Kirk Endicott, Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, is such a modest man that I had a hard time getting a photograph of him last weekend. We were at Dartmouth to take part in the celebrations that marked his retirement from teaching and the start of a new phase of his career. Among other pursuits, Kirk will be studying and promoting the use of the collection of Indigenous Australian art at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art. His colleagues in the Anthropology Department hosted a retirement dinner in his honor, where friends and fellow scholars spoke fondly and read tributes sent from around the world by students who had prospered under Kirk’s direction during his thirty years with the College.
But speeches about his past accomplishments were not what Kirk wanted for a celebration. Instead, he arranged for several departments on campus to sponsor a conference on “Aboriginal Art Today” that was literally international in its scope. It was an extraordinary experience, bringing together faculty, curators, collectors, students, and members of the general public whose shared enthusiasm made for a memorable weekend.
Kirk is a scholar of prodigious accomplishments: not only did he receive undergraduate degrees from Reed College in Oregon and Oxford University, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and a D.Phil from Oxford as well. His primary research interest has been in hunter-gatherer societies, and he worked extensively with the Batek of the Malaysian Peninsula. Among his published monographs are Batek Negrito Religion: the world-view and rituals of a hunting and gathering people of peninsular Malaysia (Oxford, 1979) and The Headman was a Woman: the gender egalitarian Batek of Malaysia (Waveland Press, 2007) which he fittingly co-authored with his wife and fieldwork partner Karen. From 1974 to 1981 he was based at the Australian National University, where he developed lifelong friendships with contemporaries who include Howard Morphy, Nic Peterson, and Bob Tonkinson. In 1981 he returned to the United States and began his thirty-year (to date) tenure at Dartmouth.
We arrived a day early for the conference and were first treated to a tour through the back rooms of the Hood, where Kirk showed us some of the paintings and artifacts that have been collected at the Hood over previous decades. (Among other treasures, the Hood holds a small collection of works donated by the famed linguist Ken Hale.) One of the gems that we saw was a small bark painting of a possum that was clearly produced by a member of the Mangalili clan at Djarrakpi, and Kirk’s eyes gleamed as he remembered being at ANU when Morphy brought Narritjin Maymuru down from Yirrkala to be artist-in-residence there during 1981.
On our way out of the Museum, we stopped to admire what the Hood calls “A Space for Dialogue.” Undergraduate interns at the Hood Museum are required to mount a small exhibition in this space, and fourth-year student Natalia Wrobel had assembled four paintings, with didactics, into Aerial Perspectives: Grounded in an Infinite Landscape. Featured along with works by Jean Dubuffet and American artist Dorothy Dehner were Raymond Tjapaltjarri’s 2005 Untitled (Rockhole and Soakage Water Site at Litjardi) and Dorothy Napangardi’s 2001 painting of Mina Mina Karntakurlangu Tjukurrpa (Women’s Dreaming at Mina Mina).
In addition to this exhibition, the Hood recently hosted a series of presentations by Lesley Wellman, Curator of Education, for an undergraduate Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class taught by Sienna R. Craig, one of Kirk’s colleagues. Among the required texts for the class this semester was Fred Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high culture (Duke, 2002). The students had the opportunity to closely study over a dozen paintings and sculptural objects from the Hood’s collection that helped to make concrete and tangible the concepts and history that Myers describes. (Can you spot the artists? Freddie Timms, Clinton Nain, Yinimala Gumana, Jonathan Brown, and Freda Warlapini among others.)
The following morning a small group of faculty from Anthropology and staff from the Hood went on a tour of the Museum’s newly acquired collection of contemporary Aboriginal artwork. I shared lecturing responsibilities with two scholars also in town for the conference at Kirk’s invitation, Francoise Dussart and Jennifer Deger. Dussart, professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Connecticut, ignited the women’s painting movement at Yuendumu in 1984. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles on Aboriginal (especially Warlpiri) culture, along with the monograph The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement: kinship, gender, and the currency of knowledge (Smithsonian, 2000). Deger, a postdoctorate fellow from the University of Sydney’s College of Fine Arts currently at New York University, has worked making films with Yolngu in Gapuwiyak for over fifteen years and is the author of Shimmering Screens: making media in an Aboriginal community (Minnesota, 2006).
