When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia’s Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art.
On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings.
“I couldn’t believe how little was known about them; we didn’t even know how old they were,” Damien said.
“It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn’t studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture,” he told BBC News.
Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right.
He’s approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in this week’s Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberly’s so-called Gwion figures.
These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs.
It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is nearer in time – at about 12,000 years ago.
Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis.
Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings.
And for this, he’s working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. There’s a wide group of these.
Some will enclose their prey – such as a paralysed spider or caterpillar – inside an earthen box. Before sealing the lid, the wasps lay an egg on the unfortunate victim. The developing larva then consumes the immobile spider or caterpillar, eventually digging its way out of the nest as an adult to carry on the cycle.
From Damien’s point of view, when the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley’s fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated.
He’s examined the remains or more than 20 ancient nests at various rock art sites.
Material that smothers pigment gives a minimum age; underlying material provides a maximum age.
A distribution of dates from many locations enables an estimate to be made for when the Gwion style was in vogue.
“All this is important because we can now begin to match the rock art with other types of information we are getting in the Kimberley, such as the stone tools that are uncovered by archaeologists and what we understand was happening with the climate and sea-levels. Things like that.”
The paintings he and his team have been working on are, of course, sites of immense cultural significance.
All the sampling was guided and approved by representatives from the traditional owners of the artwork.
“We couldn’t have done what we did without their active support and encouragement,” Damien told BBC News.
He’s hopeful the mud-wasp dating technique can now be used at more locations right across the north of Australia, and perhaps at other rock art locations in the Americas and Europe.
Gavin Broad is the principal curator in charge of insects at London’s Natural History Museum. He described the Australian research as “very smart”.
“There was a paper about this some years ago, but the techniques seem to have improved since then,” he told BBC News.
“In this study, the nests are made by Sceliphron, which are wasps of the family Sphecidae, superfamily Apoidea.
“These are well-known mud-daubers in much of the warmer parts of the world.
“However, the real diversity of potter wasps is in the Eumeninae, a subfamily of Vespidae (superfamily Vespoidea). Their nests range from holes in mud to simple cells (like Sceliphron) to ornate little pots.
“There are also some spider-hunting wasps (family Pompilidae), which represent at least a third evolution of making clay nests.”
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'It's sharing my family story': How this Kitchener, Ont., exhibit goes beyond showcasing Indigenous art – CBC.ca
Indigenous artists from across Ontario are taking part in a unique art show in Waterloo region this month.
The Neebing Art Fair is a first for the region and opened to the public on Saturday. In some Indigenous languages, the word “neebing” translates to “by the river.”
Indigenous peoples share a deep connection with water, said Autumn Smith, an Ojibway-Odawa artist from Magnetawan First Nation near Sudbury.
“Water is life in our culture,” she told CBC News. Smith’s work is part of the exhibition at Bingemans in Kitchener that runs until August 21.
Smith said she’s wanted to be an artist since she was six years old, and though she was met with resistance, she said this art show is a testament that you can succeed.
“It’s really important for me to do this show because we’re showing people that we are working artists, that this is what we do and that you can be a successful Indigenous artist,” she said.
The exhibition also features work from artists Tom Sinclair, Blake Angeconeb, Chief Ladybird and Kitchener’s Luke Swinson and Alanah Jewell Morningstar.
‘It’s sharing my family story’
Smith and Sinclair, who is Ojibway from Couchiching First Nation originally from Thunrder Bay, collaborated on a piece together for the art show. They created a painting that tells the story of the first two grandmothers of Ojibway, Anishnaabe people.
“They were the first two people to arrive in Turtle Island,” Sinclair explained.
“They were looking for people, but they couldn’t find anyone. One woman took a bear for a husband and the other stayed alone and this is the story of that.”
Sinclair and Smith say the exhibit goes far beyond showcasing Indigenous artwork. It’s also about sharing Indigenous culture and teachings.
“I grew up my whole life thinking everyone knew what this stuff meant and knew how to make pictograph paint and knew how to interpret the symbols and that everyone knew those stories and as I started painting, I realized nobody did,” he said.
