eight-and-a-halfI’ve just passed an odd milestone: 8½ years of publishing this blog on pretty much a weekly basis.  This is my 634th post, or an average of 1.4 posts a week.  I haven’t counted the words.

And the truth is, I need a break.

Over the Christmas holidays I did a lot of writing, shored up a number of pieces, and have pretty much been coasting ever since.  For the past six weeks I’ve had the catalog from the Yirrkala Drawings show on the bookshelf behind my desk, and I’ve barely made it past the introduction.

So I’m going to put the blog on hiatus.  I may stop publishing entirely for a while, but I will eventually put things out intermittently as inspiration strikes.  But I don’t want to just mail it in week after week.  I guess it’s the schedule that I’ve imposed on myself that’s drained me, so I need to relax a bit.

I never thought that I would write this much, for this long.  But it’s been an extraordinary experience, most of all for the friendships that it has brought me through the years.  Reaching out to y’all in this way has opened many doors and many arms to me; and that experience alone makes me sure that I will be back someday when the batteries are recharged.

A couple of weeks ago the National Gallery of Australia Research Library, working in conjunction with the National Library of Australia, requested permission to include Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye in PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive.  I am delighted and honored beyond words to have received that invitation.

Thank you all for listening, and please stay in touch.  There’s a link on the “about” page, and you can reach me on Facebook, but not on Twitter.

I’ve never been one for graceful exits, so maybe I should just stop here.  Thank you.

Posted in General | 13 Comments

Video Culture / Museum Culture

A pair of new exhibitions opened this past week at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.  One extends established queries about the nature of objects stored in museums and their relationships to the people they purport to represent.  The other makes the museum the site of Indigenous agency and poses an entirely new set of questions about how technology, broadly defined in the museum context, creates avenues for renovating strategies of communication.

The curatorial staff of two new exhibitions at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum

The curatorial staff of two new exhibitions at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum

The first exhibition, written on the body, continues Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s interrogation of museum collections of artifacts associated with Australia’s Indigenous people.  (See, for example, the glass work museum piece that adorns the Musée du quay Branly in Paris.)  In the UQ exhibition the focus falls most directly on the marks that exist on or along with these objects and that serve to identify them according to different schemata.  In the most obvious instance, these marks are museum labels, sometimes attached with string or glue, sometimes written directly on the object, in both cases defacing its original construction and adding a new layer of meaning to the semantics encoded in the thing itself.

In a Saussurian sense, these labels also point elsewhere, to a history, a location, a person who at one time or another who created the object, or removed it from its original place of use or deposit, or transformed it by placing it in a new context (specifically that of the museum).  Some of these objects would be considered “classical” ethnographic data—pendants, shields, weapons, or decorations—but in this exhibition they have been arrayed alongside the detritus of a modern civilization: a collection of kitchen utensils that are as utilitarian, but in a different context, as the “museum pieces.”  For Watson, whose Indigenous heritage spans both contact and pre-contact societies, both have resonance in a personal history that is also a larger cultural history.  And both raise troubling questions about the interaction of cultures and the ways in which one culture seeks, through the appropriation of naming, to dominate another.

The second exhibition, Gapuwiyak Calling, is something quite new in many ways, even though it builds on the video work that co-curator Jennifer Deger has been exploring with Yolngu from the remote community of Gapuwiyak since the 1990s, when she collaborated with Bangana Wunungmurra on the film Gularri: that brings unity.  More recently Deger and Paul Gurrumuruwuy, under the auspices of their Miyarrka Media project, produced Christmas Birrimbirr, which records the meeting of Yolngu and Christian traditions in the celebration of the build-up of tropical storm clouds just prior to the feast of Christmas.

This show opens new ground, as Deger explains it in her brief catalog essay,

In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile network generated a wave of creative energy across the bush communities of Arnhem Land in Australia’s tropical north. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling at lightning- speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the Internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next.

So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media, a period of intensified communication, connection and creativity in which Yolngu exploited the potential of phones as multimedia tools—and, in so doing, claimed a place for themselves in the digital world.

The results are startling.  In a twenty-two minute film, Ringtone, that plays on a continuous loop at the UQ installation, a number of Yolngu men and women pull a ringing cell phone from a pocket and then explain the significance of the chosen ringtone—a clan song recorded during bungul, the call of a green frog that is associated with family—to the viewer.  Some of the participants, including Gurrumuruwuy, comment further on the meaning of cell phones to the community, or reactions to the introduction of this new technology to the Yolngu of Gapuwiyak.

The possibilities afforded by the image and video capture features of cell phones have been thoroughly exploited, in typical Yolngu fashion, to extend and reinforce clan networks, to capture significant milestones in their lives, traditional dhapi (circumcision) ceremonies and secondary school graduations.  They remind Yolngu of distant loved ones, and serve as vehicles for self-promotion and humorous grandstanding through performance that mixes bungul and hip-hop moves.

But not all of these effects are positive, as captured in this still from the film.


In her essay, Deger notes that, while these phone technologies  allow the sharing of images among a more restricted social network than the broader world of the global internet, they have given rise to some of the same social problems—bullying, gossip, misinformation—that Western cultures are grappling with.  But part of the very reason for creating the works that are showcased in Gapuwiyak Calling is the desire of Yolngu to demonstrate the exact opposite: how these technologies can be used to shore up the traditional social networks and “to support and even strengthen rom” while forging new connections within Yolngu spheres and reaching out to the wider world.

And herein lies the particular fascination for me of the concurrent displays of written on the body and Gapuwiyak Calling at the UQ Anthropology Museum.  The objects in written on the body evoke, in Judy Watson’s words,

collectors plotting the classification of the object, describing its function, its history, carefully adding the number that ties it into the collection. By writing onto the object, the collector asserts their ownership and authority, stamping it onto the cultural item.

