Gone Troppo: Vultures in the Top End

The weather in Darwin is lovely this time of the year. The late autumn days are warm and bright, but not suffocatingly hot the way they can be at the start of the year; the humidity drops to an imperceptible level. Harbor nights can be downright chilly. All the more surprising, then, to read this week of a monsoonal vortex of controversy surrounding the collection of Papunya boards held by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), where events seem to have briefly gone troppo.

Monday’s Australian carried a report that Alison Anderson, who holds the portfolios for Art and for Indigenous Policy in the Territory, had “intervened to overturn government policy of researching and displaying several Papunya board paintings that contain sacred Aboriginal material” (Natasha Robinson, “Minister lashes ‘culture vultures’ of Aboriginal Art,” The Australian, May 11, 2009).

MAGNT holds over two hundred masterpieces from the early days of the Central Desert experiments in acrylic painting that launched the modern Aboriginal fine art movement, although you might never know it given the paltry history of conservation and exhibition that has attended the collection. While a small number of these early boards contain depictions of highly sacred ritual actions and paraphernalia, the vast majority of them have lived on racks in the back rooms of the museum for most of the last fifty years, with only a handful every on display at a single time. 

Worldwide attention was focused on this collection a little more than a year ago when a thief smashed a plate glass window in the small hours of the morning of April 1, 2008 and made off with seven of the works from a ground floor gallery. The paintings were recovered within hours, and the thief was apprehended.

But the incident focused minds on the sorry state, not only of security, but of conservation at the Museum, which is chronically and desperately underfunded. Painted on scraps of cast-off lumber or masonite and often mounted by gluing them onto rough, acidic, burlap-covered supports, these artworks are at risk even in the controlled environments of the Museum. They are poorly documented, lost wonders from a lost world, but described at the time by Nicolas Rothwell as “no doubt … one of the glories of Australia’s national heritage” (“Mysteries of our art of darkness,” The Australian, April 5, 2008). 

Then, last August, word began to circulate that something would be done, and finally, on the night of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, then Minister for the Arts and Indigenous Policy Marion Scrymgour announced a grant to the museum that would allow for professional curation and documentation of the boards in preparation for an international tour. I would guess that most everyone gathered on the lawn of the Museum that night felt like a winner.

Early Papunya boards have been the focus this year of one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of Aboriginal art mounted in recent times (which is saying a lot), Icons of the Desert: early Aboriginal paintings from Papunya. Included amongst the fifty paintings in this show are a number of works of a sensitive nature, but it is important to note that those involved in the mounting and publication of the exhibition have gone to extraordinary lengths to respect the concerns of men from the desert about the visibility of these images. 

Some paintings were not reproduced in the catalog, but instead were included in a sealed insert available only in the United States. The catalog itself includes a lengthy essay by Centralian historian Dick Kimber describing the process by which he contacted relatives of the painters to determine the suitability of the works for exhibition and reproduction. It is worth noting that all this care was taken with paintings that had been offered at auction during the past decade. The works in question had been reproduced in auction catalogs (in print and on the web, and at least one of them, Clifford Possum’s Emu Corroboree Man (1972), was widely reproduced in newspapers and on websites at the time of its most recent sale, in July 2005, when it sold for a record price for the artist.

And yet despite the problems of curation and documentation, despite a growing awareness among scholars and collectors that the Pintupi, long known for being culturally conservative and no doubt still remembering the stories of recrimination and payback that resulted from the exhibition of these early paintings in Yuendumu, Alice Springs, and Perth, have expressed new doubts about the continued display of these works, despite all this, Alison Anderson made an announcement this week that could have set back all of the progress that is being made towards honoring both the paintings and the culture that produced them.

Anderson made some startling accusations in announcing her plans to scrap the exhibition. 

The Northern Territory’s most senior Aboriginal politician has launched a scathing attack on “culture vultures” who exploit sacred Aboriginal artworks and has vowed to halt a planned international exhibition of early Western Desert paintings.

Ms Anderson – who is soon to make new appointments to the museum’s board from a shortlist that includes Aboriginal professor Marcia Langton and Darwin businesswoman Kathy Brown – lashed out at “culture vultures” intent on exploiting sensitive aspects of Aboriginal culture.

“Soon we’ll just become people without identity and people without law and culture because everybody else knows about our law and culture,” she said.

“These people (who study the sacred elements of Aboriginal art) are vultures – culture vultures,” she said. “They’re people who like to research other people’s culture because they don’t have one of their own.

Luckily, Monday’s reversal has itself already been reversed in a rather startling fashion. On Friday, several papers including the Brisbane Times and The Age (Lindsay Murdoch,“Treasures to finally see light,” May 15, 2009) carried the latest installment. Now, the Territory will benefit from the government’s largesse.

A collection of priceless and culturally sensitive Aboriginal paintings that has languished unseen in vaults for almost 40 years will soon be exhibited in the Northern Territory.

But an ambitious plan to take the collection, known as the Papunya Tula Boards, on an international tour in 2012 has been scuppered by the territory’s most senior indigenous politician, Alison Anderson.

“These priceless pieces should be first viewed in the country of their birth,” Ms Anderson, the territory’s Arts Minister, said.

She approved the local exhibition this week, following years of pressure from art lovers to resurrect the early 1970s desert paintings.

There is no mention in either of these stories about the conservation and documentation of the boards, but I sincerely hope that both matters will be well attended to before any exhibition of them opens. There are some very good and not so obvious reasons to do so.

