A Classic Revisited


Last May, on our first evening in Seattle for the opening of Ancestral Modern, we stepped out of a taxicab in front of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan’s loft apartment for the first social evening of the week.  A kindly looking, smiling man stood on the sidewalk and asked if we were there for the party.  We introduced ourselves and, again, he smiled, as if he knew us.  “Good to meet you,” he said, “I’m Wally Caruana.”  With my customary aplomb in such circumstances, I said “Oh!”  What else do you say when you meet a legend?

Later that night someone passed around a proof cover for the third edition of Caruana’s Aboriginal Art (Thames and Hudson, 2012).  The image was a painting by the Spinifex men’s collective, a Wati Kutjarra now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, a gift from Margaret and Bob.  I was intrigued.

The first edition of Caruana’s monograph appeared twenty years ago 1993, and it was one of the first full-length studies of the movement that I read.  Along with Howard Morphy’s survey, likewise simply titled Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998), it has quite literally occupied a special place on the shelves of my artbook collection over the intervening years.  Caruana’s book is primarily geographical in its organization; Morphy takes a more thematic approach to much of the same material.  Together, the two are fundamental volumes, the first place I turn to orient myself in the literature, a starting point for citations to other studies, a source to check a fact or a date quickly.  I’ve read neither cover-to-cover in at least fifteen years, and that evening in Seattle I thought that the new edition of Caruana’s book would be a good chance to revisit a classic and see how it has held up over time.

I wouldn’t say that the third edition is a substantial revision of the first (I don’t own or have to hand a copy of the second, which appeared in 2003).  It is longer by about 50 pages, the bulk of which is in a new chapter at the end entitled “Into the twenty-first century.”  There are additions and changes all along the way, most of them admittedly minor.  For example, in discussing the work of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Caruana had originally selected Nintaka and the Mala Men (1973) as his exemplar; in the new edition he looks instead at Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa (1972), which became a celebrated painting in the interim when its recod-breaking sale at auction in the late 90s revived Warangkula’s reputation and career.  The other significant difference between 1993 and 2012 is that there are many many more color plates in the new edition–usually of the same works that were selected earlier, but now presented in a way that makes appreciation and understanding of them much more fulfilling.


Jack Wunuwun, Barritj, Murguruwal, Bunba (Yams, Dragonflies, Butterflies), 1978

Despite much of the textual material in Aboriginal Art remaining unaltered, I nonetheless experienced a great surprise in rereading it.  I don’t think I was ever aware, or have been aware for a long time, how influential Caruana’s survey of the field was on the development of my personal understanding of the art and more importantly in some ways, the development of my own taste.  I have long held the position that Jack Wunuwun is one of the greatest artists to have emerged from the Maningrida region of Arnhem Land, and that Jack Kala Kala is one of the most under-appreciated.  Both of these opinions, it turns out, were heavily influenced by Caruana (and I’ll admit that the former was re-enforced during a particularly lively conversation I had with him during our stay in Seattle).

I suspect that one reason that Caruana’s book was so crucial to shaping my perceptions of Aboriginal art is that he has an extraordinary gift for packing essential information into a concise, structured narrative that makes the discussion of any single work of art illuminating of the importance of the artwork and the artist while also locating its significance in a larger historical context.  Additionally, the breadth of his expertise meant that I came away from the book on a first reading with a holistic sense of an artworld that to that point in time I had experienced only in fragmented ways and with the eye of a dilettante rather than a connoisseur.  At the time of its first publication Aboriginal Art was one of the precious few broad surveys of the movement, then only twenty years removed from the revolution at Papunya, to have been published.  Its synthetic character, which still managed to preserve the awe-inspiring sense of panoply and richness of Aboriginal art that has since become almost a truism, gave me a glimpse of the coherence of Aboriginal culture as well as the abundance of its manifestations.

Rereading the book now, almost two decades on, thus evoked both an excitement and a decidedly pleasant sense of nostalgia.  Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, much exhibition and discourse is given over to the riotous and colorful explosion of painting in the APY lands, to the radical formalism of Yolngu artists like Guny’bi Ganambarr, the alchemical transformations of John Mawurndjul,  or the photographic experiments of Michael Cook and the cinematic exploits of Warwick Thornton.

It was refreshing, even revivifying, then to immerse myself in the foundational stories of this art.  To appreciate again the contributions of the early innovators among the Warlpiri painters at Yuendumu, and the first brash experiments in color that came out of the Great Sandy Desert at the hands of Balgo painters Wimmitji Tjapangarti and Sunfly Tjampitjin.  To revel in the epic narratives of “the painters of the Wagilag Sisters stories” (the title of a major exhibition of painting from central Arnhem Land that Caruana curated with Nigel Lendon for the National Gallery of Australia in 1997).  To remember the days before women’s painting flourished at Warmun, and when Aboriginal photographers worked primarily in documentary mode.    To immerse myself in Caruana’s book again after all these years was like rediscovering roots, laying bare the structures and strategies that shaped my appreciation for this art form.

Updated as it is to survey the developments in Indigenous artwork of the 21st century, Caruana’s book remains for me a primer on what made this movement great, the artistic impulses that nourished a nascent marketplace, the inspiration that those early pioneers granted to outsiders to explore the aesthetics of deserts and rainforests, saltwater and freshwater.  If we have become a little desensitized to the brilliance of Aboriginal vision, if the story of its struggles have been subsumed in questions of auction prices realized or not, a reading of Caruana’s seminal monograph will remind us of why this art matters so urgently, and why we were captivated by it in the first place.

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3 Responses to A Classic Revisited

  1. Thanks Will. Another great post. I wasn’t aware there was a new edition.

  2. btw, re books on aboriginal culture: I like Chatwin’s Song Lines as literature but it annoys me a bit as ethnography. There are some classics: Warner’s Black Civilisation and Donald Thomson’s writings, both on Arnhem Land. Both are quite early. For race relations, Henry Reynold’s books are worth reading, including “Why weren’t we told”. They aren’t on Aboriginal culture in particular, but he has written extensively on settlement, genocide and race relations. For contemporary culture, there are a number of very good writers, e.g. Sally Morgan, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker). The Pigram Brothers’ Bran Nu Dae is definitely worth a read/listen (it’s a musical). Ian Keen’s Knowledge and Society in Aboriginal Religion is also about Arnhem Land and is well worth the read, not sure if it’s available in the US though. Magabala Books and Aboiriginal Studies Press publish a heap of oral history books which might be interesting. My librarything tag “oral history” might be helpful.

  3. Pingback: Butterflies, Dragonflies, and Yams | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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