This can be read as a form of colonization, sterilization and desecration. The tattooing of numbers and scarification of labels onto objects in some way takes away from their natural beauty and form. It diminishes them to be curiosities within a museum.

The museum becomes the record of suppression, the objects the evidence of subjugation.

In Gapuwiyak Calling, Yolngu have seized history and pre-empted the colonization of their culture, writing, as it were, within the context of the museum itself.  To quote Deger again,

And so began an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum gallery; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.

Or as Gurrumuruwuy simply puts it,

We decided to name our exhibition Gapuwiyak Calling because we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us.

We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things.

Maybe you’ll answer us.

Gapuwiyak Calling

Gapuwiyak Calling

The trickster spirit Murayana Ganbulapula initiates the call and response

The trickster spirit Murayana Ganbulapula initiates the call and response

"People call me and I hear my ringtone"

“People call me and I hear my ringtone”

Blue taffeta skirts

Blue taffeta skirts

"Maybe you'll answer us."

“Maybe you’ll answer us.”

My thanks to UQ Anthropology Museum Direcotr and co-curator (of written on the body) Diana Young for supplying me with the exhibition catalogs and the wonderful installation photographs, which were shot by Carl Warner.  Below are some views of written on the body.







Posted in Anthropology, Art, Communities, Culture, Film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Explicating Bark Painting

grogerwurmTwo years ago, during the turning of 2011 into 2012, I took my customary holiday break from serious thinking and produced a pair of posts in which I looked back at what I thought to be some of the core texts and catalogs that a student of Aboriginal art and culture might want to have on the shelf and under the belt.  On list enumerated significant works of anthropology in my personal education, the other was a catalog of great art books.

In retrospect I can see that there was one title that should have been on both lists, and its omission from either is therefore all the more striking.  I was reminded of it a few weeks ago while perusing the beautiful bark paintings in the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition, Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists.  Especially in the early days of my studies of Yolngu painting, Helen Groger-Wurm’s Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, volume 1: Eastern Arnhem Land (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1973; Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 30) was an indispensable guide to the stories and iconography of the region.

A decade ago, before the long tail of the book market became as well exposed as it is today, this was a difficult book to find at all; when copies did turn up they were usually expensive, over A$200 for a slim (139 page) paperback.  I was fortunate that the library where I work owned a copy, and am even more fortunate today to have found a more reasonably priced copy I can call my own and consult whenever the mood strikes me.

The volume contains black-and-white plates reproducing 194 bark paintings (16 of which are also shown in color) collected by the author from Milingimbi, Yirrkala, Numbulwar, and Maningrida between 1966 and 1969.  The paintings are arranged in three major categories: “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Dua Moiety”; “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Jiridja Moiety”; and “Secular Bark Paintings.”  The first category encompasses the Djang’kawu and Wagilag stories, as well as the wild honey, shark, mosquito, and thunder man ancestors.  The Yirritja section includes, among others, the stories of Barama and Lany’tjung, and “the gathering of the Wongar beings in the Plain Country at Arnhem Bay.”  The “secular’ paintings discuss death and mortuary rites or offer illustrations of a particular story or myth, and thus are far more than what one might think of a “secular.”

What distinguishes this book from so many others in the extensive detail which Groger-Wurm provides about each painting, both in terms of the story that is being told and in the way that it is represented in the particular work at hand.  Indidvidual actors are identified, cross-hatching explicated, the meaning of dots in the designs surfaced.  At the risk of quoting too extensively, allow me to computer the treatment of Mathaman Marika’s Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony (1967) as it is presented in the NMA’s Old Masters, and in Groger-Wurm’s catalog.


The painting appears on page 142 of Old Masters; it shows a number of human figures against a cross-hatched design in its lower portion; the upper third of the painting consists of broad, radiating bands of solid color.  In the introduction to this section of Old Masters devoted to the Marika family, it is described as follows.

Mathaman  paints another set of Dhuwa ancestors, the Wäwilak Sisters.  In the upper panel of Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony the rays of the sun capture diet rising from the ground as people dance in the ceremony depicted below.  Here, the spirit of the deceased is taught how to make paddles and is given a canoe to row to Dhambaliya (Bremer Island) in its way to the ancestral realm (Old Masters, p. 136).

This description is based on the one provided by Groger-Wurm (she collected the painting in question), but necessarily abbreviates the annotation.  In Groger-Wurms publication, the plate is accompanied by a diagram which identifies various figures by attaching numbers to them, and explains the relationships among them at length.  The 1960s orthography may take a moment to get used to, but the effort is well worth it.  Here is the story as Groger-Wurm presents it.

When a Riradjingu person of the dua moiety dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to Munumbarlwui, a jungle swamp on the western side of Melville Bay.   Here [the upper-left corner of the lower section of the panel] the spirit is awaited by two mogwoi [mokuy] Wuluwaid and Bunbulama, who guide it along to meet all the assembled relatives who predeceased it.

In the centre is the new spirit surrounded by four women crying and “feeling sorry” for it.  On the bottom left, old Bunbulama is beating his clapping sticks, bilma, and on the right is Dolunganda with his didjeridu, jitagi [yidaki], which he holds against a paperbark pad for better resonance.  These two old men start very slowly to clap___ clap___ clap___ doo___ doo___ doo___.  After some time the rhythm becomes faster and then all the spirits start dancing to make the new arrival happy.  In the bottom corners are two dawo trees.

The coloured bands in the upper panel are symbolic of the dust that rises from the ground while the mogwoi are dancing.  In the evenings, when the sun is setting, one can see these bands of rays in the reddish sky and this indicates that the sprites are dancing at  Munumbarlwui.