“Being able to share those things, it means so much more than anything that could come from this. It’s sharing my culture. It’s sharing my family story.”
Incorporating augmented reality
A big part of the exhibit involves connecting art with augmented reality to help people understand the meaning behind the paintings.
“It’s a new thing. We’ve never done this before and it’s going to be a new way for people to experience our art work and the way that it moves,” Smith said.
Using video, photos and audio, artists are able to tell the stories of images they depict in their work, she said.
“We’re all on social media and we post pictures of our paintings online all the time, but we don’t always get to explain what these things mean, the cultural significance of things,” Smith said.
The augmented reality component means they can work with anyone online, Sinclair adds.
“People who won’t be able to come to experience it in person, will be able to experience it online digitally,” he said.
Rescuing Art in Ukraine with Foam, Crates and Cries for Help – The New York Times
Many cultural institutions were not prepared to protect their collections and buildings before the Russian invasion, so ad hoc groups of arts workers and leaders stepped in to fill the breach.
LVIV, Ukraine — A month after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, the photographer Roman Metelskiy stood on the platform of this western city’s domed Art Nouveau railway station, watching trains full of women and children evacuating from the east. But he was waiting for a carriage from the other direction. This one, from the west, was full of Bubble Wrap.
Few Ukrainian cultural institutions had prepared for a full-scale invasion. Museums, churches, castles and libraries had neither materials nor guidance on how to preserve the country’s valuable art.
“We had to start from scratch,” Mr. Metelskiy said. “We were asking for packaging materials. For financial support. For advice on how to preserve and package things.”
So with the government on war footing, he and other arts professionals formed an ad hoc preservation committee, the Center to Rescue Cultural Heritage, over coffee in early March. (In this Hapsburg city, Mr. Metelskiy explained, “everything happens over coffee.”)
“We were pretty astonished,” Mr. Metelskiy said. “We thought that instructions already existed.”
Ivan Shchurko, a member of Lviv’s regional parliament who was at the coffee meeting that first day, remembered feeling scared and disoriented as they hunted for help. “We were looking for people with the same interests, the same values,” he said.
They contacted a dozen Polish museums and palaces, and on March 27, a train arrived from Warsaw laden with cardboard boxes and bags of Styrofoam beads. Another emergency shipment arrived on April 4, with wrapping materials and protective gloves from Norway and Denmark. Other supplies arrived from libraries in Germany, Latvia and Estonia, and museums in Britain and Slovenia.
Teams in Lviv stuffed the packing materials into vans or the back of their cars, ferrying the supplies cross-country to vulnerable institutions in Chernihiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia. By June, Mr. Shchurko and Mr. Metelskiy were presiding over mountains of foam core boards and reams of plastic film that filled the lobby of a university library: humanitarian aid of a more cultural kind.
“In times of war, there are two irreversible losses: people and our culture,” Mr. Metelskiy said. “The rest can be rebuilt.”
As the Ukrainian Army steps up its counteroffensive in the east this summer, heritage specialists in the west are engaged in a related battle: to preserve Ukraine’s monuments, museums, historical collections and religious sites. The Russian invasion is a culture war to its core, and heritage sites have been damaged both from errant shelling and targeted destruction. Ukraine has accused Russian-led forces of looting in the occupied cities of Mariupol and Melitopol. Regional museums outside the capital, Kyiv, and the northeastern city of Kharkiv have burned to their foundations.
But where Ukraine’s soldiers have relied on a central chain of command, its civilian army of scholars, curators, archivists and architects say they have had precious little guidance.
Officials in Kyiv and in regional administrations have certainly taken steps to keep the country’s heritage intact. The national culture ministry has hosted workshops, won commitments from international partners, and kept a public database of damaged and destroyed monuments for future legal claims.
“Before the full-scale war, we were not ready for such a barbaric action, although the ministry was doing our best to protect our cultural sites,” said Kateryna Chuyeva, a deputy minister of culture, during a March briefing on the destruction of Ukraine’s churches and historical archives. “But what we are witnessing now in western Ukraine is people are very much engaged in defending and protecting cultural sites.”
