If you’ve ever ridden a New York City subway, you might well have gone through one of those three-pronged turnstiles like the one pictured below. The original cabinets—intended for quick, easy passage—were designed in 1930 by industrial and interior designer John Vassos.

The turnstile has been such a fixture of New York life that it comes to mind as one considers the many links of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) to the Big Apple. Our Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the nation’s only design museum, is there. It celebrates good design, like Vassos’ turnstile cabinet. Also in New York is the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian magazine’s business office is there, too, where the Smithsonian Enterprises media team helps us embrace new energy and purpose. And the Archives of American Art has a New York center. The Archives has digitized nearly 1.6 million documents from artists, architects, photographers and others, including Vassos’ papers and those of Florence Knoll Bassett, who helped give the Knoll furnishings’ look of uncluttered simplicity its international renown in the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s.

Our roots in New York are deep. Five of the 12 Smithsonian Secretaries have come from New York State. New Yorkers, such as Joseph Hirshhorn (Hirshhorn Museum) and Arthur Sackler (Sackler Gallery), have donated priceless collections. Prominent New Yorkers serve on Smithsonian boards and have supported splendid renovations of Cooper-Hewitt’s Carnegie Mansion and the Heye Center’s Customs House, where through July 2011 visitors can see “ A Song for the Horse Nation ,” an exhibit on the role of horses in Native American cultures. (See cooperhewitrg and nmai.sidu for information.)

At Cooper-Hewitt, two recent exhibits, “ Design for the Other 90% ” and “ Design for a Living World ,” addressed global issues of poverty and sustainability. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, for example, used a byproduct of Alaskan salmon-processing to create exquisite dresses decorated with sequin-like disks made of the fish’s skin. A current exhibit, “ Design USA ” (on view through April 4), commemorates the first ten years of the National Design Awards . Last July, first lady Michelle Obama hosted a White House awards ceremony to announce the tenth-anniversary winners, among them SHoP Architects’ sustainable technologies (Architecture Design); the New York Times graphics department’s maps and diagrams (Communication Design); Perceptive Pixel’s intuitive touch surfaces (Interaction Design); and HOOD Design’s reconstructed urban landscapes (Landscape Design). The Smithsonian is proud to be part of New York, arguably the world’s most diverse and culturally exciting city.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Contemporary Aboriginal Art

An art movement’s origins usually can’t be pinpointed, but boldly patterned Aboriginal acrylic painting first appeared at a specific time and place. In July 1971, an art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon distributed some brushes, paints and other materials to a group of Aboriginal men in the forlorn resettlement community of Papunya, 160 miles from the nearest town, Alice Springs. Bardon had moved near the remote Western Desert from cosmopolitan Sydney hoping to preserve an ancient aboriginal culture imperiled by the uprooting of Aboriginal people from their traditional territories in the 1950s and ‘60s. The men, who saw Bardon distributing the art supplies to schoolchildren, had a simpler aim: they were looking for something to do. Together they painted a mural on a whitewashed schoolhouse wall, and then they created individual works in a former military hangar that Bardon called the Great Painting Room. In 1972, with his assistance, 11 of the men formed a cooperative called Papunya Tula Artists. By 1974 the group had grown to 40.

Papunya Tula is now one of about 60 Aboriginal arts cooperatives, and Australian Aboriginal art generates nearly $200 million in annual revenues. It is not only the largest source of income for Aboriginal people but also, arguably, the most prestigious Australian contemporary art. Featuring bold geometric designs in earth tones, with characteristic circles, dots and wavy snakelike lines, Aboriginal acrylic painting appeals to Western collectors of both abstract and folk art. Prices have soared. A mural-size 1977 painting on canvas by the Papunya artist Clifford Possum established a record price for the genre when it sold in 2007 for $1.1 million.

Still, a special aura attaches to the first, small paintings, done on masonite boards usually less than 2 by 3 feet. Created before there was commercial interest, they benefit from the perception that they are more “authentic” than the stretched-canvas works that came later. It is hard to deny the energy and inventiveness of the early boards; artists used unfamiliar tools and materials to cover two-dimensional surfaces with designs they’d employed in ritualistic body painting or sand mosaics. They improvised, applying paint with a twig or the tip of a paintbrush’s wooden handle. “The early period—you’re never going to find anyplace where there’s so much experimentation,” says Fred Myers, a New York University anthropologist. “They had to figure everything out. There’s an energy that the early paintings have, because there’s so much excess to compress.”