The dead sprites stays there for about two days.  The Bunbulama mogwoi (this term can also refer to a group of mogwoi) teach the new spirit how to make paddles and then give it a canoe for the journey to Dambalia, Bremer Island.   Nganug, the paddle-maker, rows the spirit acres and there it remains for three or four dats hunting and corroborating until it departs for Bralgu where it remains forever (Groger-Wurm, p. 110)

The extraordinary amount of information contained in this annotation and the many other likes it that fill Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation have always raised two questions in my mind.  How did Groger-Wurm achieve the degree of intimacy with Yolngu elders that allowed the sharing of such “inside” information?  And what ever happened to the projected other volumes implied by the subtitle of this one?

The answers to these questions can be found in Margie West’s essay “‘The Woman with Men’s Business’: Helen Wurm,” which was published as Chapter 19 of The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections (Melbourne University Press, 2008: 537-553, edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen, and Louise Hamby), in which West refers to Groger-Wurm’s notes on the expedition.

The collection was initiated at a time when it became apparent that the traditional way of Indigenous life in Arnhem Land was on the threshold of considerable change through the pressure of western civilisation. The age old unbroken chain of handing on tribal wisdom knowledge and law in a series of initiation cycles each lasting many weeks, became threatened. Though ceremonies were shortened it became apparent that the day was approaching fast when the chain would be broken. And once this happened it would be the end of the old traditional life.  This fact, by the way, worried the old men in eastern Arnhem Land particularly because it would mean that all their knowledge and wisdom would be lost to future generations (quoted in West, pp. 541-2)

Most significantly, [Groger-Wurm] said that the Yolngu considered ‘that I knew the “business” like a man and anyway, that I was an “old” married balanda (European) woman’.17 So it was her perceived status as a female elder that in part allowed her access to certain privileged information, especially the detailed ancestral narratives that accompanied the artworks (West, p. 548).

West notes that Groger-Wurm considered the collection of paintings from northeastern Arnhem Land published as “volume 1″ to the the most rewarding and challenging” part of the larger project, which additionally  included fieldwork and collecting in Gunbalanya, Groote Eylandt, Melville Island, and Wadeye.  West goes on to say this:

Her decision to publish on the northeastern Arnhem Land segment of the collection first was no doubt influenced by this experience. After the volume was published by the AIAS in 1973, there was, however, concern about the sensitive nature of its contents. The book was subsequently classified as semi-restricted, with a published note requesting the reader’s discretion because ‘much of this material is secret/sacred’. However, Howard Morphy, in a personal communication (2006), mentions that he attended a meeting at Yirrkala between the then Principal of the AIAS, Dr Peter Ucko, and senior Yolngu men to discuss the status of the Wurm publication. At the meeting, only one painting in the book was considered conten- tious, due in part to the passing of the senior custodian of the site in question. Later on, the artists decided to paint this segment of the story again. As previously mentioned, Morphy’s own extensive field research in northeastern Arnhem Land has shown how fluid the classification of paintings can be over time, with different clans releasing imagery or restricting previously public imagery due to political considerations of the time. Today there appears to be little in the Wurm publication to warrant its restriction (West, p. 552).

Be that as it may, no formal publication of the remaining material was undertaken.  The works from the entire endeavor were distributed to the Institute of Anatomy (which eventually became part of the collection of the National Museum of Australia) and to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, where it formed the core of MAGNT’s holdings of Indigenous material after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy destroyed the Museum’s original site.  Much later, Groger-Wurm provided reports on these collections to the NMA and MAGNT, but formal publication never ensued.  Nonetheless, the publication and the collection as a whole are of surpassing importance to the study of the art and culture of Arnhem Land, broadly defined.  I will leave the final words on its significance to West:

Even so, the Wurm collection remains, as intended, an important record of the art and related ancestral stories from northern Australia. The collection provides a snapshot of a seminal time in Aboriginal art when people were engaging at a sig- nificant level with the wider Australian society through their paintings. She worked with many artists who are now regarded as the nation’s most gifted and important practitioners. They were the inspired ini- tiators of the dynamic art movements that have since catapulted Aboriginal art into the national and international spotlight. Part of Wurm’s success in amassing this collection, apart from her own obvious dedication, was the generosity of the Indigenous people who shared her vision and in fact utilised her project as a way of securing certain outcomes for themselves. This was not merely a one-way transaction, but one that, as illustrated particularly by the north- eastern example, required extensive negotiations to work out the protocols of engagement. The ultimate aim for both Wurm and the artists was the collection of significant cultural information for the benefit of future generations.

As someone who has worked with many of the collected artists, and subsequently with their other family members since their deaths, I know that this collection is very highly valued by the people of the Top End. Many artists often refer to the Wurm publication to inform their own contemporary art practice and cultural knowledge and are always keen to view their relations’ work on museum visits. With its solid documentation and mythological coverage, the collection is also an important resource for researchers and curators, and many of the works have been featured in both in-house and touring displays by the MAGNT and the NMA. It is hard to imagine today that Wurm herself would disapprove of individual works from the collection being displayed and toured in such major exhibitions, as fine art. They are works often of exceptional aesthetic merit and this does not detract at all from their enduring cultural significance to the nation’s heritage (West, pp. 552-3).

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Music of the Spinifex Country

OoldeaA few weeks ago, thanks to my friends Deb and Matt, I had the chance to view Mick Angus’s 2006 film from Marcom Projects, Ooldea.  It tells the story of a collaboration between composer Iain Grandage and a group of elders from the Spinifex People.  It’s an extraordinary story, almost as much as for what doesn’t happen as for what does.

