One Sun, One Moon: The Book

Suppose for a moment you were marooned on that mythical desert island. And suppose that you could have just one book on Aboriginal art. 

You’d want a book that could keep you entertained, involved, and inspired. A book that took a long time to reveal all its riches. A book that was encyclopedic and incisive. A book that would continue to surprise you, one that you could return to over and over. 

The book you’d want to have is One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia.

Published this year in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, One Sun One Moon goes far beyond being an exhibition catalog. Like Wally Caruana’s Aboriginal Art (Thames and Hudson, 1993), or Howard Morphy’s monograph of the same title (Phaidon, 1998), One Sun provides a concise, single-volume introduction to the scope of contemporary Aboriginal art. Like The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (Oxford, 2000), it serves as a compendium, a reference work that will be often consulted for historical detail and esoteric fact. Like Geoffrey Bardon’s Papunya: a place made after the story (Miegunyah Press, 2004), it is a mammoth, heavy (six pounds/almost three kilos), copiously and beautifully illustrated collection of essays and photographs that explores its subject in unparalleled detail. Like each of those predecessors, it is a landmark publication.

I’ve had my copy in hand for over a month now. I would come home in the evenings after work and prop the book up on my desk to begin reading another of its superbly crafted essays, and pretty soon I would be at my computer, tracking down a reference to an exhibition catalog from the 1980s that I’d never seen before, checking the availability of an early monograph on bark painting in my library, looking to see if a film by Michael Riley or a report on Aboriginal language survival is to be had somewhere for love or money. I’ve even dragged the reference librarians at the Batchelor Institute and the Northern Territory Library into the researches this book has spawned. Honestly, even the footnotes in One Sun are fascinating and deserve to be carefully read.

The works presented in the exhibition and the book are drawn from three extraordinary collections: the Art Gallery of New South Wales itself, the Musuem and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and the Holmes a Court Collection. Included here are well-known canvases familiar from other important exhibitions, such as the Papunya Tula masterpieces that graced the walls of AGNSW in 2000 or NATSIAA awards winners like Gulumbu Yunupingu’s Garak poles from 2004. Equally, there is an early Unborn Mimih Spirit on bark by John Mawurndjul and works on paper from the first days of Mangkaja artists Wakartu Cory Surprise and Nyirlpirr Spider Snell that will be new to the eyes of many readers.

There are batiks from Utopia and Ernabella, barks from Groote Eylandt, prints from Warlayirti Artists and Northern Editions, canvases from Ngukurr, weavings from Ramingining, photographs from the urban Southeast, and watercolors from contemporary Arrernte followers of the Hermannsburg School.

From the chronology at the back of the book, one can discover the dates of the first exhibitions of bark paintings from Arnhem Land (1855, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris; the first in Australia occurred in 1878 at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of New South Wales in Sydney). With very little effort one can similarly track down the changing name of of the art awards presented annually in Darwin since 1984, as well as the names of the winning artists, the names of the works for which they were honored, and the categories for which prizes were awarded–which have changed perhaps even more frequently than the name of the Awards themselves.

But the greatest treasure lies in the twenty-seven essays by a who’s who of scholars and curators and in the thirteen interviews with artists ranging from Pijaju Peter Skipper and Elaine Kngwarria Namatjira to Judy Watson and Michael Riley. Although some of these essays are reprinted from previously published sources, each offers valuable insights in the context of this vast survey of indigenous art practice.

These essays and interviews are arranged in five sections that vary in length and depth of coverage. The first of these provides introductory and historical material beginning with Hetti Perkins’ titular essay. I found Steven Miller’s “Cultural Capital: key moments in the collection of Australian Indigenous art” and Deborah Edwards’ “Histories in the Making: Aboriginal art and modernism” especially interesting, as they address important themes in the larger picture of indigenous art production that do not often find an opportunity for inclusion among catalog essays. As always, Jon Altman is eloquent in outlining the economics of support for the industry and the critical role that art centres play in both the marketplace and the business of cultural transmission.

Each of the next three sections of the book is devoted to a particular geographical area: “Art from the North,” “Desert Art,” and “Art of the Kimberley.” Of these, the section devoted to the art of the Top End is the most extensive and the most successful (in part because it comes closest to being exhaustive.) Naturally, there are important and reflective considerations of the major art centers in eastern, central, and western Arnhem Land by the respective authorities on each: Howard Morphy, Djon Mundine, and Luke Taylor. 

But perhaps the greatest thrill of the whole volume for me was David Turner’s appreciation of the art of the Warnindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt. Lacking a highly productive art center and a roster of well-known artists, and with much of the greatest work appearing regularly only in auction houses, the art of Groote Eylandt remains mysterious and little understood to most of us. It was a revelation and a delight to have Turner elucidate the stylistic distinctions between early mission-era works and those produced in the sixties and later when local artists were influenced by styles imported from the eastern mainland. This all-too-short essay left me with a heightened appreciation of both the aesthetics of the early, ethereal black barkscapes and the later, patterned works whose designs fill the support in ways unimagined in the 1940s.

