Several weeks ago I wrote about a panel discussion at the Toledo Museum of Art in which the topic of restricted knowledge in Aboriginal painting—what Stephen Gilchrist referred to as “registers of knowledge”—created a degree of consternation among some members of the audience. A couple of people were irritated or offended at the notion that there were levels of meaning in Aboriginal art that were inaccessible to “outsiders.”
The discussion has been pricking at me ever since. In part this is because the intent of the panel and of the exhibition was to increase the appreciation of Aboriginal art and culture for the members of the audience, to convey the sense of its value, and to impart an understanding of its values. It may be too strong a statement to say that the exchanges around this topic of restricted knowledge had the opposite effect of creating hostility to those values, but nonetheless I felt that we on the panel had somehow failed our mission. And so I’ve been wondering how I might have handled the exchange differently, and what I might do to correct the misapprehensions. My assertion that I, too, had once set myself the goal of penetrating that secrecy through study and sympathy seemed to miss the mark, as did my statement that coming to terms with the value system that restricted knowledge was in itself part of the process of coming to appreciate the art. I have made my peace with being given only public, or outside, knowledge. But I understood that for others, that peace might seem like a failure in itself.
I also mentioned in another recent post that I’ve been dipping into Ian McLean’s How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: writings on Aboriginal contemporary art (Institute of Modern Art/Power Publications, 2011). This is a book that had been sitting on the shelf for a long time; I put off starting it after a quick browse revealed that it consists mostly of short excerpts from writings about Aboriginal art from many different publications over a span of decades. I am not by nature a lover of anthologies, and so I decided that this particular volume wasn’t high on my reading list. But recently I’ve been taking advantage of the odd moment here and there when I don’t have the time to sit down to sustained reading to absorb the snippets McLean has gathered together, and I’m finding it a most rewarding experience, both for pointing me to articles and books I hadn’t encountered before and for reminding me of what I’ve learned from those that I have already read.
Last week, in one of those brief encounters, I came upon a selection from Howard Morphy’s Ancestral Connections: art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1991) that McLean had headlined “The mask of secrecy: inside and outside, knowledge and power.” It was doubly apposite in that it bore directly on the topic that has been biting at my conscience and because all three of us on the panel had so often referred to Morphy’s work in our remarks that it became a source of amusement to us. It seemed that no matter what point we were trying to make, a quotation from Morphy helped us make it better.
The two and a half pages of Morphy’s text McLean chose to include in his anthology bear directly on the problem of revealing “inside” or restricted knowledge, both in Yolngu and balanda (outsider) contexts. I hope that a brief discussion of some of those points will help to add some nuance to the discussion of what is too often tossed off as the “secret/sacred” nature of Indigenous knowledge. Let me begin by quoting from Morphy, who notes that there are “reasons why too much stress should not be placed on the significance of secrecy to the system as a whole.”
Yolngu knowledge is cumulative, and in many respects the layering of knowledge can be thought of as a pedagogical technique, though it is one that emphasizes the variability in understanding that exists at a given moment among different members of the society. The layering is as important as the secrecy, and secret and nonsecret knowledge are organized in an analogous way so that all members of society have the possibility to progressively acquire knowledge and understanding. … ‘Inside’ (djinawa) and ‘outside’ (warrangul) can be used to refer to a continuum of more restricted to less restricted knowledge…. (Morphy, pp. 77-78)
Thinking about the problem in terms of this continuum, or of Morphy’s concept of “layering,” more accurately describes the phenomenon that the dichotomous “secret/sacred” formulation, which implies that the sacred and profane are mutually exclusive arenas whose firm boundary is never penetrated. The progressive acquisition of knowledge ought not to be unfamiliar to those of us in Western societies, nor should the idea that such progressive learning be subject to controls. This is what we generally call education, and that we implicitly recognize as a layered process when we speak of “higher education.” In another sense, we are also familiar with the concept of certification, one which requires rigorous training and the passing of qualifying examinations in order to achieve a certain prestige, or the license to engage in certain activities. I can build a shed in my back yard without too much external oversight, but I may be required to obtain a building permit if the project is above a certain size. I would most likely not be allowed to design and construct a house, and certainly not a skyscraper, without being subjected to a prolonged period of initiation and testing. That is surely analogous to the acquisition of knowledge among Yolngu. And if Yolngu require such rigorous education in order to paint, where we require it to become an architect, that says more about the relative values we place on those endeavors than about the systems which insure that appropriate knowledge is acquired and respected.
