The ethnographic present – Aboriginal art today – the gift that keeps on giving
Yet most of the books are concerned to emphasise that remote Aboriginal art is contemporary art not ethnography. They speak of it as entering the world story of art, such as it is, as relevant to contemporary life and to be part of the story of human creativity as more than a culturally specific practice. Yet surely as long as we call it Aboriginal art we are defining it ethnically and foregrounding its connection to a particular culture, separating it from other art and seeing it as a gift, a ‘present’ from another ethnography, one that is privileged to assert links back to a ‘timeless’ past which it brings into the present time for the benefit of all.
Isn’t it rather the case that contemporary art has to change rather than that Aboriginal art should fit its Procrustean bed? Aboriginal art is a unique product of a culture with ancient roots. But is it contemporary art, and how and why does it matter whether it is or not?
Contemporary art can be seen as a genre embracing certain artists, certain galleries and certain markets. But it is also in many ways a loose category open to change and marks the end of isms in art. The house of art has many rooms. Is one of them called Aboriginal art or does Aboriginal art fit inside the room of contemporary art, stretching and altering it, making it new in a specific but hard to define way?
An ethnography is defined as the descriptive study of a socio-cultural system based on fieldwork; it is also a term that, like culture or anthropology, is often used outside a strict discipline-specific function thus it is possible to read about the culture of nursing, or to study the anthropology of the emotions and so on. Pacific contact historian Greg Dening who died in March 2008 wrote about the ethnography of his mind.
Aboriginal art is frequently said to have once been considered mere ethnography but to have now become contemporary art – a hierarchy jump something like what can happen to craft which sometimes makes a leap to the realm of art where a pot is no longer just a pot, where embroidery or weaving are seen as not just craft but as having strong conceptual dimensions. The measure of such leaps, apart from intellectual status and credibility, is the economic or financial value attached to them. Quite simply an art pot is worth a lot more than a craft pot, and contemporary art is worth more than ethnography. Maybe seeing all art as ethnographic makes more sense than cutting Aboriginal art adrift from its people and their culture. Perhaps seeing the present as something that doesn’t only belong to historically dominant cultures is what is important.
The concept of the ethnographic present began with Stanislaw Malinowski and his fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders, the Argonauts of the Western Pacific, from 1915 to 1918. Malinowski is said to be the first anthropologist to get ‘off the verandah’ and mingle with the objects of his study rather than sitting in an armchair in a study somewhere and extrapolating from other people’s notes on life among different peoples. Yet the world of the ‘Native’ still tended to be written about as if it was frozen in a pure ethnographic present which preceded contact with the West and was presumed to extend back in a timeless, i.e. unchanging and unhistorical, way. This approach placed Western and ‘Native’ worlds in opposition, the West with its written history and the Native with its oral history, implicit also was the idea of the evolutionary movement of all human culture in a predictable way from ‘prehistory’ to history.
Today we are still often told that Aboriginal culture is the world’s longest continuous culture and that its traditions have been going since time immemorial and thus it is ‘timeless’ which is to say unhistorical. Yet without history there can be no contemporaneity.
Can Aboriginal culture have its cake and eat it too? That is – be both very old and very contemporary. It seems so, and maybe there are important messages, of ecology, conservation, radicalism and conservatism, in the holding of this position, that the new is not necessarily the most valuable thing to be and indeed that the old can be seen to be new. Thus Judith Ryan writes of The Shock of the Ancient made New and John Mawurndjul can say ‘I always think of new things to paint…My work is changing. I have my own style.’, and ‘These designs are used all over Arnhem Land.’ without contradiction. Yet I suspect if the contemporaneity and relevance of Aboriginal art is tested in a vox pop open forum by simply asking people in the street if they see Aboriginal art as relevant to them that most will say no but that it belongs, as it were, to another country that lies within this one. And that too is a contemporary thought.
In the four hundred page Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists Vivien Johnson has quite literally created a primary history document, by preparing genealogies and potted biographies of every Aboriginal person who has ever painted anything, even one small canvas, at Papunya since 1972. She has deliberately not focused on individual art stars and told me that as far as she is concerned the book is primarily for the artists, their sense of their own history and self-esteem; she is dedicating all her royalties from the book to go to the artists.
