and a tutorial on spear throwing. I also went on their moonlight boat tour in search of local fauna. While everyone searched vigilantly for a crocodile, I relished the opportunity to see the activity of nocturnal birds and the many fruit bats that call the area home.

Because Kakadu Culture Camp is owned and operated by native people, the entire experience was more respectful and authentic than other tours I have attended that have been hosted by people who do not directly represent the culture that is being discussed. The Hunters are quite proud of their heritage and share that passion with their guests.

Breakfast and dinner are provided, and Andy typically grills up a wonderful meal of local meat and vegetables. Dinner also provides a peaceful opportunity to ask the Hunters questions about the area and how life has changed since the land became a national park.

Kakadu Culture Camp is a wonderful blend of rustic accomodations and experiential travel. You could easily stay there, keep to yourself and explore the park all day, but you’d be missing out on the wonderfully organic cultural experience that exists there. The Hunters made Kakadu Culture Camp one of the more unique experiences I had in the Northern Territory. Just be sure you ask Andy to make your water buffalo patty medium rare. Those things can get a bit chewy.

For more information on Kakadu Culture Camp, visit their website.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.