New Year, Old Books

A few years ago, a friend suggested that I post a list of the best books for aspiring students of Aboriginal art and culture to gather for their personal libraries.  At the time I thought it was an impossible request to fill.  As librarians like to joke, so many books, so little time.  And how to choose?

Well, the recent spate of year-end lists has inspired me, along with a few days of holiday vacation given over to sorting through the piles of books in my office, making sure I’ve catalogued them, and trying to squeeze them into the vanishing inches of shelf-space left in the house.  And so I have made an attempt to select a few titles out of the hundreds I’ve amassed over the years to present here.  I’ll begin with cultural studies–mostly anthropological in nature, sometimes shading over into art–that have been touchstones for me.  Next time, I’ll delve into the world of art more specifically to select titles that I treasure.  In both cases, there will be serious omissions, I’m sure, but there is not world enough or time to do justice to the vast literature.

The top of the list must be reserved for Fred Myers’ Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: sentiment, place, and politics among Western Desert Aborigines (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986).  Myers’ study of the Pintupi, based on fieldwork done in the 1970s, asserts the psychological primacy of the twinned poles of autonomy and relatedness in desert Aboriginal culture.  I suspect that it is the most-cited work on Australian Aboriginal culture ever written; it seems that very few books or articles written in the last twenty-five years do not refer to it or have not been affected by it.  Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002) may not have been as influential, but to me it is the quintessential study of the genesis of the modern painting movement, a spectacular blend of art history, anthropology, and personal observation that has no peer.

Howard Morphy’s scholarship on the art and culture of the Yolngu represents to me the other half of the great equation: if Myers is the consummate scholar of the deserts, Morphy is unrivaled in studies of the Top End.  Ancestral Connections: art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1991) has been described to me as “inventing Yolngu art” with only slight exaggeration, and Morphy’s description of the dynamics of “inside” and “outside” knowledge and the use of bir’yun (brilliance) in Yolngu art are as fundamental to an appreciation of the Yolngu as Myers’ concept of autonomy and relatedness are to the Pintupi.  Morphy’s Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest: an accompanying monography to the film Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1984) unpacks Ian Dunlop’s 1979 documentary in ways that astonish me still.  His recent Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories (UNSW Press, 2008) is broader in focus and likewise essential reading.

W. E. H. Stanner’s  White Man Got No Dreaming: essays 1938-1973 (Australian National University Press, 1979) was a Grail of sorts for me for a long time.  Out of print for decades, it was another book that almost everyone cited but was hard to put my hands on.  But I persisted in the quest and when an original hardback in nearly pristine condition arrived one day, I sat down to be mesmerized by Stanner’s erudition, intelligence, and eloquence.  The people Stanner wrote about were vividly human, not subjects of study or objects of curiosity.  I learned great chunks of history from this book but most importantly, I learned sympathy and a sort of humility; Stanner has been a guiding and tutelary spirit.  The essays have recently been re-issued under the title The Dreaming and Other Essays (Black Inc., 2009).

Jennifer Deger’s Shimmering Screens: making media in an Aboriginal community (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) is the first great ethnography of the 21st century.  Chronicling years of work in the community of Gapuwiyak, Deger has written a book that is also a rare mixture of intelligence and empathy.  She and her brother Bangana Wunungmurra collaborated on a film that, unlike Ian Dunlop’s work in Yirrkala in the 1970s, does not capture or record ritual but embodies it.  If that seems like a subtle distinction, falling into the arms of this book will render it quite clear.   It is sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking and always illuminating about the ways in which Yolngu see the world.

Luke Taylor’s Seeing the Inside: bark painting in Western Arnhem Land (Clarendon Press, 1996) is as definitive about Kunwinjku painting as Morphy’s books are about Yolngu art.  Written well before the global enthusiasm for the work of John Mawurndjul catapulted the arts of Maningrida and, to a lesser extent, Injalak to fame, it is essential to understanding not only the contemporary output of those art centres, but the rock art traditions upon which they are based.

Wanderings in Wild Australia (Macmillan, 1928, 2v.) is credited to Baldwin Spencer on its title pages, but is actually a distillation of earlier works Spencer co-authored with Frank J. Gillen.  Gillen’s corrspondence to his partner in exploration and research, published as My Dear Spencer: the letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer (Hyland House, 1997), reveals the depth of Gillen’s contributions to their work and provides an affecting insight into the author’s aspirations, dreams, and disappointments.  Like Across Australia (Macmillan, 1912, 2v.), Wanderings is intended as a popularization of the researches recorded in the pair’s earlier publications; both succeed admirably in combining a sense of page-turning adventure with detailed information about the lives of Aboriginal people in contact with whites at the turn of the twentieth century.

