More Aboriginal Art (and Culture) on the Web

I have two new web sites to report on today, plus a third that’s been around for a while, but which I have (inexplicably) not yet written about.

First, the new Papunya Tula Artists website debuted this week, and it’s a beauty. The familiar galleries of paintings (men’s, women’s, and collectables) are here in a new, clean, updated look, with a browsable drop-down list of artists whose works are available in each gallery. The home page is devoted to news of exhibitions, fund-raising activities, and community events like the 2005 Papunya Tula Artists Youth Excursion to Melbourne. In each case, plenty of photographs bring these stories and events to life. The Frequently Asked Questions link isn’t active yet, but Paul promsies it will be along soon. Links to interstate representatives will also make it easy to follow PTA’s activities across Australia. Behind the scenes, new email, inventory, and book-keeping modules promise to make the work of the gallery easier to manage.

Second, there’s a new blog being written out of Papulankutja (Blackstone), called Remote Life: day to day life as art centre manager in Central Australia. Dianna just began posting a little over a week ago, so there are only a few entries up so far, but I’m already hooked. I wish her the best, and look forward to future installments in a unique contribution to the blogosphere. [Note: When I first posted this, I incorrectly identified the community as Irrunytju; my apologies all around.]

And finally, there is an extraordinary wealth of information about the Pintupi, their art, and their lives available now from Fred Myers‘ homepage at New York University. The bibliography of Fred’s dozens of publications alone is invaluable. Even better, nineteen articles published in scholarly journals and monographs between 1979 and 2005 are available as full-text PDF files. 

Some of these will no doubt be familiar and accessible to many readers, for example, “In Sacred Trust: Building the Papunya Tula Market,” which was originally published inPapunya Tula: Genesis and Genius (Art Gallery of New South Wales and Papunya Tula Artists, 2000) or “Aesthetics and Practice: A Local Art History of Pintupi Painting,” Fred’s extensive critical reading of the work of Anatjari Tjakamarra and Uta Uta Tjangala that first appeared in The Art of Place: dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art (University of Washington Press, 1999) and later anchored Fred’s analysis of the history and development of contemporary Aboriginal art in Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002).

Other articles probably haven’t been as available to folks who don’t have ready access to the collections of a research library, and having them just a click away like this is wonderful. Six months ago I posted a series of short essays following my trip to the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly that were inspired by a 1998 article that Fred sent me, “Uncertain Regard: an exhibition of Aboriginal art in France.” Last week, writing about indigenous music, I chose as the graphic for that category of posts the cover of the Warumpi Band’s third album, Too Much Humbug. It’s an image that resonates for me, as it depicts flames licking up from under a truck and has always reminded me of “Burning the Truck and Holding the Country: Pintupi forms of property and identity” (1989), which along with “Always Ask: resource use and land management among Pintupi Aborigines of the Western Australian Desert” (1982) was one of the studies that first began to unlock the riddles of Aboriginal culture for me.

Every piece that appears here in its full glory represents an important investigation into the world of contemporary Aboriginal life (sadly, you will still have to hunt down a paper copy of the 1989 essay “Truth, Beauty, and Pintupi Painting”). However, those of you with a special interest in the visual arts should make of point of reading “Representing Culture: the production of discourse(s) for Aboriginal acrylic paintings.” At the simplest level, it is a response to critical reactions to the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in New York in 1988. But it is also one of the earliest of Fred’s publications on the intersection of anthropological theory, the production of visual art, and the translation of traditional cultural practice into the commercial marketplace. As such, it remains for me one of the key critical texts for thinking about contemporary Aboriginal art.

As an added bonus, the site contains a link to a videotaped interview with Fred conducted in 1994 by Alessandro Duranti, a linguistic anthropologist from the University of California, Los Angles who was visiting Fred in New York. Although unfamiliar with Fred’s area of expertise, Duranti asks questions that expose many different facets of Fred’s extensive, integrated knowledge of Pintupi culture as expressed in their paintings. Here is Duranti’s summary introduction:

On March 5, 1994, while in New York to give a talk at New York University, I had the opportunity to video tape an interview with Professor Fred Myers, a cultural anthropologist who had worked with Australian Aboriginal people since 1973. Without much time to prepare, I turned on the camera and started to ask questions which were informally and eloquently answered. The result is a very rich account of Aboriginal paintings (especially by the Pintupi people of the Northern Territory) done while standing in front of paintings and other art objects that Myers had been collecting over the years. Since then, Myers has written and published a wonderful book, Painting Culture (Duke University Press), that tells the story of the social life of Aboriginal paintings in the contemporary art world.

This half hour of video, unrehearsed and informal as it is, stands as one of the best, most accessible, and yet subtlest introductions to the essence of Pintupi painting. Nearly half of it consists of Fred giving a detailed and contextualizing reading of a work by Freddy West Tjakamarra, Wartunumanya, which appeared as the cover illustration for the first edition of Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986; see below). Fred’s explanation of the imagery in the painting encompasses story, song, ritual, and geography; it touches on body painting, initiation and instruction, the differences between traditional painting and commercial painting, the relationship between public and secret knowledge, the history of early exhibitions of Pintupi acrylics, and correlations between physical landscapes and iconography. These themes are restated and englarged upon as Fred discusses an early painting on canvas by Uta Uta Tjangala of a site known an Yunarlanya and a small depiction of the kungka kutjarra (two women) story and ritual by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi painted inside a shallow wooden dish.

There are quick glimpses of two other paintings that afforded me new information and insights. Pointing out a classic Tingari circle-and-line composition by Yala Yala Gibbs, Fred explains that this kind of more abstract, encoded painting probably derived from ritual designs that were created on the walls of caves to be shown to initiates, and that these cave paintings were touched up or repainted over time. An unusual early work by Anatjari Tjampitjinpa features lines depicting sandhills and square designs representing desert oaks. The revelation for me in Fred’s discussion of this work in that “Nobody’s written much about how these rectilinear ones … work as signs. … They’re not really used the way Nancy Munn describes the circle – line thing.” (The video has an accompanying transcript that you can follow along with, or download for later perusal.)

Listening to Fred Myers talk about Pintupi painting always reminds me how limited and shallow my own understanding of Aboriginal art and culture is, in part because, in the midst of telling a tjukurrpa story in great detail and with a vividness I’ve rarely found elsewhere, Fred so easily and casually admits to the boundaries of his own experience and comprehension. I’m suddenly aware of how profoundly unknowable so much of Pintupi knowledge is to us, and yet Fred reminds me of that fact in a manner that only increases my sense of awe and wonder and delight in the face of these paintings. And that is real magic.

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