Dreaming Their Way at Dartmouth: The Conference Keynote Address

My delight in being invited to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College for the opening of Dreaming Their Way was doubled by the promise of a conference that featured a day and a half of speeches, tours, and discussions relating to Aboriginal art and culture of Australia and the Americas. How could I be disappointed by a program that offered Fred Myers as the keynote speaker? 

For some years now, a theme of Fred’s research has been the circulation of objects–in this case paintings–that are “intercultural” in nature. That is, they are both “true, from the Dreaming” according to their creators and, as Fred stated in his lecture, worthy of a place in Western art markets and in museums. Most recently, Fred has been working with a collection of film shot in the Central Desert during the early 1970s by Ian Dunlop, the director of the important ethnographic film projects People of the Western Desert and The Yirrkala Film Project. The footage of the Pintupi now in Fred’s hands was never edited into a finished film. 

Fred is now taking some of this film back to Australia to share with the communities depicted in it, who have never before seen any of it. He is consulting with the people (or with their descendants) about what might be done with it, and whether it is appropriate at this point to share it with others outside the communities where it originated. Among those involved in these discussions are Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, one of the few surviving members of the original group of men who painted with Geoffrey Bardon, and Bobby West Tjupurrula, son of Freddy West Tjakamarra and Fred’s closest friend among the Pintupi. These discussions have led to broader conversations among the Pintupi men about the appropriate display of images inside and outside indigenous communities, hence the title of Fred’s talk, “Censorship from Below: Aboriginal Acrylic Painting in the Border Zones.” An earlier working title of the talk, “Unsettled Business,” hints at the controversies emerging.

Before beginning his formal talk, Fred treated the audience to some brief excerpts from this film footage. In the first of these, a group of men are seated under a patch of trees, with canvases propped against the trunks and laid out along the ground. Bob Edwards of the Aboriginal Arts Board has come to have a look at the work, which the men hope he will purchase. At one point Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi is heard (in Fred’s on-the-spot live translation) telling Edwards to take some boomerangs off and sell them so he can return with cash to buy paintings. Shorty is working on a small canvas depicting a story from the Tingari cycle, full of overlapping concentric circles, which represent a mob of initiates gathered together for instruction from older men. Already in this brief sequence we are given a glimpse of the meeting of the marketplace and the Dreaming.

Other clips that Fred showed at the opening of his talk included Uta Uta Tjangala painting, and Long Jack standing in a group of Pintupi men watching the proceedings. A final short segment showed women singing and dancing with hair belts strung between their hands; among the seated and painted-up participants was Makinti Napanangka, whose work is included in the exhibition now at the Hood Museum.

Embarking on his discussion of the status and value of these artworks as “unsettled business,” Fred reminded the audience that the works move across ethnic boundaries. Much as they cross the line between black and whitefellas, they also move back and forth across the borders of high and low art. He reminded the audience of several key concepts to be held in mind when approaching these artworks. He spoke of the “structures of visibility and invisibility” that inform the creation and reception of these designs in Aboriginal society. By this I understand the manner in which the imagery of the artwork both conceals and reveals. Certain meanings are made visible; others, though perhaps in plain sight, require the knowledge of an initiate to be understood. Fred also spoke of how the “control of manifestations” of sacred knowledge is central to Pintupi society with its “revelatory regimes of value.” Listening to him speak, I thought that our Western adage that “knowledge is power” is a weak concept in the face of the Pintupi assertion of the control of these images and the stories they represent.

As an aside here, let me say a word about the Tingari cycle’s secret nature. Those who are familiar with the documentation produced for men’s paintings by Papunya Tula Artists have surely read a brief description of the story associated with a painting followed by the phrase, “Since events associated with the Tingari Cycle are of a secret nature no further detail was given.” For many years, I inferred from this documentation that the Tingari stories were of a particularly sensitive nature, perhaps the most sacred of lore. But as Fred informed the audience at the Hood that night, Tingari stories came dominate men’s paintings only by 1973, after controversies about the depiction of ritual paraphernalia in earlier works forced a compromise, or a backing off from the subject matter that was deemed too sacred to be presented to any outsiders. In the earliest days, Fred told us, the painters assumed that the secret nature of the stories presented on those early paintings posed no real threat to women or uninitiated men, as once they were sold and moved into the “outside” world they would be gone from the scope of view of the community itself. The Tingari stories encompassed sufficient public information (women accompanied the men and boys on these journeys, for instance) that they were “safe” for public display. (For further information see Fred’s Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 65ff.)