The backstory began in 2002 when Grandage, whose long involvement with Indigenous music now extends to creating orchestral arrangements for the Black Arm Band, was doing research for the production that eventually became The Career Highlights of the Mamu, a piece directed by Peter Sellars for the Black Swan Theatre at the Adelaide Festival.  The production was a history of sorts of the Spinifex People, their experience of the Maralinga bombing, and their lives in the country near Tjuntuntjura in Western Australia.  Trevor Jamieson supplied narration, the community elders spoke of their country to video footage, and the Tjuntjuntura Band provided rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment.  Grandage became infected with the rhythms and melodies of the ceremonial inma he encountered during the development of the piece.

Two years on, Grandage was offered an open commission by Nick Bailey of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), and his thoughts returned to the Spinifex Country and its songlines.  And thus began the development of what was to be a new form of music, true to both the orchestral traditions of the West and the indigenous traditions of the deserts.  It was not meant to be an orchestral setting of Pitjantjatjara songs but rather a common ground, a meeting space where the two traditions could co-exist and, if possible, work together.

The film Ooldea recounts the physical and intellectual journeys that Grandage undertook in order to gain an understanding of the lives, the memories, and the music of the Spinifex elders and to craft from that experience a musical form and language, to rehearse the performances, and to invest members of WASO in the experiment.  This is a fascinating journey in itself and comes with many of the tropes of cross-cultural learning that will be familiar to audiences who have followed such collaborative ventures before: the differing sets of expectations, the difficulties of language, the conflicting understanding of time and schedules, the diverse cultural protocols, the uncertainties, the failures, the new beginnings that are required repeatedly.  There is the sense of wonder and amazement that Grandage and his fellow classical musicians experience, the inquisitiveness and openness of the desert children, the amusement of the ladies who watch sometimes from the sidelines.  There are trips out to country and nights around the campfire when slapsticks and cello reach out over the bridge of the human voice in mutual exploration.

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

For those who love the paintings of the Spinifex country, there is the added delight of watching some of the premier artists from the community who are at the core of this adventure.  Roy Underwood, Simon Hogan, Fred Grant, and Allan Jamieson all figure prominently in Grandage’s education, and others, including Lennard Walker and Lawrence Pennington make cameo appearances.  I am helpless before the thrill of watching these old men go about their business (even if, in the film, that doesn’t involve painting); it’s a combination of a sort of celebrity watching and the opportunity to feel as though I have the chance to witness the spirit, the landscape, and the songs from which their marvelous paintings spring.

There is much tension to the story as the deadline for the performance, scheduled to premiere in October 2005, approaches.  The film cuts back and forth between Perth and Tjuntjuntjura as the musical composition begins to take shape and Grandage negotiates with both the elders and the management at WASO for the manner in which the work will unfold.  The final form of the piece is described thus by Grandage:

Structurally, the work is a single continuous movement, in three broad sections. The first (incorporating the Ooldea Inma) utilises the octatonic scale in a chorale that grows from a pair of mirrored lines out to 5 voices and back. Interpolated between these chorale sections are two other musical ideas – a stacked and clustered version of the scale, and a set of three falling phrases that is gradually compressed from 7ths down to clustered 2nds. This section is scored for strings, single woodwinds and percussion alone. It is interrupted by the arrival of the Brass and woodwind in antiphonal positions in the choir stalls in a 12 tone interlude.

The second section features the more active Mamu Inma – a song series about a spirit-being best equated to the western ideas of the devil or a trickster god. In this movement, a constant rhythm from the orchestra continues between each of the sung verses, with interjections from the instrumental groups above that increase in duration and intensity before mirroring back.

The final section of the work returns to the slow chorale style of the first, and incorporates the Kalaya Inma. This Inma is centred around Ilkurlka, in the heart of Spinifex country, and tells the story of the Emu – the custodian of Spinifex land before anangu (people) arrived.

This work is intended not as an accompanied traditional song, nor as an orchestral reworking of indigenous themes. It is, I hope, simply a meeting place. A work within which the musical forces of Australia’s European heritage share a campfire with some of Australia’s traditional owners. A campfire around which history may become a source of shared pride, and where time might reveal a communal future rather than a buried, stolen past.

In the end, however, the performance never took place.

As final preparations got underway in Perth, Grandage received the news that important business had come to the fore out in Tjuntjuntjara.  Elders from another community has arrived, and a certain important piece of business (its exact nature unspecified due to its sacred nature) had to move on from Tjuntjuntura to the next custodians, and the men who would have traveled to Perth to perform could not leave their country.  As the Orchestra’s press release announcing the cancellation of the performance described it (quoted by Grandage described it in “Journeys with Spinifex,” an article published in Sounds Australia: the Journal of the Australian Music Centre (no. 68, 2006), “the living of culture took precedence over the performance of culture.”  While I suspect that the elders might not have made such a fine distinction, what is truly remarkable was the reaction to the news in Perth.  In a series of recorded discussions among the members of the orchestra, the understanding and acceptance of this sudden and disruptive change of plans came with some difficulty but with no questioning of its essential rightness.  After all, as one member of the ensemble pointed out, guest performers and conductors with the Orchestra cancel all the time, and frequently for reasons that are far flimsier than those offered by the Spinifex men.

In a coda to the story, Grandage returns to Tjuntjuntjura six months later to meet with the men one more time.  The purpose of the trip is not to resume planning for the event; indeed, death and illness have precluded much of the possibility of that occurring.  It is simply for the parties to re-establish the connections that had been forged over the preceding years.  Eventually a modified version of the project was executed by the post-classical ensemble Topology at the Powerhourse in Brisbane, but in the film that remains beyond the horizon.  Grandage simply returns to sit with the old men.

