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MOAH will return unique artwork to native Australia

Merdies Hayes | 10/4/2019, midnight

The Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH), 665 W. Lancaster Blvd., has announced the repatriation of four authentic, Australian bark art paintings created by Aboriginal artists Jimmy Djambalula (c. 1908 - 1980) and Yirawala (c. 1897 - 1976) to the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in Western Australia.

Repatriation is the process of returning cultural assets—in this case, artwork—to its owner or place of origin. Cultural property items or physical artifacts belonging to a group or society that are taken by another group are frequently obtained through contexts such as imperialism, colonialism, or war. Objects which are regularly contested for repatriation vary widely but can include sculptures, paintings, monuments, objects (such as stone tools for anthropological study), and even human remains.

In preparation for the American Alliance of Museums accreditation process, MOAH’s collections staff are conducting an inventory of objects inherited from previous institutions. MOAH records indicate that the paintings intended for repatriation were in the original donor’s possession during their travels in 1974 and were “gifted” to the city of Lancaster in 1999.

Handwritten letters providing information regarding the artists’ tribal power and influence, as well as the ceremonies associated with the donor’s acquisition of the works, indicate the paintings themselves are considered sacred.

Historically, Australian Aboriginal people and artifacts have been treated as popular commodities and objects of study within museums nationwide. As such, many of these sacred items were taken in years before international conventions (UNESCO) and legislation implemented protection acts (i.e., the Aboriginal Heritage Act) against looting and the illegal seizure of cultural art and artifacts.

Australia has no laws presiding over repatriation; however, the International Repatriation Program administered by the government’s Department of Communications and Arts supports the return, as it helps promote healing, reconciliation, and sense of restitution for Indigenous communities. Traditionally, bark paintings include abstract patterns and designs, such as cross-hatching in particular colors that identify a clan and tell stories relating to religion, creation, and the spirit world. Therefore, what appears as a series of lines and dots may be telling a complex, symbolic story.

The Berndt Museum, established in 1976, holds one of Australia’s most important collections of Aboriginal art and cultural materials, supported by photographs and sound recordings, along with art and artifacts which form an irreplaceable repository for historical research and cultural conservation. The Berndt Museum, in cooperation with The University of Western Australia, acknowledges an Indigenous commitment to the people who remain spiritual and cultural custodians of their land, and allows them to continue practicing and preserving their values, languages, beliefs, and knowledge.

In the spirit of good stewardship and respect for other cultures, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, the Lancaster City Council approved repatriation and donation of these authentic artworks back to their country of origin, where they will be cared for and made available to the public at the Berndt Museum.

MOAH has worked for years to strengthen awareness, enhance accessibility, and to ignite the appreciation of art, history, and culture in the Antelope Valley through dynamic exhibitions, innovative educational programs, creative community engagement, and a vibrant collection that celebrates the richness of the region.

MOAH is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursday. For more details, visit www.lancastermoah.org.