“Crossing Cultures”: the catalog in review

2013-books-crossing-culturesA little over two years ago, Kathy Hart, then the acting Director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (following Brian Kennedy’s departure for the Toledo Museum of Art) asked me for suggestions for authors for the catalog essays that would accompany the Crossing Cultures exhibition.  I had no trouble in reeling off a list of a dozen names of people whose writing on Aboriginal art and culture I deeply respected, people who have been instrumental at various stages in building my own understanding and appreciation.  It was a “kid in the candy store” moment: why not ask for everything?

Amazingly, in the end, almost all of my suggestions were taken up and the result is one of the strongest exhibition catalogs, in terms of written contributions to the subject, that I have seen in nearly twenty-five years of reading about Aboriginal art.  I first saw galley proofs of this magnificent achievement nearly six months ago, and as I noted recently, I’ve been wondering how to condense its splendors into a brief review ever since.

Luckily, my friend Jonathan Shaw has solved the problem for me.  I introduced Jonathan in my last post, and now he has graciously granted me permission to reproduce his musings on the exhibition catalog for Crossing Cultures here.  (I was equally delighted to find it appearing on his “best-of” list for 2012; his partner Penny described it as a “great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.”  And that is indeed much of the genius of these essays.  They are accessible, and yet they also present some important new ideas about the art and culture on view in the exhibition.

One final word before I allow Jonathan to ascend the podium.  The catalog is, beyond its intellectual delights as chronicled below, a thing a sheer beauty.  The photography is superb, and generous, with each essays fulsomely supplemented with the author’s choice of works from the collection, occasionally supplemented with historical photographs or an important relevant work from a public collection elsewhere.

Crossing Cultures with Owen and Wagner

Stephen Gilchrist (editor), Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College 2012)

Until now I’ve assumed that exhibition catalogues were basically illustrated lists, of little or no interest to anyone who hasn’t been to the event they relate to. The Crossing Cultures catalogue has made me think again. My rethink was given a serendipitous boost by Mary Beard‘s contribution to TLS Books of the Year lists. She wrote:

Let me put in a plea (not for the first time) that we don’t forget the great contribution of exhibition catalogues, which often goes far beyond a simple record of the show concerned.

Like the esoteric-sounding catalogue she had in mind, Crossing Cultures ‘includes some wonderful essays and entries’. The bulk of the book is devoted to ten substantial essays, while the illustrated list – the ‘exhibition checklist’ – takes up less than a quarter of its pages. Since very few of my readers are likely to visit the exhibition (it’s in New Hampshire) or see the catalogue, I’ll give you a quick guided tour. The Art Student’s words when she first flipped through the book echo my own response and serve very well as a TLDRAt last, something that might help me understand some basics about Aboriginal art.

Will Owen kicks things off with an account of how he and Harvey Wagner created the collection of Aboriginal Art which they are now donating to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, and which constitutes the exhibition. People often bemoan the influence of collectors as a key part of the commodification of art and the art scene under capitalism. Will’s essay gives a different perspective. It describes how the urge to collect grew from being captivated by the art, and led him and Harvey to build relationships with dealers and artists, and to a deep engagement with ‘the complex social and cultural elements that informed [the art’s] creation’. Will’s blog demonstrates the intelligence, erudition, and passion he has brought to that engagement. (Will and I met online when I blogged about an exhibition of work from Aurukun, at which he and Harvey bought a sculpture over the internet. I think of him as a friend – and our copy of this catalogue is a generous gift.)

Then comes a trio of general articles:

Howard Morphy’s ‘Aboriginal Australian Art in America’ explores the role that US exhibitions and collectors have played in the process by which the non-Aboriginal art world has come to recognise ‘the value and aesthetic power’ of Aboriginal art, beginning with an image from the New York Times in 1941 that juxtaposed a bark painting from western Arnhem Land with paintings by Dali and Miro: decades before anyone would have thought of doing it in Australia, a US exhibition was suggesting an equivalence between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art. An observation that’s relevant to this exhibition:

The building of collections of Aboriginal art with a historical depth has … happened outside art museums, through the activities of private collectors and ethnographic museums.

In ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Issues Facing Contemporary Indigenous Art in Australia’s Remote Communities’ Brian Kennedy, former director of the NGA, summarises the social and political environment of Aboriginal art in recent decades – he doesn’t name John Howard or Mal Brough, but their dark presences are very much there. The general principle:

Each and every non-Indigenous person who hangs a work of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art on the wall of his or her home or office thereby publicises Indigenous culture and sooner or later should contemplate the circumstances in which these works are made.

‘Painting the Law: Understanding the Law Stories in Aboriginal Art’ is an overview by N Bruce Duthu of the notion of the Dreaming and the importance of country in Aboriginal cultures. Duthu, a Professor of Native American Studies, quotes tellingly from a number of Aboriginal people, including this exchange between Aboriginal legal scholar Christine Black and David Mowaljarlai, senior law man from the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley:

‘What about the areas where there are no Aboriginal people surviving, or at least living traditionally there any longer?’

‘You’re wrong there thinking like that. The land remained, you can’t get away from that. It acts for the people and their imprint is still there. If the land sinks into the ocean, the symbols will still be there. Only if the whole continent is blown to pieces and nothing is left of it, then it will be finished.’

Each of the remaining six essays focuses more narrowly

In ‘Daguerreotypes, Stereotypes, and Prototypes: Reframing Indigeneity’ Stephen Gilchrist, curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue, discusses photography. Six contemporary photographers are represented in the exhibition: Christian Thompson, Darren Siwes, Destiny Deacon, Bindi Cole, Ricky Maynard and Michael Riley. The essay takes us from a time when photography was a means for colonisers and anthropologists to define Indigeneity to the present when Aboriginal photographers manage to push through the burdensome expectations of making racially explicit work and instead speak up against the persistent climate of ideological repression.

As the title suggests, Françoise Dussart’s ‘Mediating Art: Painters of Acrylics at Yuendumu (1983–2011)’ focuses on the work of Warlpiri artists in the Central Desert, particularly Yuendemu. After reprising the history of the beginnings of acrylic dot paintings at nearby Papunya, she draws on decades of conversations with Warlpiri artists, she explores the relationship between the acrylic art and the Dreaming stories it reflects, and pushes at the edge of how non-Indigenous people can read and understand the art:

Rooted in colonial and evolutionist views of exchange 
with indigenous peoples, practices of collecting have relied 
and continue to rely too often on sampling, on finding the
 ‘iconic’, on serial individualizing (concentrating on the ca
reer of a single artist), and on ‘preserving’. It may be time 
to instead embrace the truly panoramic representation of 
paintings from a specific time and place. Understanding 
the practices of indexicality articulated by Aboriginal paint
ers will likewise force collectors and museums to think be
yond sampling practices and the kinds of power relations
 that such practices generally structure.

Jennifer Deger’s ‘Art + Emergence’ focuses on northeast Arnhem Land. Her concern is to take her readers past looking at Yolngu barks and canvases as ‘elaborate messages in need of decoding’, to find ways to ‘sensually encounter’ the works – which means more than just finding them pretty. At the same time she writes very interestingly about the issue of who has the right to tell the stories that are contained in some paintings.

Sally Butler, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland, ranges from Cape York to Brisbane in ‘The “Presence” of Queensland Indigenous Art’. Queensland is huge, and the range surveyed in this essay is huge – from traditional Aurukun sculpture to the text-based protest art of Gordon Bennett and the extraordinary variety of Vernon Ah Kee’s work. Sally Butler isn’t the only one to quote artists of more traditional work in ways that indicate political / diplomatic intentions. An old man from Aurukun declared about Kugu Law Poles, ‘ I know your laws: now you can know mine.’