The first exhibition in the United States to focus on these seminal works—49 paintings, most of them early Papunya boards—recently appeared at New York University, following showings at Cornell University and the University of California at Los Angeles. The paintings are owned by John Wilkerson, a New York City-based venture capitalist in the medical field, and his wife, Barbara, a former plant physiologist. The Wilkersons collect early American folk art and first became enamored of Aboriginal work when they visited Australia in 1994. “We both thought, ‘We don’t like this—we love it,’” Barbara recalls. “We just liked everything.” With the help of a Melbourne-based gallery owner, they soon concentrated on the earliest paintings.

The Wilkersons’ costliest board was the 1972 painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa , a dazzling patchwork of stippled, dotted and crosshatched shapes, bought in 2000 for some $220,000—more than twice the price it had been auctioned for only three years earlier. The painting was done by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, an original member of the Papunya cooperative and one of its most celebrated. Sadly, the artist himself had long been overlooked; in 1997, an Australian journalist found Warangkula, by then old and homeless, sleeping along with other Aboriginal people in a dry riverbed near Alice Springs. Though he reportedly received less than $150 for his best-known painting, the publicity surrounding the 1997 sale revived his career somewhat and he soon resumed painting. Warangkula died in a nursing home in 2001.

Though the Aboriginal art movement launched in Papunya is just four decades old, it’s possible to discern four periods. In the first, which lasted barely a year, sacred practices and ritual objects were often depicted in a representational style. That was dangerous: certain rituals, songs and religious objects are strictly off limits to women and uninitiated boys. In August 1972, an angry dispute broke out at an exhibition in the aboriginal community of Yuendumu over explicit renderings in Papunya paintings. Some community members were offended by the realistic depictions of a wooden paddle swung in the air to produce a whirring sound in initiation ceremonies that are hidden from women and children.

In response to the furor, artists began to avoid forbidden images or conceal them under dotting, stippling and cross-hatches. So began the next period. A forerunner of that style, painted around August 1972, is Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa , in which Warangkula’s elaborate veilings acquire a mesmerizing beauty that relates to the symbolic theme of raindrops bringing forth the vegetation stirring below the earth.

”I think the older men love playing with almost showing you,” Myers says. It’s not just a game. These paintings mirror traditional ritual practice; for example, in one initiation ceremony, adolescent boys whose bodies are painted in geometric or dotted patterns appear before women at night through a scrim of smoke, so the designs can be glimpsed but not seen clearly. “You have people who already have a tradition of working with concealment and revelation,” Myers says.

In the third period, the art found a commercial market with acclaimed, large-scale canvases in the 1980s. And the fourth period, roughly from the 1990s to the present, includes lower-quality commercial paintings—disparaged by some art dealers as “dots for dollars”—that slake the tourist demand for souvenirs. Some painters today lay down geometric, Aboriginal-style markings without any underlying secret to disguise. (There have even been cases of fake Aboriginal art produced by backpackers.)

Still, much fine work continues to be produced. “I’m very optimistic, because I think it’s amazing that it has lasted as long as it has,” Myers says. Roger Benjamin, a University of Sydney art historian who curated the exhibition, “Icons of the Desert,” says gloomy predictions of the late ‘80s have not been borne out: “Fewer and fewer of the original artists were painting, and people thought the movement was dying out. That didn’t happen.”

One striking change is that many Aboriginal painters today are women, who have their own stories and traditions to recount. “The women painting in Papunya Tula now tend to use stronger colors and—especially the older ladies—are less meticulous,” Benjamin says.

Though seemingly abstract, the multilayered paintings reflect the Aboriginal experience of reading the veiled secrets of the hostile desert—divining underground water and predicting where plants will reappear in the spring. According to Aboriginal mythology, the desert has been marked by the movements of legendary ancestors—the wanderings known as Dreamings—and an initiate can recall the ancestral stories by studying and decoding the terrain. “In the bush, when you see somebody making a painting, they often break into song,” Benjamin says. They’re singing the Dreaming stories in their paintings.