I should note that my analogy is imperfect. I may be building a shed, and Frank Gehry a museum, and those are quite different activities. For Yolngu, knowledge is acquired and enacted in the context of ceremony, which I would broadly define to include painting. Morphy points out that among Yolngu, “the same overall ceremony includes within its structure more or less restricted contexts which people can be denied entry to or admitted to, Individuals, as they go through the ceremony again and again, are gradually admitted to more aspects of it, until finally (for men) the barriers are removed and the gain freedom of movement” (p. 94).
But what of the commonly held belief that there is some point beyond which no balanda can progress? This is, after all, at the heart of the disgruntlement I heard voiced in Toledo. If I want to become an architect and build skyscrapers, there is nothing (theoretically) to stop me. Here again Morphy offers the critical insight.
The delicate and complex relationship between inside and outside provides the context for understanding the release of knowledge to Balanda. The release of knowledge to them involves their incorporation within the Yolngu system of knowledge … In order that Balanda should value the inside, they too have to experience it through its release, and their inclusion. I have shown elsewhere that an explicit reason for releasing knowledge to Balanda has been to get them to acknowledge the value of Yolngu culture, to make them understand and consequently to recognize Yolngu rights. In such a case, Balanda first have to be persuaded that the knowledge is of value. This process of getting Balanda to accept the value of Yolngu knowledge has involved both the release of knowledge on a broad basis to Balanda through the sale of paintings in the crafts store and the opening out of ceremonies to a wider public, and the selective release of inside knowledge to people such as missionaries, teachers, anthropologists, lawyers, and politicians. Such releases of knowledge can be easily understood as an extension of Indigenous practice in a new context (Morphy, p.98, my emphasis).
I am tempted to say that knowing that there are restricted, potentially unknowable levels of meaning in an Aboriginal artwork should not be viewed as an invitation to prise open the lid on this box of secrets; but rather it offers a moment to stand back and ponder why such knowledge exists and is deemed worthy of control. In discussing the domain of “inside” knowledge (which can necessarily only exist if there is outside knowledge, since the terms are defined relative to one another), it is important to admit of the possibility, given appropriate understanding of the system as a whole, that one may be admitted where previously a seal of exclusion was in place.
Morphy was writing nearly twenty-five years ago, as his reference to the sale of bark paintings in the “craft store” hints. Much has changed since then, including an enormous growth in the visibility of Aboriginal art worldwide, and the appetite for it. Bark painting for balanda in 1991 was still primarily focused on very public presentations of stories and concepts, and that is no longer the case. Indeed, some of the paintings included in the Crossing Cultures exhibition were created in the effort by Yolngu artists to negotiate and redefine the boundaries between what was traditionally considered inside knowledge and what might now, as the possibility of more fully appreciating the value of Yolngu knowledge is realized, be considered outside knowledge. What once were secrets may no longer be so.
However, the inclusion of Balanda has not left the systems unaffected: both quantitative and qualitative changes have occurred. … The overall body of public knowledge is increasing. More significantly, however, the relations within which secrecy were embedded are changing: the inclusion of Balanda in the Yolngu world has changed, or is in the process of changing many of the internal relations within Yolngu society, and the system of knowledge is beginning to articulate with those new structures of relations. Increasingly there has been a substantive opening out as women in particular gain access to certain contexts from which they were previously excluded. Although change appears to leave the inside : outside continuum intact, the point where exclusion enters into the system and the value of exclusion do, however, change (Morphy, p. 99).
There is a clear message here: Yolngu society (and by extension Aboriginal culture more broadly) is and always has been dynamic, adapting itself to its environments, physical and cultural. Yolngu negotiate many things with balanda and want balanda to be similarly open to negotiation and exchange. What they insist upon, and which has not changed, is the recognition that their culture has value to offer others, just as they have been quick to absorb what they perceive as advantageous from outsiders, be they seventeenth-century Macassans or twenty-first century balanda. In short, knowledge must be respected before it can be attained. That’s not such an alien concept after all.