Warlpiri Woman: Engaging the Physical in Aboriginal Art

On March 23 the College of Fine Arts (COFA) at the University of New South Wales concluded a ten-day workshop, held in conjunction with the Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics, that brought five Warlpiri women, led by Rosie Napurrurla Tasman, from Lajamanu to Sydney. The press release for the workshop noted that the “exclusive focus on women and women’s art redressed the historical imbalance of the predominance of male artists” and aimed “to explore issues relating explicitly to Warlpiri women’s artistic practices.” The workshop concluded with the exhibition of twenty-two artworks on canvas and paper, along with sixteen painted yulkurrukurru (dancing boards) and coolamons.On the final night of the workshop, COFA sponsored the launch of an important new book by Jennifer Biddle, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert art as experience(University of New South Wales Press, 2007, distributed in the United States by the University of Washington Press). Biddle is an anthropologist on the faculty of Macquarie University with a degree from the University of Sydney and her new book is the result of two years of fieldwork in Lajamanu. The book launch appropriately featured a performance of yawulyu, women’s Dreaming ceremony, for it is to the combination of body painting, singing, and dancing that Biddle looks for the central meaning of contemporary indigenous art.

Breasts, Bodies, Canvas is a relatively short monograph–just over 100 pages of text–beautifully illustrated with superbly produced color plates and written in language that makes the author’s intellectual tradition clear to the scholar while remaining engaging for the collector or enthusiast with a less academic bent. It provides a thoughtful critical exegesis of Warlpiri women’s painting by examining the physicality of the art: the kind of art criticism that engages the physical properties of the paintings to explain the emotional affect of the work. There is, no doubt, a coherent intellectual framework based in the theoretical work of Delueze and Derrida, in contemporary feminist, psychological, and colonialist studies. But the original contributions of this book and its insights into contemporary indigenous art production are firmly grounded in a deep and sensuous interaction with the object itself. The success of Biddle’s approach is evident to me in the fact that, although she strictly limits herself to the examination of the work of Warlpiri women, and indeed sets up frequent contrasts between their work and and that of male painters from country further west, I often found myself perceiving the relevance of her insights to paintings by, for example, Pintupi men.

Although Biddle’s investigations rely on close examination of the works reproduced in the thirty-two full-page color plates, she does not offer readings of them, or attempt to decode the symbols used in them. Her extensive analysis of paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, and Dorothy Napangardi likewise tells us nothing of the Dreamings of the yam, the thorny devil lizard , or Mina Mina. Instead, Biddle tells the reader early on that such translation of iconography is quite antithetical to her purpose, and suggests that the women themselves are now reacting to the practice of translation by refusing to give titles to their artworks or to provide more than the most rudimentary stories. (“‘Yarla‘, they might say. Sweet potato…. ‘Jukurrpa, that one. Dreaming, you know.'” p. 9) She suggests that our eurocentric emphasis on reading–the interpretation of men’s paintings as maps with specific, knowable geographical locations embedded in them, for example–has blinded us to the true nature of these paintings. That nature is best located in the physical being, in the marks of their making that are a mimesis of the ancestral actions of the Dreaming.

Biddle wants us to turn our attention away from an intellectual analysis of the art towards an appreciation of its affect, by which she means a more visceral and pre-analytical response to the work. Such a reaction is one that is grounded in sensation, in the perception of the thickness of paint, in the visible but also palpable traces of the artist’s body in the object. This perception takes us not only to an appreciation of the artwork’s origin in body painting and scarring, but also to an appreciation of the physical connection between the artist’s brush and the canvas, or the touch of the painting stick on a women’s breast as kirda (owner) and kurdungurlu (manager, and in this sense painter) prepare for the ceremony. The heart of Biddle’s argument is developed in her second chapter, “The Imprint.”

The contention of this book is that rather than map, story or icon, contemporary women’s art can more adequately be understood as a certain bodily imprint or writing; a writing that creates as it repeats an initial Ancestral imprinting of country. This art does not so much ‘look like’ Ancestors, flora, fauna as emanate Ancestral sentience and sensibilities; a bodily expression of bodily experience. Rather than representing the Dreaming, these paintings enact it. In other words, these paintings are performative of the Dreaming…. What we can discern from the art itself is that if painting is to engender the efficacy of the Dreaming, it must reproduce marks as Ancestors themselves first did; as bodily imprints, as corporeal traces. Dreaming Ancestors made, marked, imprinted the country, the flora and fauna, the elements and the atmosphere, the weather and the people, and this is exactly what is repeated by women painters (pp. 54-55).