For all of these reasons, Ooldea is a remarkably powerful experience.  If ever there were a  manifestation of the notion that “it’s not the arrival but the journey that matters” captured on film, this is it.

Posted in Culture, Film, Music | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Local Color Purple

purple-threads-coverDon’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

I had feared that Joni Mitchell’s rhetorical question would be dead on once again when I heard that Campbell Newman was slashing the arts budgets in Queensland.  In particular, I was mourning the axing of the Premier’s Literary Awards and chief among them the David Unaipon Award, given to an unpublished Indigenous author.  Some of the best reads of recent years saw the light of day thanks to this prize, including Vivien Cleven’s Bitin’ Back, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing, and Nicole Watson’s The Boundary.

(As an aside, anyone wanting to take up the Australian Women Writers Challenge could make a good start with the list above.)

Luckily, all was not lost, as the Queensland writing community banded together to establish the Queensland Literary Awards, and the splendid University of Queensland Press agreed to continue publishing the winners of the Unaipon Award as well as Emerging Queensland Author Manuscript Award beginning in 2012.

But Newman put the fear of the big yellow taxi in me, and I vowed to catch up on some of the Unaipon Award winners I had missed.  In 2013, I read The Boundary, and later week I finished the 2010 prize winner, Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads.  (The novel also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012, the year after its publication.)

purple-threads-jeanine-leaneLeane is a Wiradjuri woman from Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee River in southeastern New South Wales, about midway between Canberra and Wagga Wagga.  This is the country that forms the novel’s setting in the 1960’s, and there is plenty of recognizable local color, including the famous memorial to the early pioneers known as “The Dog That Sits on the Tuckerbox” and the Prince Alfred Bridge, once the longest span in Australia, and the site of many a devastating flood.

Another aside: “local color” is one of those minor literary genres we were introduced to in secondary school, and in America, one of its pre-eminent practitioners, an obscure 19th century author named Sarah Orne Jewitt, authored The Country of the Pointed Firs, perhaps the pre-eminent example of the genre.  I have to admit that halfway through Purple Threads I found myself remembering Jewitt’s tiny masterpiece, a series of loosely connected vignettes full of interesting characters and splendid landscapes.

In another way, the story reminded me, in the end, of Melissa Lucashenko’s debut novel Steam Pigs, although the tone and the incidents could hardly be more different.  But each, in its own way, is a bildungsroman based on the author’s own life that ends with the heroine leaving the family that has taught them independence to pursue her education, an education that will lead to the writing of the novel that you hold in your hands.  In Leane’s case, that education led first to a doctorate, and she is a scholar of serious repute, which the video I’ve linked to at the end of the post testifies to; her field of study is the representation of Indigenous people in novels authored by whitefellas.  How fitting, therefore, that Purple Threads, like many another Unaipon prize winner, offers its own repudiation of those representations.

The narrator of Purple Threads is Sunny, short for the Sunshine she brings to her extended family.  She and her sister Star are the children of Petal, the youngest of a large family of many sisters named after flowers (they ran out of flower names by the time Petal came along) and a couple of brothers.  Petal, the spoiled, headstrong child, has taken off from the homelands to seek style and pleasure where she may find it, leaving her two young girls to be raised by their Nan and by two aunties, Boo and Bubby.

Each chapter in the book can stand on its own as a short story.  The longest of them, “Coming Home,” tells of two homecomings intimately linked.  Early in the chapter, Petal re-appears, much to the Aunties’ delight—she has always been the favorite, the baby who is indulged in every whim.  But Petal arrives this time with her current boyfriend, Dinny, a handsome cowboy from Queensland, announcing her intention to take her two daughters with her as she and Dinny return to his family’s country and cattle ranch to start a new life together.

This turn of events causes considerable consternation, not least of all to the two small girls who find themselves taken away from all that is warm and familiar, safe and secure, and thrust into a dry, alien landscape under the watchful eye of Grandma, Dinny’s mother, one of those Queensland Catholics that Nan and the Aunties are suspicious of.  The Aunties can’t help but acquiesce to Petal’s demands, and the blow of losing their Sunshine and their Star is softened only by the certainty they hold that Petal never sticks with anything for long, and the assurance that belief brings that sooner or later, the girls will be returned to the country of the Murrumbidgee.  And indeed, in the chapter’s second homecoming, Petal escapes from her prospective mother-in-law’s iron rule, boards a southbound train with the two girls, and reunites them with their Aunties before disappearing “off on another whim.”

Unlike a petal blossom blown away in a breeze, the rest of the family is firmly rooted in their country and in a plethora of histories.  It isn’t only the local Aboriginal history that sustains them, although the heroism of Wiradjuri like Yarri, Long Jimmy and Jacky-Jacky, who with their paperbark canoes rescued foolish white settlers from the river’s banks during the devastating floods  of 1852 is a firm part of the family’s lore.  The Aunties are steeped in the stories of the Bible.  Aunt Bubby is devoted to the Brontë Sisters, while Aunty Boo has a penchant for ancient Rome, charming the girls with the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps on his elephants.  Boo is also a student of the philosopher Epictetus, who provides the novel with its title.

‘Hey, Epictetus told a good story about bein’ different.’ She paused and took a long whistling breath. She could switch from home talk to flash talk when she needed to. ‘When Epictetus’ mates told him he should be more like everyone else, he came back real smart like an’ said to ’em, Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those that are in a toga it is fitting that you take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright and makes everything else graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?’ (p. 108 in the Kindle edition).

Being different is itself the thread that binds these stories together and binds the characters to the land.  Indeed, one of the almost unspoken miseries that Petal’s decision to take the girls away with her to Queensland is the deeply seated fear of children being “taken away” in the other sense: removed from families thought too poor, too indigent, too—let’s face it—Indigenous, to raise them properly.