The book’s title deliberately echoes Vasari’s famous Lives of the Artists written in the Renaissance, and considered to be the ideological foundation of all art historical writing; it includes artists such as Cimabue, Massacio, Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian. Johnson sees her subjects as equivalent to those great ancestors of Western art.
Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists is a great reference book and includes many fantastic paintings, some exceptional photographic portraits and some fascinating facts. Johnson’s research really began, both involuntarily and voluntarily, on her first trip to Papunya in 1980 and has been intensively fact-checked over the last three years by Johnson and IAD Press staff. To me it is particularly important to see the photographic images of people and, dreaming upon them, to be enabled to see past their complicated names and stories in order to empathise with them as human beings, full of complexity and warmth. Early photos of some of the artists taken by researchers like Jeremy Long as far back as the early sixties are also included thus making this history one that goes back a lot further than the beginning of the painting movement and shows the immense transitions undergone in these artists’ lifetimes from desert myall to world stage.
The almost equally massive Beyond Sacred: recent painting from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities : the collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty has only a few photographs of people in it but it has many astonishing photographs of country most taken by Peter Eve, photos that make it clear that the country has fed into the art produced therein through its visions of correspondences and echoes, rhythms and patterns, ripples in sand, spinifex spotting the ground, striped hills, tree shadows and so on. The Aboriginal attachment to land has a strong spiritual dimension which involves seeing the land as living; the art draws on and reflects this vitality. But do we really need another big coloured picture book on remote Aboriginal art?
Well, this is actually a particularly superb picture book and among the written components of the book are many informative and enthusiastic pieces by art centre co-ordinators who have worked for many years with the artists as well as longer essays by Howard Morphy, Will Stubbs and Nick Waterlow; and a significant essay by Judith Ryan on shifts and developments in remote Aboriginal art from precision to looseness, from tiny detail to minimalism.
The title Beyond Sacred is Colin Laverty’s own understanding of the art as being religious and therefore charged with a certain power that is evident to those to whom its religiosity is inappropriate thus its appeal is ‘beyond sacred’. Laverty’s first art collecting guiding star was Abstract Expressionism and a Tony Tuckson in the collection appears on a page by itself near the front of the book. What is rarely noted is that much remote Aboriginal art, while it is not copying Abstract Expressionism, shares many of its goals and intentions, that is to put creation myths on canvas, to make an elemental art concerned with big things. The Abstract Expressionists all tried in their different ways to discover, find and invent those primal moments. The big difference is that remote Aboriginal artists do not need to use their imaginations to locate creation myths to paint. That the art sometimes ends up looking like Abstract Expressionism seems like a vindication of the goals of artists like Pollock, Newman and Rothko. So in its contemporary manifestations Aboriginal art does demonstrate a certain coming together, a reconciliation, of cultures.
The Lavertys started collecting remote Aboriginal art in 1988 but it is only one part of their collection. In the photos of their house bits and piece of their entire collection are visible and I can’t help thinking that mixing the two together in a book and letting readers see more of the juxtapositions that eventuate may have been a good idea. In other words aren’t the Lavertys segregating their remote Aboriginal art collection as ethnographic by confining it to a book based on geography? Beyond Sacred is clearly aimed at a foreign market in containing a map and brief description of the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ at the end. However it has no index so wanting to relocate something once seen in it can be a bit of a headache.
Similar in a way to Vivien Johnson’s long relationship with Papunya artists, Howard Morphy has paid his dues in many years of research among the Yolgnu people of north-east Arnhem Land and has also been involved with publishing and thinking about contemporary Aboriginal art. As long ago as 1991 he co-curated, with David Elliott, an exhibition called In Place (Out of Time) Contemporary Art in Australia at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in which he suggested that the category Aboriginal art includes ‘in an ethnically-defined category works that would equally fit into that dominant unmarked category – contemporary fine art’ thus challenging and changing the category of the contemporary.
Becoming art: exploring cross-cultural categories by Howard Morphy is about the history of Yolgnu art and the way that it has over many years moved into fine art markets and galleries and thus become recognised as fine art. This is how it has ‘become art’. Morphy demonstrates that the same characteristic (aesthetic power) that make Yolgnu art valued in Western marketplaces are what make it valued in Yolgnu society.
