Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht

Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
The other week, taking advantage of my museumkaart (a card good for a year that gets you into most Dutch museums for free), I finally visited the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht. Located right on the Oudegracht, just a short distance from the Domplein, this museum is unique not just for Utrecht and the Netherlands but for all of Europe. You see, it’s the only museum in Europe dedicated to contemporary aboriginal art from Australia.

The museum is spread out on three floors, but each floor is relatively small so it’s not overwhelming at all. The lower floors feature the special exhibits, which change two or three times a year, while the top floor contains some of the permanent pieces (although I believe they do change a bit, as well).
Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
The current exhibit is called Country to Coast: The Colours of Kimberly, focusing on the variety of colours and styles of aboriginal artists from this remote north-western region of Australia. Most of the works on display are canvases, but there’s a special section dedicated to paintings done on bark of the Wandjina. The Wandjina are the ancestral beings who created the country and are responsible for various lagoons, rivers and other water sources.

Despite a degree in art history, I admit that I know next to nothing about aboriginal art of any period. I was able to pick up on some information by reading some of the placards throughout the museum, but mainly I focused on the visual forms of each painting. After all, art is art. There’s no one way to view it. Even within art history, there are multiple approaches, including focusing more on form than content/context. And truly, many of the paintings were visually stunning and evocative in their own right. There are a few in particular that have stuck with me. There’s a fantastic use of colour throughout, but also a number of graphic elements that were equally fascinating. Oddly enough, some even reminded me of the works of Keith Haring, for what it’s worth.
Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
If you enjoy art in general, I do think a trip to the museum is worth it. The signs throughout the museum are all in Dutch, which may make it a bit less accessible for foreign visitors, but on a purely visual level, it’s still interesting and a nice way to spend an hour or so. The museum’s website does have information in English, though, so it’s possible to get some basic background on the works on display to round out the visit if language is an issue.

It may seem unusual to have a contemporary aboriginal art museum in Utrecht, but it developed from a group of aboriginal art enthusiasts. They created an association in 1999, paving the way for the opening of the museum in 2001. Interestingly, the chairman of the board of trustees is Hans Sondaal, a former Dutch ambassador to Australia. It is still a private foundation, with money coming from donors, rather than government funding. There seems to be a fair amount of support, though, and the gift shop, which features a number of beautiful pieces, probably helps add a few more funds to the coffers.

ETA: I’ve heard from the museum and they have English texts of the current exhibit now available. So there’s no excuse not to go!

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16 thoughts on “Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this up! I’ve been to the jewelry shop ‘t Oortje next door several times over the years, and I’ve always wondered about the museum. It sounds really cool!

  2. Really good film clip -music worked well with it too!
    I was doing some work on Aust Aboririginal art and came up on cases where the originators claim the pieces are part of a whole performance with dance, music, singing, tales, and should not be separated. Another group refused to allow any of their work to be used anywhere because it was still current and sacred to them. All good points, and I was surprised to feel glad they were reclaiming their heritage. It’s about value, and integrity. Irreplaceable things.

    • That all does make sense, as the connection to the land/ancestors does seem to figure heavily in the works. I wonder if the contemporary artists (many of the paintings dated to the 1990s) feel freer in having at least individual pieces collected/moved?

  3. That’s wonderful! I lived in Australia from 1965-1970 and looking back, all I and most people knew about Aboriginal art was the rock and back paintings, approached more from an anthropological perspective, it seems. But what I’ve seen since then, online and on postcards from my aunt, Aboriginal art has come into its own.

    • As you said, it’s easy to look at the earlier aboriginal art from more of an anthropological approach, so it’s great to see more of their art being appreciated and recognized on a pure art level. It’s certainly a move in the right direction.

  4. I’ve never been either. I do love Aboriginal Art, and having lived in and around it for years in central Australia, I can pick where a lot of the art originates (the styles are very regional). But my experience is limited to central Australia and I know nothing at all about WA or the Kimberley art.

    I have a beautiful piece myself that unbelievably I traded $20 fuel for ten years ago. It’s worthless though, as the piece has never been signed, and it has no story to accompany it, but I love it nonetheless. It’s truly stunning.

    • You should definitely visit the museum. I’m sure you’d get even more out of it than most.The Kimberly exhibit is the current special exhibit, but upstairs is the permanent collection with stuff from other regions.

      As for the piece you traded for, it may not have official provenance, but at least it found someone to love and appreciate it! That’s what really counts!

  5. This has been on my “to-do” list with the museumkaart. Mine expires next month, but I feel like I’m going to renew because there are so many places I haven’t gotten to see yet. And with such a unique story as the Aboriginal Art Museum, I don’t want to miss it.

    • Considering that most museums change their exhibits regularly, I do think the museumkaart is the kind of thing worth having all the time. It’s a good incentive to keep exploring and see things you might not go to otherwise.

  6. Just stumbled across your blog and am already taking mental notes. I will be moving from Den Haag to Utrecht in the coming few months and know next to nothing about the city. Impressed that they have an aboriginal arts museum! This from the same country who produce maple syrup with sterotypical ‘Indian chiefs’ in feather headresses on the cover!!

    • Let me know if you have any questions about Utrecht. It really is a great city, although I haven’t seen much maple syrup here, except for the crazy expensive imported stuff.

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