Last year in my holiday season posts, I looked back at a decade’s worth of reading and chose what I thought might comprise a small library of essential titles relating to aboriginal art and a similar selection of anthropological works. It was not quite the usual end-of-the-year list; but it belonged to the tradition.
This year I decided to look forward instead of back. I can’t really promise that these will be the best books that I read in 2013, only that, at the moment, I’m looking forward to each of them. I’m sure there will be many more added to the list over the next twelve months, but this is a sample of what’s “on the nightstand” at the moment. (The nightstand must be understood to be metaphorical: curling up in bed with some of these books would be more like curling up with a Great Dane or a St Bernard than, say, a pussycat. On the other hand, I bought some of these books in Kindle editions–perfect for reading in bed.)
Several books on art from the deserts are in the queue. I’m already more than halfway through the enormous Ngurra Kuju Walyja / One Country One People: stories from the Canning Stock Route (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and have mined it for a story about some of the videos that were made during the months when the Canning Stock Route Project was in development. This is all the essential documentation that had to be left out of the Yiwarra Kuju catalog and exhibition and it’s a real treasure trove.
There were still a couple of days to go until Christmas at the time I wrote this post, but the best present I’d gotten this season has been Unique Perspectives, the catalog of the 40th anniversary exhibition of Papunya Tula Artists that is on at the Araluen Art Centre until April, 2013. Stunning reproductions of dozens of paintings from Alice Springs collections, including Araluen’s own, are followed by brief essays by many of the major players in the history of PTA. My favorite so far has got to be Sarita Quinlivin’s interview with Daphne Williams.
Finally, I’m hoping the someday soon the postman will arrive with my copy of Tjanpi Desert Weavers by Penny Watson (Macmillan, 2012). Maybe it’s taking so long to get here because, according to Amazon’s description, the book weighs in at almost five pounds. It looks to be a bit of social history and a bit of art history, lavishly illustrated. If it’s half as much fun as the sculptures themselves, we’re in for a good time.
There are a pair of more general art books waiting to be reviewed as well. Power + Colour: new painting from the Corrigan Collection of 21st-century Aboriginal art by Jane Raffan is another hefty, beautiful brick of a book from Macmillan. It’s 365 pages long and approximately 250 of those pages are given over to the plates, text to the left, full-page reproduction to the right, except where the painting spans the spread. Most of the art comes from the deserts and the Kimberley: the bright acrylics that have become the signature style for painterly innovation in the Noughts.
The blurb on the back calls the catalog for Crossing Cultures (Hood Museum of Art, 2012) “new scholarship on a world-caliber museum collection of Aboriginal Australian art.” I’m not going to argue with that: the contributors include Howard Morphy, Brian Kennedy, N. Bruce Duthu, Francoise Dussart, Stephen Gilchrist, Jennifer Deger, Sally Butler, Henry Skerritt, and John Carty. The book is full of history as well as vibrant new insights into the arts and culture it encompasses, not to mention gorgeous photography and brilliant design. I’ve been looking at it for six months now, smiling, and wondering how to approach writing about it.
Moving to the Top End, two encyclopedic works promise to become standard references in their respective areas. The first is narrow in focus but extraordinarily deep in extent: Anne Marie Brody’s exhaustive Larrakitj: Kerry Stokes Collection (Australian Capital Equity, 2011). It will always be hard, nearly impossible, to capture the extent of Yolngu creativity between two covers, but Brody has done a fabulous job in documenting many clans’ contributions to the art of making memorial funerary poles and, in the process, assembling a compendium of Yolngu story. I’m sure that many of us, in our younger days, set out to read through the dictionary or an encyclopedia and burned out somewhere around “aardvark.” I am not meaning to brag when I say I got all the way to Yälpi Yunupingu in this book without breaking a sweat. Compelling stuff.
Jennifer Isaacs has written many of the classic studies of Aboriginal culture published in the past thirty years, but I’m still surprised at what a massive accomplishment Tiwi: Art, History, Culture (Miegunyah Press, 2012) looks to be. Early chapters on history and culture are shot through with their representations in art; the latter half of the book focuses directly on the art and the art centres of the Islands. I’ve only glanced through my copy so far, but it seems as though the only things she’s slighted in this compendium is the footy.