Morphy wades fearlessly into art history and occasionally stereotypes Western art though his eventual aim is surely reconciliation and mutual respect. Calling Margaret Preston a South Australian artist and saying that her engagement with Aboriginal art has only been reconsidered and appreciated in 2005 both suggest some gaps in his understanding. Morphy is very impressed by Preston and uses a quote from her ‘The ladder of art lies flat, art never improves only changes.’ as the epigraph to his Preface. Only trouble is that the quote is stitched together from two different pieces of her writing, both admittedly written in 1927. The climax of Morphy’s rich and thoughtful book is the cross-cultural discussion of Abelam painting from New Guinea with Narritjin Maymuru and his son Banapana in the ANU office of Anthony Forge, Morphy’s Phd supervisor. It demonstrates that we all bring our cultures to the analysis of art and have to be ready to be wrong or to see things differently.
The mere title of Ben Gennochio’s Dollar Dreaming: inside the Aboriginal art world announces its interest in money and Aboriginal art. It is a sparely written, sometimes superficial, sometimes ingenuous, primer of the Aboriginal art industry. Using an interview format he covers a lot of ground in trying to understand the Byzantine complexity of its production, marketing and sale through conversations with the characters who are engaged in it from committed arts advisors stretching canvases and stretched to their capacity by the work (many are woman and they are all rake-thin) to the dealers sitting behind desks in the city who have other perspectives, and all the people in between.
The book spans some of Gennochio’s time in Australia as an art critic as well as his more recent residence in New York where he writes on art for The New York Times. It echoes similar works by Nicholas Rothwell and Bruce Chatwin about their journeys in the remote far north and outback. Yet Gennochio’s journey is personal and contains a few epiphanies about Aboriginal art though it is worrying that he writes that the term Dreaming was coined by T.E.H. Strehlow when it was really Frank Gillen.
Vivien Johnson in her review of Dollar Dreaming claimed that Gennochio does not get around to joining the dots (haha) in examining money issues about Aboriginal art, his ostensible topic. She wrote: ‘His two main preoccupations: the scandals and the auction house boom that delivered the stellar prices in Aboriginal art are not unrelated phenomena but inextricably entangled. The power that Sotheby’s and the other auction houses came to exercise over the Aboriginal art market was able to develop so quickly, so unexpectedly, and so dramatically precisely because of the disarray of the private dealers and the primary market brought about by the so-called ‘Black Art Scandals’.’
Gennochio certainly does show that the industry is complicated beyond belief and that while corruption seems endemic many people are trying to fix it. As I write the Draft of the Australian Indigenous Art Commercial Code of Conduct was released (on 18 December 2008) and has called for submissions before 20 March 2009.
Australian Aboriginal artists have successfully capitalised on their culture, their religion and their spirituality through art in a way that no other indigenous people in the world yet have or maybe ever will. Even though Aboriginal art history began a long time ago it is in a way just beginning and these four essential books attest to its richness and complexity. Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s often quoted words ‘the money belongs to the ancestors’ is a profound statement in many ways as it acknowledges that spiritual power and wisdom remain valuable and can be sold though this does not disperse them. The gift is that Aboriginal art thus asserts the importance of cultural continuity and connection in all art.
Why art? Why Australia? It is the oldest country in the world, possibly the place where art was first made ever, maybe that is why there is so much art coming out of the remote areas, it is the land talking.
First published in Artlink.
Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists
Beyond the Sacred: recent painting from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities: the collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty
Hardie Grant Books
Becoming art: exploring cross-cultural connections
Dollar Dreaming: inside the Aboriginal art world
Hardie Grant Books
How long can the majority wait for their story to unfold
They took their life and liberty friend but
they could not buy their soul
Indigenous music is flying high, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is on the cover of the April 2011 Rolling Stone, the recent Byron Bay Blues Festival included him, Saltwater Band, the Stiff Gins AND Bob Dylan. At the last BAFF (BigPond Adelaide Film Festival) Indigenous art and film were quietly but spectacularly on the front page with premiers of features Mad Bastards and Here I am, documentaries The Tall Man and murundak: Songs of Freedom, a retrospective program of Indigenous representation in Australian cinema, forums and three major visual arts exhibitions (Stop (the) Gap: Indigenous Art in Motion at the Samstag Museum, Tracey Moffat: Narratives at the Art Gallery of South Australia and tall man by Vernon Ah Kee at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation.
