Friday, February 27, 2009

Alabaster Dreamtime

My Country - Nancy Ross Nungurrayi

My last evening in Australia was spent working an event at the Bundarra Gallery in Port Douglas. One of the most respected galleries in Australia, Bundarra Gallery showcases an extensive collection of contemporary and traditional Aboriginal Art and I was in absolute heaven.

Grandmother's Country - Gabriella Possum

I have always been drawn to the contemporary-esqe, but timeless, representation of abstract dots and swirls in Aboriginal Dreamtime art since that first of what would be many visits to the Australian continent in 1987. There is something in the aboriginal Australian’s artistic expression of creation and ancient storytelling that evokes within me an intensely primal yet profoundly spiritual feeling. When I stare into those intricately painted canvases it is as if I am instantly and emotionally connected to another time and place.

One of the gallery representatives explained that indigenous Australians do not necessarily relate to the concept that art is “something one decides to accomplish” or that one “works with the intention of creating art” or even that someone “becomes an artist” once the appropriate skill has been mastered. They believe that creativity and art are a natural and fundamental expression of the human experience and to separate it as a unique and learned expression is a disservice to the human purpose. Bingo!

And this is nothing new - this same concept has been an intricate part of numerous indigenous cosmologies and ancient cultures since the dawn of mankind. There have been many cultures that believe our primary purpose here is, indeed, to create – to give life to beauty. It’s a beautiful thought and I try to image a world where we all walked away from our busy-ness, put down our ipods or our guns and picked up a pen or brush or knife or song or dance or instrument and began to create without thought or purpose – what a world that would be.

Water Dreaming - Old Walter Tjampitjinpa


The indigenous Australians have a vast and unchanging relationship with the land. Its been said that when a traditional Aboriginal person here looks at the landscape, he or she always sees much more than just the physical features. I understand this concept completely and frequently in my travels feel the need to express that same idea as well.

Often behind the camera an image I am hoping to capture appears as nothing more than a snapshot - a nearly benign expression of the physical feature without any of the transcendent beauty the place evokes within me. Overtime, I’ve learned how to partner with my camera, my instrument of creativity, to better capture the emotion and spirit of a place through an exaggerated sense of motion and color – much like some of the Aboriginal Dreamtime art tends to do as well. What looks like blurry, out of focus images to many, is indeed, from my point of view, a purposeful representation of the poetry of place as I experienced it firsthand.

Case in point: On recent travels in western Oklahoma I made a visit to a popular natural attraction in that part of the state – Alabaster Caverns State Park. Located near Freedom, Oklahoma, the caverns are home to one of the largest natural gypsum caves in the world.

As if the caves themselves weren’t spectacular enough, they are also located at an extraordinary point on the great plains that also features the intersection of two major rivers, an enormous salt pan and a natural hot springs. Native Americans have been using this area for subsistence for thousands of years and archaeologists conclude that this region has been consistently used by humans for more than 14,000 years. In more modern times, various Plains tribes such as the Plains Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho traversed the area, seeking buffalo, deer, and other game and gathered plants and mined salt. Suffice to say, these caves were not really “discovered” in 1898 and have been an ancient gathering place for indigenous Americans for centuries.

Portrait of an Artist - Debby Kaspari at the Alabaster Caverns

Upon descending into the cave one does feel a sort of timeless, mystical, otherwordly vibe. But an ordinary photograph, as seen above, does very little to capture the sort of primal, ancient feeling that moves through these dark rooms. This image is nothing more than a perfunctory snapshot that succeeds in a physical description but fails in its ability to communicate the mood and vortex of energy that were very much a part of the cave experience that day. By the way, that's the Motmot descending those stairs.

This same image, though, as seen through a sort of "Dreamtime" collaboration between me and the camera does much more to capture the essence of the place, beyond its physical form. On a personal level, this image above is a much truer expression of my cave experience than the snapshot above it and to my mind goes a lot further in illustrating why this extraordinary spot in the world has been a highly revered place of pilgrimage for some 14,000 years now.

If you've been reading my blog awhile, you're probably now familiar with my occasional use of motion imagery. But it wasn't until 9500 miles away, standing in an Aboriginal art gallery listening to the explanation of the indigenous Australian's use of Dreamtime art to express the energy and emotion beyond the tangible, physicality of their homeland that I finally found the reasoning to explain why these motion shots have always moved me so and are an important part of expressing my travels and journeys.

So, I present to you my version of Alabaster Caverns State Park - in Dreamtime of course:

Alabaster Caverns in Dreamtime - TR Ryan



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