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).
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.
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!