Twinned with that fear is the fear of having their land taken away from them.  As the girls grow older, the family must send them to school; not to do so would risk reprisal from the authorities and the chance of removal.  But Sunny finds herself in a wider world, full of girls who snub her for her poverty and her Aboriginality.  The need to fit in, to be accepted by a new group of peers, leads to another crisis: an adolescent shame that makes Sunny yearn to leave the sheep farm, move into the town, and live in a flash house.  This desire to shape herself to others’ expectations leads first to the lesson from Epictetus.  That is followed by learning more about the family history, about how her industrious Aunties came to secure that tiny parcel of land where they are determined to live out their lives.  Learning that lesson and coming to appreciate the importance of her connection to the land is what frees Sunny to become herself, to go on to embrace an education and move to the next phase of her life.  Nan and the Aunties will pass on, their ashes scattered among the flowers on the farm that watch as the old homestead itself turns to dust as the years go by.  But once she has learned where home lies, Sunny is free to go where she will, safe in the knowledge that it travels with her forever.

Two supplementary lectures to round out this post.  First, Leane was among the speakers at the National Library of Australia’s conference on Writing the Australian Landscape back in August, and the text of the paper she delivered (“Writing Landscapes“) is now available online.

(Other lectures from this event that may be of interest include Ros Moriarty on “Crossing the Continent” and Bill Gammage on “The Biggest Estate on Earth.”  My friend Adrian Hyland contributed “Droughts and Flooding Rains,” further reflections on his experiences writing about the 2009 bushfires around his home in rural Victoria.)

An earlier lecture in the 2012 AIATSIS Seminar Series, “Threads and Secrets,” is available on Vimeo (below).

Purple Threads: The Video


AIATSIS Seminar Series 2012/1
12.30pm, Monday 21 May 2012
Threads and Secrets: Black Women re-writing history through fiction
Dr Jeanine Leane – Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University

This presentation will explore the important and invaluable role of Aboriginal women in pre and post contact Australia as both custodians of culture and experience and in the re-writing and representing of the nation’s history. I will draw on my first work of prose Purple Threads (2011) which is an episodic novel. Set in the shifting socio-historical landscape of the 1960s and 70s in rural Australia, the narrative re-visits different historical eras, such as first contact between settlers and Aborigines in the Wiradjuri lands, the assimilation policy and the 1967 referendum to provide an alternative perspective on the nation’s history. With particular focus on three generations of
Aboriginal women, who tell their unique stories in the different historical contexts in which they lived, national myths such as equality, freedom and the ‘workers’ paradise’ are re-written and represented to readers from an Aboriginal perspective. The presentation will include readings from Purple Threads.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Inventing the Contemporary

mclean-how-aborigines2013 was a year of many and varied accomplishments for me.  Not the least of these was reading Ian McLean’s anthology How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: writings on Aboriginal contemporary art (Power Publications, 2011) from cover to cover.

I have to admit it was a daunting task to undertake.  When it arrived in the mail early in the year, my first impression was “big.”  Although it clocks in at only 360 pages, each one of them is crammed full of text, and the carefully chosen illustrations are not a large percentage of the book’s contents.

The second thing that put me off at first was exactly the contents.  I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sent off for the book, but it wasn’t an anthology of short extracts from books, academic journals, magazines, and newspapers.  As I’ve said many times before, I’m a long-form kind of guy.  I like arguments that are slowly developed over time, and that culminate in some kind of epiphany, a drawing together of many strands into a single, coherent vision.

It turns out that, indeed, that is a fairly exact description of McLean’s book, for all that it is a patchwork of facts and arguments pieced together from several decades of writing about Aboriginal Australian art and culture, bookended by two lengthy essays by McLean himself.  And by the time I was past the introduction and into the hundreds of short excerpts from magazine and newspaper articles, scholarly studies, art exhibition catalogs,  and monographs, I was hooked.  Over the course of many months, reading one short piece at a time, I uncovered inspiration, argument, counter-argument, and above all a lively sense, not only of the history of Aboriginal art criticism over the past forty or fifty years, but an appreciation of why this art is so important.

Key to an appreciation of why McLean has undertaken in this anthology is the notion of what he terms “the artworld.”  Unblushingly, this refers not so much to the producers of art as to the commentators on it, the critics, the buyers, and those engaged in art as commerce and art as seen through the lens of the history of ideas.  While there are more than a few essays (as I’ll refer to them generically) by producers of art–the artists, mostly Aboriginal, who feature in the book’s pages–the real focus of McLean’s investigations is on the reception and interpretation of the art by those who, in one way or another, find their livelihoods in the appreciation of art.

Some might take exception to this tack, seeming as it does to concentrate on the market more than on the artists, and indeed, in other venues, this approach has been excoriated as colonialism.  The beauty of McLean’s comprehensiveness, though, is to give ample space to some of these views, and to include where possible, statements from artists themselves (admittedly mostly, though not entirely, artists like Judy Watson and Richard Bell who are comfortable engaging critically with the marketplace).

The book opens with a long essay by McLean entitled “Aboriginal art and the artworld” in which he traces the intersection of the two cultures, Aboriginal and settler, to try to come to an understanding of why Aboriginal art in Australia has become an important, perhaps pre-emininent, part of the aesthetic discourse in ways that have not been mirrored in Europe and the United States.  He admits that the critical literature on Aboriginal art has yet to produce a complete historical synthesis of the achievements of the artists.  But he also insists that the impact of the astonishing vitality of the art has forced Australian art critics to re-examine the foundational discourses of their discipline and to seek out new methodologies.  This process is far from complete, as John Carty has eloquently argued, but McLean’s goal here is, in part, to provide a sourcebook for future studies, to delineate the issues that need to be addressed, and to secure the validity of the enterprise in terms of the dominant Western critical discourse.