Stop(the)Gap included Warwick Thornton’s first venture into gallery space with Stranded a 3-D moving image of himself on an illuminated glass crucifix turning in the air above a remote Australian landscape, this image was also reproduced on free limited edition boxes of popcorn. Based on Thornton’s memories and drawing of his wish to be like Jesus when he was six years old as well as evoking Noel Counihan’s linocut portrait of a crucified Albert Namatjira, it is a hard work to interpret. It seems to embrace a kitsch cliché image of Aboriginal suffering as well as showing it to be a somehow endless spectacle. Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, a film full of the authority of a gifted filmmaker as well as the grim reality of some Aboriginal lives won the Camera d’ Or at Cannes in 2009 for best first film.
More and more Indigenous stories are being told by Indigenous people with Indigenous voices as well as in collaboration with non-Indigenous peoples. Stories of trouble? Yes. Stories of triumph? Yes.
Indigenous culture is moving out of dedicated spaces and into the mainstream. Ultimately all Indigenous culture is claiming the space for experiences that have not been widely told and this broadens the space for the stories of everyone whose stories are untold. Powerful Indigenous art often comes from places and people that appear to be powerless. This is one reason it is strong, it has a necessity, an urgency about it. For all the irony in some work there is an authenticity factor that is incontrovertible and that may well be the high moral ground asserted by Thornton’s Stranded. Many years ago it was Papunya painter Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri who made the telling remark “the money belongs to the ancestors”, that is to say the wealth of the culture provides for its people.
The art in this Artlink ranges from art made many years ago in the Torres Strait, in Tasmania, in Arnhem Land, in Queensland, in Western Australia to art being made today in Mackay, in Cairns, in Arnhem Land, in Elcho Island, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and other places. The articles from writers all over Australia and the world deal with how to talk about the wide range of work, how to place it in history and in many cases how to rewrite history to incorporate different perspectives and diverse qualities both in Australia and increasingly in Europe.
Art as education, art as bearer of information, wisdom and stories, of belonging, as statement of longevity in that place, art as celebration of home, of land, of courage, of tragedy, of connection, of stories that acknowledge the complexities and difficulties of life as well as its wonders and gifts. Art by trained and untrained artists, by iconoclasts, by people with passion and agendas.
Ernst Gombrich wrote in his book The Story of Art (1950), which features a photo of an Aboriginal artist painting a Possum Dreaming on a rock that we must always remember that images precede writing, and thus implicitly that images are a kind of writing. Art is about politics and history but also empathy and communication. Art materials and art methods like painting, drawing and printmaking find new life in the hands of Indigenous artists with stories to tell.
Many articles in this Artlink speak of a dichotomy between art galleries and museums, between aesthetics and ethnography, between an idea of art as something disinterested and disengaged, and the study of culture as meaning one culture’s examination of other cultures. Yet all stuff in museums has always had aesthetic dimensions and all stuff in galleries has always had ethnographic dimensions. You just have to rewrite the labels.
Real art is never disinterested and disengaged, living cultures always exceed and overwhelm the boundaries placed around them. And this is what we are seeing in Australia and in this Artlink, a living culture.
At the last Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Richard Bell spoke about his experience of New York and said that he noticed there that it was not the black man who was at the bottom of the pecking order but women. Bell was going to create A Blackfella’s Guide to New York City for Artlink but it didn’t happen. Maybe next time.
Last year Artlink celebrated its thirtieth birthday as a unique magazine covering contemporary art in Australia as a forum of ideas, acts of courage and commitment. This June 2011 issue Beauty and Terror is the fourth time Artlink has focused an entire issue on Australian Indigenous art but the first of a new series called Artlink Indigenous to be published each June as a bumper issue – more pages, more art, more words, more debates – focusing on a multifaceted art that is ever-evolving and has a deep history.
Editorial for Artlink Indigenous, Beauty and Terror, 2011