The ministry has been sparing with details on how many collections it has had a hand in evacuating, citing wartime exigencies. Yet interviews with museum directors and other heritage leaders in Lviv and Kyiv had a common refrain: If you wanted practical necessities, you had to find them yourself.
“Our officials who cut us off, and leave the cultural sphere with minimum resources, make us work even more,” Mr. Metelskiy said.
So by coordinating via WhatsApp groups and WeTransfer files, and raising funds on crowdfunding platforms they have made significant strides at preserving endangered icons and artworks — and they have done it mostly by themselves.
“It’s very hard, but it’s a very big chance to help my colleagues,” said Olha Honchar, the 29-year-old director of the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum, which documents the city’s Nazi and Soviet past. “From the first day of the war, we understood that the Lviv region would start to be a shelter, and Lviv museums would be mediators from donor countries.”
In early March, Ms. Honchar set up a nonprofit that has funneled financial support to more than 750 museum workers in eastern and southern Ukraine. The payments, mostly under $100 and delivered via smartphone app, have helped to keep employees of arts institutions above water as their salaries go unpaid.
While Ukrainian refugees were welcomed by European cultural institutions, those who stayed behind needed immediate humanitarian aid that those arts institutions were ill prepared to deliver. Foreign donors were reaching out — but they wanted spending controls that people caught up in war couldn’t provide.
“We need packing materials,” Ms. Honchar said. “But we also have to help people who work with these packing materials. We must support the human potential of culture in Ukraine.”
Lviv, which passed from Austrian to Polish to Soviet control in the 20th century, has had its heritage endangered before. The Nazis looted the city’s art collections during World War II; a Dürer drawing now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington was held in a Lviv library until 1941. After World War II, Soviet authorities suppressed not only abstract art, but also art with Ukrainian nationalist themes, and religious art — including the Baroque statues by Johann Georg Pinsel, the most important artist of the city’s Hapsburg era.
Now Pinsel’s screw-twist saints on the facade of Lviv’s St. George’s Cathedral are shrouded in gray plastic bags, wrapped with cordage and duct tape. Asked about those who threatened the cathedral’s artworks, Roman Kravchyk, the archpriest, fingered the jeweled crucifix around his neck and muttered, “May God have mercy on their souls.”
Ms. Honchar and her Lviv colleagues have helped evacuate collections from a few smaller, regional museums to the relative safety of Ukraine’s west. A few institutions in Kharkiv and Chernihiv also managed to move parts of their collections here. At least one museum in Odesa had the foresight to organize a major touring exhibition in January, to get its holdings out of harm’s way.
The Lviv National Art Gallery, the country’s largest art museum, with more than a dozen branches in the city and the surrounding region, made only perfunctory preparations before the invasion. Few initially thought the war would reach so far west, but one missile landed about 200 meters from one of the institution’s castles, with a fragile collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics on its premises.
Vasyl Mytsko, a senior official at the museum, couched the evacuations in a dark optimism born from Ukraine’s tumultuous history. “In the Ukrainian language,” he said during an air alert, “we have a saying: We didn’t have happiness, so unhappiness helped us.”
The museum’s holdings are safe for now. The prizes of the painting collection have been moved to several undisclosed locations. But many of Pinsel’s gilded statues remain on site, shrouded in simple black tarps.
Transporting art is a hazardous enterprise, and not only because in a war zone it might be more dangerous to move a collection than to let it stay put. Such evacuations require official approval, which was nearly impossible to obtain once the invasion began. Several museums in Kherson, now under assault as Ukraine tries to retake the city from Russian occupation, were ready to relocate their collections to safer grounds but could not get the necessary signatures.
“They were abandoned, I would say,” said Mr. Metelskiy, when asked about the dilemmas facing museum directors. “There weren’t any orders, any directions of what to do. And they couldn’t make a decision by themselves, because if they did, and something went wrong, they would have criminal responsibility. And now these places are either occupied or destroyed.”