Similarly, Margie West and Kim Barber elucidate the art of the Wadeye and Daly River regions in new ways for me. Judith Ryan’s essay on the art of Ngukurr, while paying appropriate homage to Ginger Riley, also explores the aesthetic of lesser known but still important artists from the region like Djambu Barra Barra.

The section on Desert art takes as its organizing principle linguistic groups and their traditions rather than a focus on communities. The Arrernte, Pintupi, Warlpiri, Alyawerre/Anmatyerre, and “Katjungka” (the amalgam of Desert and Kimberley groups surrounded the Balgo Mission settlement) peoples are treated in turn. Perhaps the most revealing and astonishing of this group of essays is the collaboration between Fred Myers and Jeremy Long, “In Recognition: the gift of Pintupi painting.” 

Given the decades of scholarship devoted to the art of Papunya Tula and the numerous major catalogs and inventories of work produced to document the contributions of the Pintupi, I hardly expected new insights from whatever One Sun had to offer. But Myers and Long shed what was for me new light on how events of the 1960s played a role in the birth of the desert painting movement that was at least as significant as the arrival of Geoff Bardon in Papunya in 1971.

John E. Stanton’s central essay in the fourth section, “Contemporary Art of the East Kimberley” illustrates another of One Sun‘s strengths. Stanton tells the history of the East Kimberly art from a prelude in regional rock art, through the origins of the Gurrir Gurrir ceremony, the roles of Paddy Jaminji and Rover Thomas and Mary Macha, to the establishment of the Warmun Art Centre and of Jirrawun Arts. There are many threads to this narrative (and to others told elsewhere in One Sun) and they have rarely been brought together at all in other publications, let alone so clearly as they are here.

The last section of the book, “New Visions” slips geographical constraints for a thematic focus. A survey of indigenous design–that is, work in pottery, batik, and other “crafts”-oriented media–is followed by Margie West’s examination of indigenous weaving traditions across Australia. The final chapters look at art production in the urban areas of the southeast, examining both politics and aesthetics among painters and photographers. Especially welcome in this section is the extended discussion of the work of Mervyn Bishop, a photographer any one of whose pictures belongs equally to the realms of journalism and fine art.

No exhibition or collection can be exhaustive and all-encompassing, of course. It is astonishing what depth these three collections provide. However, the near-encyclopedic scope of the presentation makes it is easy to overlook the fact that areas outside of a boomerang-shaped swath running from the Tiwi Islands southeast to Sydney are poorly represented here. Bidyandanga and the Pilbara get no mention, Noongar art is slighted. The areas surrounding Adelaide might not even be on the map.

Apart from the Torres Strait, the art of Queensland fares the worst of all. Even in the discussions of the Boomalli cooperative, Fiona Foley gets short shrift. There is nothing here from Lockhart River and nothing from Aurukun. The sculptural traditions of the Wik and their neighbors on the West Cape have been represented in most of the major international exhibitions of Aboriginal art, and I’m surprised to find them missing here, whether in the form of traditional ceremonial works or the modern interpretations of an artist like Craig Koomeeta. 

One Sun One Moon is generally light on sculpture. Perhaps this reflects the exhibition’s emphasis, which could be understandable, but again, given the near-comprehensiveness of this monograph, I’m disappointed that a chapter devoted to three-dimensional work is missing.

But it seems impolite (at a minimum) to complain after being treated to such a feast. The only truly comparable attempt at a catalog of this scope in the past quarter-century of exhibitions is Aratjara: Art of the First Australians (DuMont, 1993), which has long been out of print and scarce. Aratjara, for its time, was as visually rich in reproductions of art works, but the clarity of the essays in One Sun One Moon and the equally clear, simple design of the book make it far more appealing and useful. 

In Aratjara dense, double-columned texts were tucked between long, if gorgeous, spreads of illustrations. The design made it difficult to mentally cross-reference words and pictures. One Sun One Moon almost always places an illustration on or opposite the page of the text that refers to it, and provides page references if the work being discussed is illustrated elsewhere at a distance of even a page or two. This book is beautifully produced, physically as well as intellectually. Wide margins allow for extensive details (the bibliographic equivalent of wall texts) near each illustration; the paper is heavy, the bindings are strong. It’s not an easy book to curl up with in bed, but I think in this case that’s actually a virtue.

One Sun One Moon (the exhibition) will be on display in the Yiribana Gallery of the Art Gallery of New South Wales until December 9. During the month of September, the Gallery is also presenting, in the Australian Focus Room on the Ground Level, an exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative.

One Sun One Moon (the book) will be featured on desert islands for the indefinite future.


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