The power of these images to incite controversy persisted over the next few years. (Fred reminded the audience of the recent uproar over the Danish cartoons that inflamed Muslim sentiment as testimony to the continuing power of images in society). In 1975, by which time the self-censoring of painted images was well established, a group of Pitjantjatjara men visiting an exhibition of Pintupi painting in Perth demanded that a total of 44 of the 46 works in the exhibition be turned to face the wall. Since the Pitjantjatjara jointly owned some of the Dreamings shown in these works, they demanded compensation from the Pintupi artists for the affront of presenting the stories without prior consultation. After some negotiating, the Pintupi acceded to the Pitjantjatjara demands. While Fred was not specific about the form this compensation took, it seems to me that once again we are at the borders of knowledge, art, and commerce in this story.

A quarter of a century later, many early works of these artists were collected in Sydney for the important exhibition Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Fred returned to Australia for the event, and was reunited with his friends from decades before. (He showed the Hood audience wonderful photographs of Bobby West, Charlie Tjapangati, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and Kenny Williams from those days in Sydney in 2000.) He quoted Bobby West’s reaction upon seeing all the old paintings again.

I walked in and I looked at them, and I feel–you know–happy. I saw that my father did it, and my uncles, my grandfather, and I was happy. It was a really long time ago, in 1971 and 1974. And I got a shock when I saw. It’s really good, you know? And we feel really proud for our family [who] did it, long time ago (Painting Culture, p. 346).

And yet despite this endorsement at millennium’s end, the circulation of these images remains “unsettled business.” Fred told the conference audience that, in his trips to Australia this year, he has found that the dialogue with the external world that the Pintupi have been conducting through their paintings since 1971 is being refocused in 2006 into an internal dialogue about meaning, value, and audiences. This may be due in part to the fact that all the old men of the first generation of painters (save Long Jack) are now gone. It may, as Fred speculated, have to do with the changing nature of the circulation of images in the age of the Internet. There is talk among the Pintupi that perhaps it is not appropriate for these earliest images to be publicly displayed any longer in Australian museums. Different scenarios for controlling the manifestations of the Dreaming are under discussion, including one (which Fred wryly postulated has little chance of success) that proposes that the Australian government buy back the entire corpus of early paintings and paintings and lock them away for the next 500 years.

This internal dialogue, then, is the source of Fred’s speculation on “censorship from below.” If nothing else, it points to a critical difference in the border zone between Pintupi and white perceptions of this work. For the Pintupi, it is the moment of creation that is all important. It is the act of painting, the re-engagement with the Dreaming, that captures their concern. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t give as much importance to the concept of the artwork which endures past the moment of creation. The critical reception and future life of the artwork matters a great deal to Western artists, and almost not at all to the traditional Pintupi painter. Certainly, this attitude has undergone a great change since the creation of the Honey Ant mural on the Papunya School wall 35 years ago, but as the generation that took that step forward is no longer able to speak for itself, it seems that the younger painters are now involved in a reassessment of their responsibility, perhaps not so much to the future as to their fathers and grandfathers and to the importance of “following up the Dreaming.” 

Fred’s lectures, articles, and books are always a fascinating and difficult blend of abstract theorizing and concrete incident. At Dartmouth, several times he interrupted his prepared remarks to offer an anecdote, an enlargement, or an explanation. I get a vertiginous thrill from following that oscillation between the particular and the principle that Fred creates with such ease. His stories are always intriguing, and the lessons he extracts from them inevitably worth extended consideration.

Fred Myers (left) and yours truly outside the Hood Museum on the eve of the conference. The banner, one of several designed to promote Dreaming Their Way at Dartmouth, features Tali at Talaalpi by Alice Nampitjinpa, 2001 (private collection).

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