In the absence of central planning, Ukraine’s cultural figures relied on horizontal connections. In Lviv, that meant leveraging contacts with institutions right across the border, in Poland.
Liliya Onyshchenko, head of the Lviv City Council’s Department of Historical Environment Protection, reached out to Polish colleagues, seeking hundreds of water-misting fire extinguishers, essential protection for the countless wooden churches of the Lviv region. Flame-retardant blankets were another critical ask; monuments across the city are now wrapped in protective materials sent from Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and other Polish cities. (Some valuable monuments are also surrounded by cages or scaffolding so that, if a blast wave shatters them, the pieces will remain together.)
“It can’t be comprehended that such a thing is possible in the 21st century, especially when the library was burned down in Mariupol,” Ms. Onyshchenko said. She has spent her whole life in cultural preservation and takes it all very personally. “You give birth and raise a son,” she said, “and then some barbarian comes, who just in one day takes your child away.
“That’s the same with cultural heritage. You are working on it, restoring it, doing it in great detail, with love. And then one missile and it’s gone.”
Others in Lviv have looked to the United States, and to the Ukrainian diaspora. The Center to Rescue Cultural Heritage partnered with a nonprofit in Washington, the Foundation to Preserve Ukraine’s Sacral Arts, which provided some of the initial funding to transport boxes and foam.
Two Ukrainian-speaking conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — one Ukrainian, one Polish — recorded videos on how to wrap a painting properly (with cotton tape between the face and the plastic) and how to carry them safely (with your hands on the sides of the frame, never the top).
One commitment of Lviv’s on-the-fly preservationists is that no one should be caught as flat-footed as they were. ”We also understand that our experience in the field of heritage preservation will be invaluable for the world community,” said Mr. Shchurko, standing in front of his organization’s amassed cardboard boxes.
“The war crystallized it all, it made everything brighter,” Mr. Shchurko went on. “We have always understood and said that our heritage is valuable. But the feeling of how important and valuable it is to us: This feeling comes only with losses.”
Oleh Chuprynski contributed reporting from Lviv.
Flex your creative muscles at ‘Art in the Garden’ – Lacombe Express
There are only a few weeks left for Lacombians to flex their creative muscles via the popular ‘Art in the Garden’ program.
Having kicked off in June, sessions run each Saturday at the Michener House Museum from 1 to 4 p.m. It is held on a drop-in basis, and donations are appreciated.
“Art in the Garden is an all-ages art program,” explained Sydney Malyon, program facilitator. “We do a different program every single week.”
There has been plenty of variety since the start, with projects ranging from the creation of paper flowers, cyanotype print and watercolour bookmarks to rock painting and make-your-own watercolours.
“We try to hit a lot of interests and a lot of different age groups as well,” she said. “It’s definitely been a positive experience all-around.”
Coming up on Aug. 13, the session will focus on clay impressions and on Aug. 20 folks will be able to create a garden collage.
On Aug. 27, there will be a ‘Hammer-In’ at the Blacksmith Shop Museum, along with the Harvest Dinner fundraising event.
“There’s a really nice sense of community with a bunch of people coming from all different aspects of life and working on the same craft,” she explained. “You are all using the same materials, but everyone is going to come up with something different.
“I think that is a really, really cool thing to see.”
It’s also been a terrific experience for Malyon, who is a visual arts student at Red Deer Polytechnic.
“They’ve given me quite a bit of freedom to be able to do what I think will be appropriate for everyone,” she said, adding that typically between 10 to 15 people drop in during the afternoon sessions.
“We want people to get in touch with their artistic side in a very comfortable environment, with no pressure,” she said. “We want them to explore the different mediums as well.
“A lot of people have been really excited about it, and they just love to also be able to sit outside in a no-pressure environment and come and go as they please,” she said.
“It’s really cool for me to see people use (new skills) in their own art practices, and have more exploration at home. I think it’s just great to be able to stimulate that creative side of things. And it doesn’t have to be complicated at all – it can be easy and fun!
“It’s also really fun to see what comes out of collaboration.”
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