Painting Culture

I may as well begin this blog by acknowledging a book that is perhaps the best expression to date of the general issues I want to discuss: Fred Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2003). Although the book’s primary focus is on art of the Western Desert of Australia, it remains the most comprehensive examination of the issues of Aboriginal art in a Western marketplace, of the aesthetics of the movement, of the anthropological issues surrounding it, and of the meeting of two very different cultures–indigenous and Anglo-Australian–that generates the heat, light, and interest at the heart of Aboriginal art.In July and August of 2005 I spent a month immersed in the indigenous art world of Australia on a trip that began with the annual auction of Aboriginal art in Melbourne, and ended at the 22nd Annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin, and with trips to the indigenous communities and art centres at Maningrida, Yirrkala, and on Melville and Bathurst Islands. It was a month spent in the company of art dealers and collectors, art centre advisors and artists. I thought it would be an ideal time to re-read Fred’s book.Painting Culture tells three stories. The first is of the emergence of the painting movement in the Western Desert, near Papunya, west of Alice Springs in the 1970’s, at a time when Fred was doing research for his doctoral thesis among the Pintupi. This anthropological research focused on Pintupi concepts of autonomy and interconnectedness forms the basis of Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), which may be the most often cited work on Australia’s indigenous people published in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In this first section, Fred details the work of Uta Uta Tjangala and Anatjari Tjakamarra and explores how the paintings they produced (and he documented at the time) present Pintupi notions of self and country.

The second section, which roughly covers the decade of the 1980’s, describes the attempts of the Australian government to nurture the emerging “Aboriginal arts and crafts movement” as a means to both preserve indigenous culture and promote an economic engine to support the government’s new policy of self-determination for Aboriginal people within the Australian state. These efforts, combined with Australia’s desire to devise a new national image for itself in anticipation of the country’s 1988 bicentennial, culminated in an exhibition of paintings from the Western Desert and from Arnhem Land in the far north. Dreamings traveled to the USA and provided the some of the impetus for the third phase of the art’s development, which Fred covers in his chronicle of the 1990’s.

This third section of Painting Culture devotes considerable attention to the Dreamings exhibition: its preparation, the appearance of two Aboriginal painters as part of a weekend event, and the critical reaction to Aboriginal paintings in the art world. Fred also details the emergence and growth of commercial galleries in the US and Australia that specialized in marketing Aboriginal art. This transfer to the private sector and the commercialization of the art marks the third phase of the movement’s development. The book’s narrative concludes with the opening of another major exhibition, Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, which was curated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and whose opening coincided with the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The final chapters lay out accomplishments, problems, and unresolved questions for black and white Australians alike.

Throughout the book, Fred is concerned to find and give voice to the viewpoint of the painters themselves. The fundamental values of Aboriginal culture and the Euro-Australian culture seem in many ways to be at odds with one another. Certainly the economic systems and the basic principles of social organization are alien to one another, and the conflict between the two generates what Fred calls the new “intercultural” space. My observations in Australia make me think that very few people are comfortable in this space. It is full of competing viewpoints; there isn’t even agreement among those most closely involved with the production and marketing of the art.

In the last twenty years, many fine books on Aboriginal art, with glorious reproductions of the artwork, have been published. Similarly, in light of new government policies in Australia, much new anthropological fieldwork in Aboriginal studies has been carried out and brought into print. There is precious little that combines the two streams of thought and research, and Myers’ book stands out, along with the work of Howard Morphy among the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, as the finest endeavors in the field. It’s required reading for anyone with an interest in Aboriginal art and culture. And for those who, like myself, devoured the book on its publication a few years ago, a second reading will prove it to be an incisive and still timely study of the prevailing problems and concerns of all involved, artists, gallerists, scholars, and collectors alike.


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