If we are capable of penetrating to this level of understanding through direct, sensual engagement with the artwork, then we are better positioned, even as outsiders, to appreciate it from an indigenous perspective, to understand the power embodied in it.

Even if disengaged from the body of the Ancestor, the forms, features, marks and named places that make up country do not cease to retain Ancestral presence and potency. Sites and places hold precise affiliations and identifications as well as powerful and potentially dangerous forces. These corporeal marks are the same marks (places, features, forms) used in painting. Hence the constitutive force, power and effects associated with marks and mark-making: to rejuvenate country, species; to control fertility; to regulate social relations and relatedness; to cause illness, to heal and to harm are just some of the effects (p. 56).

In rereading these selections, I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s line from An Essay on Criticism, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Biddle insists on the act of painting, on the significance of the painted surface, be it breast or canvas, and on the mark itself, as the carriers of meaning. Moreover, it is the ability to feel this experience that is crucial to understanding. Biddle is not far from Bardon’s insistence on the haptic quality of Aborginal art, but she has conveyed his meaning with an enviable clarity.

As she explores her subject, Biddle pays close attention to process. She compares the oiling of women’s skin prior to the application of ochre to the painstaking preparation of the canvas, which may be overpainted with a dark, skin-colored ground even if previously gessoed by someone at the art centre. The oil (or the fat used in hunting days) gives lustre or shimmer to the painted body, as the underpainting creates texture that enhances the sensual appreciation of the designs applied over it. This is a point she develops admirably in her discussion Kathleen Petyarre’s Sandhill Country series. 

Once the surface is prepared, the marks (in Warlpiri, kuruwarri) are traced upon it. In body painting, this tracing of marks requires repeated application of painting stick to skin to make the design stand out clearly. On canvas, the kuruwarri are usually laid down first in black and then outlined with white dots. The perceptual effect of this is often to make the mark or icon itself, which ought to be construed as the positive space in the design, recede into the background of the white dotted outline. However, succeeding, repeated outlining of the mark in other colors tends to emphasize the black mark again. This ambiguity of depth, the mark moving up and down in the field of sight, in and out, engages the Ancestral pattern of emergence from the ground and return into it, as well as the persistent polarity of emergent and hidden, public and sacred, visible and invisible. As Biddle puts it in the selection I quoted above, here are the “constitutive force, power, and effects.”

The very act of repeating that is crucial to the process of painting, be it the repeated strokes on the skin or the repeated outlining of the icon with laborious dotting, calls forth the essential timelessness and repeatability of the Dreaming itself. Ritual in its essential nature is repeatable, and it is the act of repetition that marks the separation of the ritual from the mundane. Close attention to the action of painting as revealed in the physical object thus manifests its essential qualities. There is a remarkable alignment of intention, execution, and outcome resulting in a unitary experience of the work of art in which each aspect is inextricably bound up with every other.

Detail of Yarla Jukurrpa by Bessie Nakamarra Sims, 1996

Biddle’s insights in this chapter are fleshed out in her extended analysis of the very different artistic approaches taken by Kathleen Petyarre and Dorothy Napangardi that forms the bulk of the third chapter, “On Skin.” Her final chapter, “On Breasts” returns her focus to body painting and develops the theme of the primal link between mother and newborn that occurs at the breast into a signal metaphor for attachment: to country, to others, to the Dreaming. It is in this last essay that Biddle’s psychological and feminist bent emerges most strongly, and I confess I find this conclusion less compelling than the phenomenological analysis of the earlier chapters. Perhaps this is a matter, too, of affect, and I have my own gender-related difficulties in appreciating it. However, the chapter does serve to remind the reader that the painting of women’s breasts is the genesis of a pattern of activity that leads through dance (which marks the earth as well) to painting on boards and on canvas.

Breasts, Bodies, Canvas is the most engrossing combination of aesthetic and anthropological thought that I have read in a long time. It is that rare endeavor in which fieldwork informs artwork and vice-versa. My thanks to David Nash of the ANU who attended the launch and tipped me off to the publication of the book, and to Gabriella Sterio and John Elliot at UNSW Press for expeditiously shipping a copy over to me. And most of all, of course, to Jennifer Biddle and the women of Lajamanu for teaching us all.

Jennifer Biddle will be taking part in the second Past Matters festival at the Eltham Bookshop, sponsored in conjunction with the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group, on April 29 and 30. Tickets are $25 for the entire festival, and $5 for an individual event. The Bookshop is located at 970 Main Road, Eltham, Vic 3095; telephone 03 9439 8700 for more details, but note that bookings are essential.

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