At the heart of the controversy about exhibiting these works today, abroad or in Australia, is the issue of revelation and concealment. As the news stories note, the men who originally painted these boards may not have grasped how widely disseminated their images would become. Nor did they expect the angry reactions of other desert groups to the revelation of such sacred material. And although the Pintupi greeted the exhibition of their and their fathers’ or grandfathers’ paintings during Papunya Tula: Genesis and Geniusin 2001 with joy, attitudes have changed in the years since. As Friday’s story notes, some of the elders, particularly Anderson’s grandfather, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, are now reluctant to have the works publicly viewed. (See my post on Fred Myers’ lecture at the Hood Museum in 2006 for details and references about this growing conservatism among the Pintupi.)

Of course, not all of these paintings contain such sensitive material. The irony, and the danger, is that without appropriate study and curation, especially now when there is a chance that the direct descendants of the painters can still be consulted, it may not be possible to determine which works should be properly restricted. Again, Rothwell reported on this aspect of the problem in his story on the April 2008 theft, noting that Vivien Johnson, who has spent an academic lifetime studying Papunya painting, “believe[s] paintings are being hung that show undisguised secret ceremonial designs against the wishes of their contemporary custodians.”

It is for such reasons that Anderson’s assertions that those who study Indigenous culture because they have none of their own, and that they want to steal the culture from its owners are not just offensive but ill-considered as well.

There is no doubt that the ethnographic study of Aboriginal people has not always benefited them, a point explored at some length by Aileen Moreton-Robinson in “How White Possession Moves: After the Word.” This essay was an invited response to a collection of academic papers published in 2006, Moving Anthropology: Critical Indigenous Studies(Charles Darwin University Press). Moreton-Robinson points out that in carrying out such studies, academics may define indigeneity from within their own world view, misrepresenting it or setting limits on it that differ significantly from the point of view of Aboriginal people themselves. Yet even at her most critical, Moreton-Robinson suggests a need for “engagement from outside the confines of anthropology.” I would suggest that the study of these early paintings offers an opportunity to open up such new perspectives.

Indeed, I hope that, as Minister for the Arts, Anderson does more that just bring the perspective of her family and her home community of Papunya to bear on the study of these paintings and calls on the knowledge of the communities of Kintore and Kiwirrkura to insure the broadest net is cast in seeking to understand these formative, pioneering paintings.

Such research, carefully shepherded by scholars of Vivien Johnson’s character, can indeed prove the very opposite of what Anderson alleges. It can demonstrate how culture is fundamentally inalienable. It might be lost over time, but it can never be given away, nor taken away.

These paintings are expressions of ritual, and it would be well to remember that rituals were (and still are) a form of commerce in the deserts. The songs and stories of the “Balgo business” have been traded from the western coast all the way into the Centre, much like pearl shells with their incised meanders. Ritual business has value, and trading it establishes connections among “the many clans in this nation, not all of one law, but many laws” as Anderson was quoted saying in Monday’s article in The Australian. Although her reference was explicitly to the varieties of Indigenous law and culture, it is equally apt in relation to Anglo-Australians as well. It is important to remember that when one group passed a ritual on to another, they did not lose the rights to that ritual; in fact, they enriched themselves in the exchange by gaining new rights to other rituals.

In painting stories associated with ritual business, the early artists at Papunya were asserting the value of their connection to the country they painted. By offering those paintings for sale, they looked to achieve an exchange of value. It may have been an unequal exchange in the end, and it may have been built on misunderstood premises, but it was engaged in enthusiastically and hopefully.

All that is not to say that the terms of exchange may not be renegotiated over time. Indeed, the Pintupi famously altered the terms of exchange under pressure from the Pitjantjatjara by restricting the display of the offending works and by ceasing to paint explicit renditions of ceremony and ceremonial objects. They also made retribution. And now, decades later, their knowledge and cooperation must be enlisted to elucidate the meanings of those early paintings, to determine which of the vaulted treasures need to be treated with proper respect for the secrets they embody. 

An uneducated eye can not distinguish between secret and public images. Vivien Johnson’s concerns demonstrate this fact, as does Kimber’s essay in the Icons catalog. Indeed, some of Anderson’s own paintings recently shown at the Karen Brown Gallery in Federation Square contain images that look like sacred ritual paraphernalia (see in particular the modified string cross in “Relatives: sequence of Rain Dreamings” and other motifs in “Sacred Women Dancing at a site in Desert Country”). Without study and documentation and exhibition, misunderstandings and misappropriation will only worsen.

The Papunya boards entered the marketplace nearly 40 years ago. It is impossible to unring that bell completely. Moreover, it should be recognized that much good has followed from that initial set of transactions. There is no doubt that the art market has enriched, not only buyers of the art, but some of its creators as well (although not equally). And these transactions have certainly elevated the general understanding and value of Aboriginal culture both within Australia and abroad. Properly directed conservation and exhibition will only serve to increase that value in both monetary and cultural terms. With regard to the question of the equality of the exchange, it is worth noting briefly that ignorance and disregard for those values contribute to carpetbagging and to unscrupulous dealers prizing their own financial gain over the concerns of the artists and their families.

Happily, cooler heads and cooler temperatures seemed to have prevailed against the tropical maelstrom. Some good may have emerged in the end, for it would surely be a boon to see MAGNT’s treasure on display in the Territory and then in galleries across Australia and around the world. There is still time to step back and take a deep breath, to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue about the future of the Papunya boards and the place of Aboriginal painting in a broader context. These discussions will inevitably be political. (I never fail to marvel at how Fred Myers nailed the key concepts of desert culture in the subtitle to Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self by describing his work as treating of “sentiment, place and politics among Western Desert Aborigines.”) Political though they must be, they need not be partisan. The work is too important for that.

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