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Desert art tells story of identity and survival

20 DECEMBER 2004

Desert art as a powerful source of indigenous identity is explored in the National Museum of Australia's new exhibition which opens this Sunday, Extremes: Survival in the Great Deserts of the Southern Hemisphere.

National Museum curator and archaeologist Dr Mike Smith said art was a way of retaining cultural connection - and now making a living - in the deserts of southern Africa and Australia.

The exhibition looks at the earliest desert people and the neighbours, traders, explorers, conquerors and tourists who followed. Today, from Alice Springs to the Atacama, art is now a key means of survival in these harsh environments.

"Pintupi men and women, who walked out of the Australian desert only a generation before now command an international market for their iconic Western Desert paintings," Dr Smith said. "In Africa, the distinctive San and Khwe art and the fine baskets of the Etsha weavers tell a similar desert story."

MEDIA ARE INVITED TO ATTEND A PREVIEW OF THE EXTREMES EXHIBITION WITH DR MIKE SMITH AT 11AM TOMORROW, TUESDAY, 21 DECEMBER.

Extremes is an archaeological adventure through Australia, South America and Africa, tracing ancient rock art and desert lives shaped by dramatic environmental and social change.

The exhibition contrasts traditional perceptions of spirits, flora and fauna, landscapes and early inhabitants with their modern equivalents.

Visitors are invited to feel the lines of ancient rock art on specially moulded panels and admire works by early Papunya Tula artists Tim Payungka Tjapangati and Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, who pioneered a renaissance in Australian desert art and Pintupi pride.

Dr Smith said Australian desert artists paved the way for other desert dwellers along the Tropic of Capricorn. Kalahari artists who visited the Red Centre in the 1990s were inspired to develop a contemporary art trust in their own African desert.

Extremes, which opens on 26 December, tells other rich desert stories of survival through 350 objects including 250,000-year-old hand axes from the Kalahari Desert, an EJ Holden from the Bush Mechanics, a South American raft made of sea lion skins and Dr Livingstone's compass.

Extremes is on show at the National Museum of Australia from 26 December 2004 to 22 August 2005. Entry: $8 adults, $6 concession, $5 children, $16 families.

For interviews with Mike Smith and striking images please contact public affairs director Martin Portus on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or m.portus@nma.gov.au