CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Dreaming mimis: Spirited Aboriginal art

Do you know what a mimi is? For Australian Aborigines, a mimi is a shy yet benevolent ancestral spirit, so tall and spindly that a strong wind could easily snap its neck. For this reason, mimis hunt only when the air is still, and, if disturbed, they slip into the tiniest of rock crevices to hide. Charming, right? Here's the thing what seems charming to you and me is utterly real and meaningful to Aborigines.

Whenever I view an exhibition such as "Ancestral Spirits in Aboriginal Art," currently on display at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, I hesitate to write about it because I know my understanding is so hopelessly stunted. Within Aboriginal cosmology, known as the Dreaming, linear time has no meaning. The past, present, and future happen all at once, and spiritual ancestors who existed long ago also move and shake the world now.

The paintings and carvings in the show convey stories about these ancestral beings and include not only mimis but also mermaid-like yawk yawks and malevolent devil-devils, among others. Some images use a commonly understood language of abstract symbolism. Others offer recognizable, if highly stylized, figures. Many of the artists paint with natural ochres in traditional patterns on bark. A few, though, opt for acrylics and a style influenced by Western modern art.

Djawida Nadjongorle's two traditional figural paintings, hanging in the Kluge-Ruhe library, are particularly compelling. In "Brolga Dreaming," two large birds with long, curving necks interact with a pair of attenuated mimis, creating a circular motion around a central palm tree. The figures are flat, crosshatched with mustard, red, white, and black, and set against a watercolor-like background that radiates from a golden center to raisin-colored outer areas.

In contrast, Silas Hobson's two acrylic canvases offer a contemporary interpretation of the ancestors. His "Ilwayi," relating a story involving mimis and crocodiles, uses thick, glossy black paint to depict the figures. Dimensional dots arranged in sinuous lines form the bodies of the reptiles, while drip-like black strokes represent five wraithlike mimis, three standing and two sitting. The background expresses a radial movement similar to Nadjongorle's "Brolga Dreaming," but here blue, yellow, and white paint swirl in the center before becoming diffused by large brushstrokes at the edges.

Although you and I may not be able to access what Aborigines experience when viewing these images, we can still appreciate the power of the compositions.

"Ancestral Spirits in Aboriginal Art" is on view at the Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection through April 29. 400 Worrell Drive (Pantops). 244-0234.