McLean’s essay looks back to the time before the Papunya revolution to the point when Australians first began to engage with the artistic output of Indigenous peoples.  He looks at the defining questions of fine art, modernism, authenticity, social and cultural integration, and self-determination.  He then examines how these issues led to the first engagements of curators with Aboriginal art, beginning roughly in the 1960s and continuing for the next two decades.  Once the curatorial world (art galleries and museums) had invested in the collection of Aboriginal art, critics and historians began to follow along, turning their theoretical and investigative minds to explanations of the social and aesthetic phenomena that the art threw into relief.

Growing interest in Aboriginal art not only in Australia but also in Europe, through the work of Karel Kupka, early French exhibitions like D’un autre continent: l’Australie, le rêve et le réel (1983) and Magiciens de la terre (1989), and in America with the tour of Dreamings (1988) coincided with the ascent of post-modernist critiques of art and the theoretical fallout from the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition in 1984.  This was followed by increasing commercialization of the Aboriginal art market in Australian in the 1990s, and the growth of art produced by Aboriginal people living and working in metropolitan centers.

In the past two decades, there has been an increased presence of Indgenous voices in these dialogues.  Much of this has been critical (in the sense of negative) but much has also been simply demonstrative or documentary.  It includes the positions taken by the members of the Aboriginal Arts Board, beginning in the 1970s, the political proclamations of activists like Gary Foley, the scholarly investigations of Marcia Langton, and the increasing visibility of statements by artists like John Mawurndjul in this century.

Having thus set the stage, McLean turns the bulk of his volume over to the voices of the artworld itself.  The first section of the anthology, “Becoming Modern,” explores issues and attitudes from a historical perspective and provides further background.  McLean has provided “titles” for his extracts that differ from the titles of the original works reproduced throughout the anthology, and a good flavor of the content of this first section can be gleaned from the table of contents wherein one can see that the titles (or headlines) of many of his selections begin with the words “Aboriginal art is …”  The predicates for this statement include the words of the following list: cultural adaptation; ritual revival; not traditional; esoteric; intercultural; traditional; international art; universal; country and western (Judy Watson’s contribution); and changing (John Mawurndjul’s).

The next section is “Zones of Engagement.”  Each of these presents short commentaries from  a geographical or cultural arena, and each is replete with contributions from acknowledged experts.  Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, Nigel Lendon, Banduk Marika, and Ivan Namirrkki present on the art of Arnhem Land.  Contributors to the section on the Western Desert include Nic Peterson, Imants Tillers, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Eric Michaels, John Kean, and Fred Myers.  Lin Onus, Djon Mundine, Marica Langton, Brenda Croft, Gordon Bennett, and Judy Watson dominate the section on Urban Australia.

The last two sections of “Zones of Engagement” offer perspectives from “the Australia artworld” and “abroad.”  These deal less with the making of art than with its critical reception in commercial and academic circles.  Tim and Vivien Johnson, Terry Smith, and John Mawurndjul are among the Australian contributors here.  From abroad, Suzanne Pagé, Lance Bennett and Jill Montgomery discuss the art’s reception in France; John Weber, Ronald  Jones and Fred Myers report from New York.  Howard Morphy offers a perspective from London, Andrei Kovalev from Moscow, and Bernhard Lüthi from Düsseldorf, while Djon Mundine looks broadly across Europe and the United States.

The third set of selections is broadly termed “Issues.” It is the longest of the volume, and covers questions of gender, ethics, modernism, aesthetics, appropriation, commerce, and politics.  I found this part of the book to be the most fascinating and thought-provoking.  Although there is plenty to debate in the material presented earlier, these are the most contested areas in current critical discourse concerning the place of Aboriginal art in the contemporary, globalized marketplace as well as within the cultural sphere of Australian society itself.  There is a huge variety of viewpoints presented, from a similarly diverse cast of contributors.  Academics (Terry Smith, Roger Benjamin and Marcia Langton) butt up against the promulgators from the popular press (Nicolas Rothwell, Sebastian Smee, Robert Nelson, and Louis Nowra).  Christine Nicholls, Apolline Kohen, and Eric Michaels offer perspectives from the coal face.  Pijaju Peter Skipper and Ngarralja Tommy May offer perspectives from the bush, while Richard Bell speaks from the big smoke.

Finally, there is the briefly considered question of “Futures.”  Most of the selections from this section were written since 2001.  In some ways this is the least satisfying part of the book. It rehearses on the one hand the themes of the passing of a way of life, if not a culture, that has defined much of the Aboriginal art that is now considered canonical.  On the other hand it indulges in speculation, abstraction, and theories of “post-Aboriginality” without ever advancing a reasonable definition of that concept.  Perhaps this reflects  growing concerns about the viability of the marketplace (although all of the essays predate the GFC, the resale royalty, and the changes in superannuation regulations that have shocked the market in recent years).  Perhaps all this simply reflects the unknowability of what has not yet occurred.

The book concludes with another essay by McLean, which offers the explanation, finally, of “How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art.”  Essentially, the concept begins with the problem of modernism’s exhaustion.  The social, psychological, aesthetic, historical, and theoretical frameworks that characterized the great artistic achievements of the first two-thirds (roughly) of the twentieth century have run their course.  The notions of individualism and the veracity of the subjective experience that characterize much of twentieth-century art collapsed along with the imperialism that had defined much of modern history; post-modernism showed that the supposed objectivity of Western science and positivist thought were just as arbitrary and indeed subjective as the interior monologues of twentieth-century literature, and just as prone to error.  The hope of discovering “Truth” vanished.  Instead, the key insights of Modernism were turned on their heads, deconstructed, and the multiplicity of experience seemed a better signpost in the search for a description of the human condition.

