Author’s Note

I want to say a few words by way of introduction and acknowledgment.First of all, I’m an American: nothing to be terribly boastful of these days, but something to be noted in what will be a discussion of matters mostly Australian. Despite fifteen years’ involvement with Aboriginal art, I think I do remain a foreigner, a bit of an outsider.Second, I’m a collector of art and books, with no commercial or economic interests in either. I don’t sell Aboriginal art, although I count as friends some people who do. I’m in it for the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, and I hope there’s also an element of social engagement. By profession I’m a librarian; although I work at an academic institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’m not an academic. Third, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of good writing about Aboriginal art in the current literature. Newspaper and magazine articles tend to focus on commerce and auctions more than on the art. When the art is a focus, it’s often at a most rudimentary level and usually involves the same old blather about the Dreaming, the world’s oldest continuous etc., etc. There’s a lack of much new insight and a determination not to offend in the periodical press. The scholarly and anthropological literature is rich, but with rare exceptions (Myers, Morphy, Taylor) does not have art as its primary focus.

This complaint was recently raised by Martin Wardrop in the August 2005 issue of his Aboriginal Art Online Newsletter . (Martin is the Director of Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd .) Writing about this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, he first quotes Nicholas Rothwell’s article, “The big picture, little dreaming,” in the Australian(August 15, 2005):

“And who should say what constitutes good or bad Aboriginal art? The lack of a serious critical language in relation to this large, much-valued archipelago of creativity is detrimental to the industry, and to its chief award.”Martin then goes on to say:
“There is a great shortage of considered, critical analysis and comment about Aboriginal art. While there are excellent books on the emergence of contemporary Aboriginal art, there is nothing that considers the development of regional styles, the interaction of Aboriginal culture with the art market, the roles of art centres, coordinators and galleries, or the relationship of Aboriginal art to other contemporary art in Australia. Apart from comments by artists such as Gordon Bennett, Judy Watson and Richard Bell who have expressed views and written articles, there is little else.”Although my previous post should make it clear that I think such analysis is exactly what Fred Myers provides in Painting Culture, I am largely in agreement.I am not sure how well I can address the shortage of critical writing in a blog, but this seems a forum to at least start a discussion or raise some issues. Maybe I will be lucky, or inspired, or both.Before I conclude these prefatory remarks, I want to acknowledge the example of Jonathan Shaw, a Sydneysider whose excellent blog, Family Life, has given me the gumption to undertake this enterprise. Jonathan’s blog is not at all about Aboriginal art apart from a single entry in which he describes attending the opening of a show of work from Aurukun at Hogarth Galleries in 2004. (Jonathan’s niece, Natasha Shaw, was working at the Aurukun Art Centre at the time; as of tomorrow, September 19, she begins a stint as Acting Art Centre Manager for Warlayirti Artists in Balgo.) I had the great good fortune to meet and spend time with Jonathan and his partner, Penny Ryan, during my recent travels in Australia. Penny’s consulting work has benefited those who live and work in Aboriginal communities, including the Fred Hollows Foundation. Jonathan and Penny proved to be as warm, intelligent, funny, and generous as my reading of his blog suggested they would be. For their hospitality as well as inspiration, my gratitude.

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