Among other things, Henry F Skerritt’s ‘Strange Relatives: Negotiating the Borderlines in East Kimberley Painting’ tells the story of Rover Thomas, and places his art in the context of Keith Windschuttle’s revisionism, which prompts me to reflect that if you were looking for a beautifully illustrated introduction to Aboriginal culture, history and politics, including the impact of dispossession, massacre and colonisation generally, as well as the integrity, courage and sheer brilliance of the ongoing struggles of Aboriginal people, you could do a lot worse than this book.

In the final essay, ‘Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction’, anthropologist and curator John Carty argues that in the process of claiming Aboriginal art as fine art rather than ethnographic artefact, ‘we have somehow neglected the basic disciplines of formal and art historical analysis’. Western Desert artists have moved on in their use of traditional forms, becoming increasingly abstracted, but art criticism has not kept pace – he traces the process in the works of ‘the incomparable Emily Kam Kngwarray’:

Her artistic trajectory resonated with the broader history of Western abstraction in ‘impossible’ ways, and yet it also expressed what some have come to interpret a a kind of Indigenous modernism. But the effusive proclamations of Kngwarray’s ‘genius’ have tended to obscure the fact that her dissolution of the structural and iconographic aspects of the aesthetic system was part of a broader creative process in much desert art of recent decades. Kngwarray has become the iconic embodiment of that process, yet singular as she was, her work encompassed developments in the abstractions of desert painting that both preceded and followed her own individual career.

He then gets down to cases, and has a fascinting discussion of concentricity, of dots and their relationship to meaning.

So, it’s not Contemporary Aboriginal Art for Dummies by any means. Each of the contributors speaks from deep knowledge, and many Aboriginal voices are quoted. But, speaking as a dummy, I find it hard to imagine how a single book could do a better job of informing me on the subject. Plus, of course, the images are plentiful, and brilliant.

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4 Responses to “Crossing Cultures”: the catalog in review

  1. Thanks for re-posting this Will. Just looking over your last few posts, I have a question for you: Do you believe that ‘we have somehow neglected the basic disciplines of formal and art historical analysis’?

    • Will says:

      Hi Henry,

      Not entirely, but close enough that I’m comfortable with the hyperbole. That’s one of the reasons that I think the essays in this catalog are so significant: many of them really try to apply formal and historical principles to the examination of Aboriginal art. The quote, of course, comes from John Carty; I was fortunate enough to secure a copy of his Ph.D. thesis (which can’t be published soon enough) and once you’ve read through that book, you’ll agree, I think, that there is a boatload of work to be done that goes beyond ethnographic investigation and doesn’t repeat the same old mantras about the art. Carty’s analysis of stylistic innovation and transmission among close relatives in Balgo is brilliant, and really opens the paintings up in ways that no-one’s done before.

      Course, you’re no slouch yourself. Am delighted to hear that you will be speaking at Crossing Cultures when it arrives in Toledo later this year.

  2. Personally, I think it is a total straw man argument: there have been a great many thinkers who have approached this very question (several of whom are included in the Crossing Cultures catalog.) But if I was going to point to a bigger concern I have with the statement, it is the way it presumes that there is such a thing as an unproblematic “basic discipline” of formal or art historical analysis. This is plainly untrue – and is the key message of every serious scholar on Indigenous art (Morphy, Myers, Biddle et al), not to mention most serious contemporary thinkers on the problem of aesthetics. The transferal of meaning through aesthetic objects is a question of extraordinary complexity. As I see it, this is not an issue of “neglecting” the basic discipline, but pointing to its limitations: asking questions like: “Is formal analysis an appropriate way of discussing the transferal of meaning in Aboriginal art? Does the meaning of these works extend beyond traditional notions of semiotics? What does this work tell us about the “basic” presumptions inherent in western aesthetics?” and so on. I also think John Carty is doing terrific work teasing out the complexities of the artworks he deals with – but trying to create a dialectic between ethnographic analysis and formal analysis obscures the complexity and interrelation between these two categories. Reading Carty’s work, he is obviously aware of this, so I don’t know why he insists on setting up such hyperbolic distinctions.

  3. Pingback: Lives of the Artist: Patrick Tjungurrayi by John Carty | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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