Another annal of early contact in the desert is contained in Donald Thomson’s thrilling Bindibu Country (Thomas Nelson, 1975).  Although Thomson is writing about events that happened more than half a century after Spencer and Gillen roamed the deserts, and nearly twice that long after the travels of the nineteenth-century explorers, there is no lack of drama and excitement in these pages.  Thomson traveled with one of the first Welfare Patrols led by Jeremy Long and E. C. Evans to seek out “uncontacted” natives in 1957; I can’t help but wonder if some of the men Thomson met eventually might have wound up in Papunya and taken up painting.  Whether they did or not, the portrait of the desert Pintupi that Thomson creates is spellbinding.  I have to thank David Nash, though, for pointing me to a “corrective” vision of these expeditions published by Evans and Long years later, “Aborigines of western central Australia,” Geographical Journal, v. 13, no. 3, September 1965.

Returning to the North, I found Lloyd Warner’s classic A Black Civilization: a social study of an Aboriginal tribe (Harper and Bros., 1937) utterly, almost absurdly, engrossing.  I say absurdly, because there are pages and chapters devoted to charts of kinship organization and similar kinds of technical exposition that ought to be dreary reading, but manage to be fascinating as well as sometimes puzzling, and always challenging.  Warner is not Stanner’s equal in style or eloquence, but his appreciation for the people with whom he engages is as real and therefore as fascinating.  The second edition (1958) adds an engrossing appendix entitled “Mahkarolla and Murngin Society” (“Murngin” being the term Warner used for Yolngu).  Mahkarolla was Warner’s chief informant, and this chapter constitutes a short biography of the man in his culture.  Later editions, beginning in 1964, omit substantial chunks of essential material; caveat emptor.

Basil Sansom’s  The Camp at Wallaby Cross: Aboriginal fringe dwellers in Darwin (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1980) made a huge impression on me: it revealed to me Aboriginal sociality in ways that no-one else had ever addressed.  Although it is based on research that is now more than thirty years old, this study of the “long-grass people” still seems starkly relevant in many ways.  Its discussions of violence in domestic circumstances–and its elucidation of what “domestic circumstances” mean to Aboriginal people–or its explication of patterns of migration and group affiliation ought to be required reading for anyone who takes a position in government that affects the quality of life for Indigenous people.

Every one of Gillian Cowlishaw’s books is a candidate for inclusion here, starting with Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race (Blackwell, 2004).  Cowlishaw investigates race relations: how blackfellas and whitefellas see each other and  themselves in relation to each other. She also works in locations that few other anthropologists have penetrated (or published on) to the same degree:  in this volume Bourke, NSW, but also around Mainorou Station in country east of Katherine, NT (Rednecks, Eggheads, and Blackfellas: a study of racial power and intimacy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1999) and in the outer west Sydney suburbs (The City’s Outback, UNSW Press, 2009).

In the essays that comprise Reports from a Wild Country: ethics for decolonisation (UNSW Press, 2004), Deborah Bird Rose tackles a wide array of topics ranging across race relations, Aboriginal concepts of time, tourism, geography, ecology, and the horrors of colonial history.  Rose has an uncanny knack for exposing the variance in world views that inform black and white society and she writes comedy and tragedy with equal facility.  Reports from a Wild Country is truly illuminating: light bulbs will be going on in your head every few pages.

Nancy Williams explores the questions of contact and cross-cultural adjustment among the Yolngu in two relatively short but powerful studies, The Yolngu and Their Land: a system of land tenure and the fight for its recognition (Stanford University Press, 1986) and Two Laws: managing disputes in a contemporary Aboriginal community (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Stuies, 1987).  The former is broadly historical in scope, using the Yirrkala Land Rights case as a means of exposing not only the principles of Yolngu land tenure, but European notions of property and property law as well, demonstrating how they are fundamentally in opposition to one another, much to the loss of the Yolngu.  The latter title is more focused on aspects of daily life as seen through the lens of conflict, negotiation, and resolution.  Once again, the seemingly irreconcilable values of Yolngu and Balanda struggle to find ground on which co-existence can be forged.

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2 Responses to New Year, Old Books

  1. Pingback: Best Books of Next Year | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: Explicating Bark Painting | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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