Friday evening Dussart delivered the conference’s keynote lecture, “Australian Aboriginal Art: acrylic movement, activism, and archiving.” In it she discussed the genesis of painting at Yuendumu, the ways in which ancestral stories are encoded in designs, and the uses to which the Warlpiri have put the opportunity to record their stories in the permanent and portable medium of acrylics on canvas. The ability to reach out to non-Indigenous audiences in their attempt to convey the essence and importance of their culture is a key element in the creation of their art. In this endeavor they are suported by the activities of collectors who can capture and disseminate the work, and museums, which can provide permanent archives for the artists’ accomplishments.
After a brief reception in the Hood’s Kim Gallery, about fifty of us assembled in Rockefeller Hall for the official “retirement” dinner. Speeches by Anthropology chair Deb Nichols, former Hood Museum director Brian Kennedy, and colleagues Rob Welsch (now at Franklin Pierce College) and Sergei Kan affectionately toasted and roasted Kirk. It was broadly acknowledged that Kirk will continue to be a vibrant figure on the Dartmouth campus, even if he no longer ventures into the classroom on a regular basis.
On Saturday morning, I offered a slide show and talk, “This is Our Country: art of Aboriginal Australia,” that described connections between the imagery of contemporary Aboriginal painting and country, as well as treating of the diversity of form in modern Indigenous art from the ceramics kilns of the Tiwi Islands to the photography studios of Sydney artists.
A panel followed, led off by Kirk, who described his long-lived enthusiasm for Aboriginal art and his anticipation of a new career of studying it–along with the opportunity to return to Australia to explore the contemporary production of the art first hand.
Jen Deger gave a brief description of the work she and her Yolngu collaborators are engaged with in Gapuwiyak before sharing a short excerpt from the recently completed video installation piece Christmas Birrimbirr (spirit). Deploying a three-screen format, the film documents the blend of Yolngu and balanda traditions that occupy the months preceding Christmas–the build-up to the monsoon season–when memories of the deceased bring forth first sorrow and then celebration. The beauty and the strong emotions evoked even in the eight-minute excerpt we were privileged to see are striking.
Brian Kennedy was next up, offering reflections on the exhibition of Indigenous art in the United States mingled with memories of his time as Director of the National Gallery of Australia and the trips he took out bush to learn about the art soon after his arrival in Australian in 1997. Rob Welsch, Kirk’s friend, colleague, and collaborator for over a decade, talked about contemporary artistic practice and tradition in highland Papua New Guinea and how activities there compare with Australian counterparts. All the speakers were joined for a livley question-and-answer session by Dussart and Stephen Gilchrist. Gilchrist, who is also studying at New York University this year, worked at the NGA during Kennedy’s tenure there and now holds the post of Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. A Yamatji man from Australia’s northwest coast around Canarvon, Stephen is quiet, articulate, and possessed of an extraordinary breadth of knowledge about contemporary Aboriginal art. He has been working with staff at the Hood for several months now as a guest curator for the major exhibition the Museum is planning for the fall of 2012.
Formal celebrations in honor of Kirk Endicott concluded afterwards with a lunch at Hanover’s excellent Canoe Club restaurant, but conversations lingered through the afternoon and evening and into Sunday morning. I think that all of us who came to town for the weekend left with a profound gratitude for Kirk’s generosity and kindness in transforming what was meant to be his moment of glory into an intellectually challenging and highly rewarding weekend. The community gathered to honor him by engaging, not so much with Kirk’s own history, but with the issues and passions that have made him an indispensable part of Dartmouth College’s commitment to education, global perspectives, and critical investigation of the place of Indigenous peoples in the modern world.