Politically, the collapse of empire brought about a resurgence of Indigenous culture and the desire for some form of Indigenous autonomy.   We are now, in the twenty-first century, accustomed to seeing Chinese art of recent pedigree in commercial and curatorial art spaces; art by leading African practitioners such as El Anatsui seems to be among the most exciting work on the scene.  Thus “contemporary” art, defined not simply as “art of the now” but as a discrete movement that can be recognized as distinct from Modernism, is intrinsically, perhaps essentially, an art of globalization.  It is art that not so much rejects the Western canons as operates outside them while at the same time infiltrating them.

This is not art that was created by opposing Modernism, as the Minimalists aimed to counter the supposed excesses of Abstract Expressionism or as Impressionism tried to expose the limits of Realism.  Rather, contemporary art emerged outside the sphere of Modernism, independent of it and not quite in opposition to it, for opposition in some ways grants the old order at least a nominal validity which it seeks to overturn.

McLean locates the first and most significant emergence of the new order in Papunya.  The work that was produced there in the 1970s and 1980s escaped the “limbo” of “traditional fine art” or “ethnographic fine art” and jumped straight into being understood as “contemporary art.”  It did not so much repudiate the progressivist, teleological biases of Modernism as operate in a sphere completely other to them, one that cast into high relief the “basic ontological gap” between Aboriginal and Western ways of thinking, perceiving, and responding.  Here is McLean’s conclusion:

In the 1980s Papunya Tula painting revealed to the artworld something about itself that had not yet been brought into focus by Western contemporary art.  Because the constitutional differences of modernist no longer mattered, Aborigines initiated in tribal lore could also make contemporary art.  This lesson, that difference was the opportunity for something more, is also the first prerequisite of globalism.  In a straightforward historical sense then, Australian Aborigines were amongst the first to show an artworld, raised on the ethnocentric and historicist blinkers of European modernism, what contemporary art after modernism felt like.  In doing this, they played a decisive role in the artworld’s globalisation at the end of the twentieth century.

The video below captures Ian McLean’s address at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2012 on the subject of how Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art and expands on the themes he introduces in his paired essays in the book.  But it in no way captures the richness of the source material that this superb anthology, reference work, polemic, and compendium of thinking on the subject brings together.  How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about Aboriginal art or who seeks even a basic introduction to the complexities of what may be not simply the “last great art movement of the twentieth century,” but the first of the twenty-first.

Posted in Art, Books | Tagged | Leave a comment

Gapuwiyak Calling

Save the date!  On Friday, March 14, 2014 a pair of exhibitions opens at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland.  Written on the Body is curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young.  But what I’m really looking forward to learning more about is a new exhibition curated by Miyarrka Media, the team that brought us Christmas Birrimbirr.  Called Gapuwiyak Calling, it promises to demonstrate some fascinating new developments in Aboriginal media, especially the ways in which cell phones contribute to the creation of cultural expression in remote communities.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a couple of stills and rough cuts of video presentations that will be included and I can guarantee that it will surprise audiences and even make them laugh.  More to follow in the weeks ahead, but here’s a preview from the Miyarrka Media website.

“We decided to name our exhibition Gapuwiyak Calling because we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us. We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things. Maybe you’ll answer us?” – Paul Gurrumuruwuy

In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile network generated a wave of creative energy across Arnhem Land. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling lightning-speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this emerging digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next.

So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media.

Gapuwiyak Calling celebrates mobile phones as technologies of creativity and connection. Curated by Miyarrka Media, a media-arts collective based in the northeast Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak, it features phone-made material collected over the past five years, as well as film and video produced specifically for this exhibition.

The show features a number of elements brought together as one multi-media installation. This includes phone-art collage featuring giant green frogs and dreadlocked babies; videos from family bush trips; fragments of mainstream television and movies re-voiced with Yolngu jokes in Yolngu languages; middle-aged women dancing the yabby to the theme from Flashdance in blue grass skirts ordered from the internet; cut and pasted family photographs uniting the living and the dead in flashing gif files; young men dancing furiously to the Can-Can song while making claims about Yolngu Culture; and a short film about the variety of ringtones in use in Gapuwiyak, from ceremonial songs, to gospel and hip-hop.

Although much of the content is deliberately playful and precisely not-traditional the Yolngu curators nonetheless see the exhibition as an opportunity to assert enduring and meaningful connections between generations of Yolngu kin living through times of enormous social stress and change.

Structured according to a Yolngu poetics of call-and-response, the exhibition takes motif and meaning from the actions of an ancestral mokuy (trickster spirit) who lives in the stringybark forest that surrounds Gapuwiyak. In ancestral times this mokuy signalled other clans with his dhadalal (special digeridoo) sensuously establishing enduring and ritually significant relationships between places and people across the region. Gallery visitors will be greeted by this special dhadalal call—a call which in this context gestures to the possibility of new kinds of digitally mediated relationships both within and beyond Arnhem Land.

For Miyarrka Media this show represents more than simply an opportunity to travel to Brisbane to exhibit material from an exotic and separate elsewhere. The installation is intended to position both Yolngu and gallery visitors in a relationship of potential connectability made possible by these new technologies and the shared imaginative and communicative spaces they animate. And so the exhibition poses several implicit questions: What kinds of new recognitions and reciprocations is this exhibition attempting to produce? Why does this matter at this moment in Australian social, as well as technological, history? How might we answer this call from Gapuwiyak?


Posted in Art, Communities, Culture, Film | Leave a comment