My encounter with recent Aboriginal fiction in the latest issue of McSweeney’s proved inspirational, and Amazon’s Kindle store proved surprisingly accommodating, providing me with three titles to look forward to. The first thing that I picked up was Tony Birch’s Shadowboxing, a collection of stories about growing up in Melbourne Fitzroy suburb. In her recent Melbourne (from Newsouth Books), Sophie Cunningham claims that Melbourne is a city that can only be known by walking it streets, and I’ve probably walked the streets of Fitzroy more than any other district. I have multiple reasons to anticipate the perspectives, and the history, that I’ll find in Birch’s fiction.
The McSweeney’s special also made me realize that I’d been neglecting the David Unaipon Award winners for a while. Given that Campbell Newman, in one of the unkindest cuts to the arts in a highly competitive field of government malfeasance these days, has insured that there will be no further Unaipon Award winners, I thought this should be the moment to correct that oversight.
The first title I found was Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (University of Queensland Press, 2011), which won the award in 2009. How could I resist Aboriginal crime fiction? Murder, sorcery, political intrigue in Brisbane? Is there anything missing from this brew?
The second title was the winner from 2010, Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads (also UQP, 2011). Once again I must say that I’ve only sampled a few pages of this one, but I’m struck already by a voice that I haven’t heard before. Leane seems able to inhabit the child’s perspective with authenticity and yet with the knowledge acquired and perspective gained through time. I detect a more serious tone in this book, but Leane’s voice still reminds me of Marie Munkara’s knowing innocence in the humor of another Unaipon Award winner, Every Secret Thing (UQP, 2009).
(I realize this is a digression, but while I’m talking about David Unaipon winners, can I remind y’all that if you haven’t read Gayle Kennedy’s 2006 prizewinner, Me, Antman & Fleabag, you’ve missed the funniest, smartest collection of Indigenous wit and wisdom ever recorded? And it’s available in a Kindle edition. Right now.)
Another title I’ve recently plucked from the Kindle store is Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove 1788-91 (UWA Publishing, 2012). I think I’ve previously confessed to what feels like the guilty pleasure of reading Kate Grenville’s novels of early settlement around Sydney, including her treatment of the story of Dawes and the young Aboriginal girl Patyegarang in The Lieutenant. Gibson’s latest book starts from the notebooks in which Dawes recorded the words and phrases of the language of the Eora that he gleaned from Patyegarang, reproducing many pages from the Dharug wordlists Dawes assembled. Gibson then leaps into what promises to be a blend of historical reconstruction and poetic imaginings; a friend evoked Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers in talking about this book, and that was all the recommendation I really needed.
Two works of general non-fiction round out my nightstand list for early 2013. Newsouth Books has commissioned a number of prominent Australian authors to write volumes for its City Series, each of which profiles a major Australian city. I noted Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne above; Delia Falconer’s Sydney is another volume I’ve already taken up. Other capital cities have appeared already, including Adelaide, Brisbane, and Hobart. The surprise entry in the series to date is Eleanor Hogan’s Alice Springs (2012). I would have picked this up under any circumstances, as I religiously followed Hogan’s blog out of Alice for several years. But the strong Indigenous focus of the book makes it a natural for review here (and also the subject of criticism from some Alice residents).
The final book is likely to anchor the pile for some time to come: it stares intimidatingly at me from a corner of the room, bulky, serious, scholarly, and yet still magnetic in its attraction: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2011). Ecology, environment, and land management are its themes, along with the conflict and contrast between Indigenous and settler relations to the landscape. As you might imagine, fire is an important theme in the book, and an early chapter, “Canvas of a Continent” is stunningly illustrated with photographs and reproductions of early European landscapes alongside watercolors from the Hermannsburg school of painters.
No doubt 2013 will bring many more books to the bedside, but for now I feel like a banquet has been laid, and an exceedingly sumptuous one at that. Here’s to a happy new year of reading!