The Wilkersons’ original plan to exhibit paintings in Australian museums fell through after curators feared that Aboriginal women or boys might be exposed to sacred imagery. Aboriginal community members also decreed that nine reproductions could not be included in the exhibition catalog. (The American edition contains a supplement with the banned images. Smithsonian was not granted the right to publish any of them.)

While Western art collectors may value the works according to how well they were executed, Aboriginal people tend to rank them by the importance of the Dreaming in them. “White people can’t understand our painting, they just see a ‘pretty picture,’ “ the Papunya artist Michael Tjakamarra Nelson once remarked.

Some of the imagery in the exhibition is comprehensible to informed outsiders, while some is ambiguous or completely opaque. For many Western spectators, the secret religious content of the paintings—including, in the early boards, images said to be fatal to uninitiated Aboriginal people—only adds to their appeal. Like much geometrically ordered art, Aboriginal painting is beautiful. Tantalizingly, it also exudes mystery and danger.

New York City-based freelance journalist Arthur Lubow last wrote for Smithsonian about China’s terra cotta soldiers.

Recording the Ju/’hoansi for Posterity

The African giraffe stumbles to a halt, bewildered by the poisoned spears studding its breast and flanks. Moments later, it falls stiffly backward. The giraffe's slender legs point skyward, then swing sideways as it collapses in the desert dust.

The scene flashes to a Ju/'hoansi hunter, tearing into a joint of glistening red meat with his knife.

"Sorry, I should have warned you about that part—a little sad, isn't it?" says film archivist Karma Foley, 34, as she presses a button to pause the flickering images on the video monitor at the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA). Established in 1981, the archives are dedicated to collecting and preserving anthropological films—including John Marshall's footage of the Ju/'hoansi ( zhun-twa-see ) people, whom he considered a second family.

Marshall, who died at age 72 in 2005, meticulously documented, on film and video, the lives of the hunter-gatherers in northeast Namibia between 1950 and 2000. He donated more than 700 hours of his footage to the HSFA. Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) added the Marshall archive to its Memory of the World Register—joining Anne Frank's diary, the Magna Carta and other watershed items. The Marshall archive, according to Unesco, is "one of the seminal visual anthropology projects of the 20th century."

Foley knew Marshall at the end of his career and helped him edit and produce a six-hour retrospective series, A Kalahari Family , released in 2002. "He could be difficult to work with because he demanded perfection, but it was easy to deal with that because you knew his heart was in the right place," she says.

Marshall was born into a wealthy New England family. His father, Laurence, was the founding president of the radar defense company Raytheon, and when he retired, he wanted to do something useful. So when anthropologists at Harvard's Peabody Museum told him that no one knew if the tribal people of Africa's Kalahari Desert still engaged in hunter-gatherering, he decided to find out.

In 1950, Laurence and his 18-year-old son, John, made their first trip to the South African territory that is now Namibia. After questioning local people through interpreters, they deduced a likely spot to find the Ju/'hoansi—a tribe of about 1,200 people who roamed freely over hundreds of miles within a northern region of the Kalahari called Nyae Nyae. The Ju/'hoansi plucked anything edible from the earth, sucked water from roots and occasionally feasted on wild animals. It was not an easy life. "We were owners of thirst and owners of hunger," Toma Tsamkxao, a Ju/'hoansi man who befriended John, says in one of the films.

The Marshalls, along with John's mother, Lorna, and sister, Elizabeth, returned the following year to conduct a full ethnographic study. John, who had no filmmaking experience, learned quickly. His father "handed John a 16-mm film camera and said, ‘You need to record everything we see, otherwise no one will believe us,'" says Foley.

John Marshall returned to Nyae Nyae many times over the next decade, camera always in hand. In 1958, as his films began to gain international attention, Marshall was banned from the region by the South African government, which likely saw his support for indigenous peoples as a challenge to its apartheid regime, Foley says. By the time Marshall was able to return, 20 years later, Tsamkxao and the rest of his people were living on a reservation. Their traditional way of life, which had lasted for millennia, was over.

"Looking back, I'm struck by how naive we all were about the future," Marshall says in A Kalahari Family . "Neither Toma's family nor my family was prepared for the speed and magnitude of the change to come."

Designating Marshall's work as part of the Memory of the World project is fitting, Foley says. "At one time all people lived by hunting and gathering. It's a shared human experience going all the way back."

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