Vivid Histories, Living Memories

aquitaine-catalogThe latest in a stunning series of international exhibitions of Indigenous Australia art opened on Octover 16, 2013 at the Musée d’Acquitaine in the French city of Bordeaux.  It is called Mémoires Vives: une histoire de l’art aborigène.  In the catalog, this title is translated as Vivid Memories: a history of Aboriginal art.  In my high school French, I would have read it as “living memories,” which just demonstrates how inadequate much translation is, for both senses, vivid and living, inhere in the French original.  And both are important to the purpose I perceive in the show’s presentation.  This will be another exhibition that I’m unable to see in person, but I’ve gleaned a sense of it from the lovely installation shots that Bertrand Estrangin has provided in his post at Sur les pas d’une collection, the premier French blog on indigenous arts.

It certainly was a thrilling experience to turn back the cover of the catalog (Êditions de la Martinière, 2013) and browse through the first fifty pages; I suspect this would be true even if you don’t read French.  (But never fear, the numerous catalog essays are all presented in English translations, or in many cases, the English originals, in the volume’s final pages.)  For in these opening pages the editors attempt to produce the sensation of vivid (living, colorful) histories in a juxtaposition of past and present that evokes Stanner’s everywhen to startling effect.

The cover and the initial photographic spread reproduce Baldin Spender’s 1894 photograph of Kata Tjuta, overlaid by a graphic representation of concentric circles that look more like a Pop-Art target than a Papunya icon.  More of Spencer and Gillen’s photographs follow: Simpson’s Gap, Uluru, with more concentric circles and truncated triangles reminiscent of Wiradjuri dendroglyphs.  Turn another page and you are confronted with the enormous wooden trumpet of Brook Andrew’s installation piece 52 Portraits, a construction that combines the circular and diamond motifs into a single shape and leaps more than 100 years from Spencer’s Outback to modern Melbourne.

aquitaine-tony-albertA few pages on there is another installation shot, of Richard Long’s glowing mud circle splayed above the Walrpiri men’s sand painting that dominated a room in the 1989 Paris exposition Magiciens de la terre.  Coiley Campbell’s Tjintjurra (2004), equally glowing with  red and yellow meanders and circles is set beside a  spear thrower engraved with rough, vibrant Tingarri designs collected from the central desert in 1957 by Donald Thomson.  A few pages further on Baldwin Spencer’s photographic portrait of the Arrernte man Twairira, his chest covered with ritual cicatrices stares out at us in company with a print from Tony Albert’s recent series Brothers (Our Past, Our Present, Our Future) in which a young Aboriginal man, his chest painted with a red target of concentric circles, his gaze confronting us mutely but expressively.  What astonishes is not the conceit itself, but audacity of its success and the complexity of emotions it evokes: survival yoked to defiance, the ancien to the moderne, history bleeding into the present, the gaze of the other and the gaze of the brother.

These are the themes that are evoked in the essays that open the volume.  Arnaud Morvan, who has been a consultant to the Musée des Confluences in Lyon,  surveys the idea first in his introductory “Mémoires vives: de l’ancien et du moderne, which is followed by Paul Taçon’s exploration of the traditions stemming from “Art pariétal: traditions anciennes, expressions contemporaines” or the influence of “enduring rock art.”  Philip Batty is up next with “Reflections on Émile Durkeim, Religion and Aboriginal Art,” another essay brilliantly illustrated with a two-page reproduction of Spencer and Gillen’s documentary photograph of seven men prepared for a Rain Dreaming ceremony, their bodies covered with intricate designs in ochre down, some bearing enormous painted headdresses adorned with circles and chevrons.  This portrait is followed by Shorty Lungkarta’s Children’s Water Dreaming (1972), which hints at the same ceremonial regalia.  Both of these images are modernized simultaneously in Brook Andrews’  2011 construction, Union Jack, in which a 19th century postcard is illuminated by a surround of illuminated neon tubing.  The postcard depicts another staged  tableau: eight Aboriginal men crouch for the camera, their bodies covered with vivid ceremonial designs, their heads crowned with elaborate feather headdresses. The central figure has a Union Jack blazoned on his chest amidst the traditional designs.  Behind them stands a white man in suit and tie, hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like the original of one of the many rock art portraits of the early settlers who knew the trick of making their hands disappear at will.

aquitaine-garry-jonesGarry Jones provides a surprising and most welcome reflection on “Recognizing South East Australian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.”  Jones is an artist and academic of Aboriginal and European descent who currently works at the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the University of Wollongong.  Jones’s sculptural renditions of traditional Indigenous weapons fashioned in polystyrene are included in the exhibition, and his essay is a moving account of the ways in which he and other artists of the south east coast are attempting to discover and revive the cultural remnants that have been left to them after centuries of colonization.  He argues that this new art is “neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘urban’ but consciously ‘intercultural’ [as] artists and their communities position themselves strategically, interpreting, re-interpeting, and innovatively responding to the circumstances that have shapes their histories and continue to shape their lives.  They transform local cultural knowledge and enable broader community to transcend the narrative of culture loss” (p. 238).

Other Indigenous contributors to the catalog include Marcia Langton, whose essay “Aboriginal Art: Sacred Past and Existing Present” chronicles the centuries of misapprehension of Aboriginal culture by successive generations of colonizers, and the artist Brook Andrew in an interview with Arnaud Morvan.  Andrew categorically rejects the anthropological intervention, disavowing knowledge of Durkheim and rejecting the colonial gaze altogether.  “To me,” he says, ” art and anthropology are terms that break culture.  They divide parts of the self and history to make them available for categorization and consumption by a ‘dominant’ worldview” (p. 246).

In addition to Morvan and Taçon, there are several other essayists with European connections.  Barbara Glowczewski, who has published extensively on her work among the Warlpiri, offers an intriguing essay titled “Empreintes” (Impressions) in which she ponders the nature of signs—not in an abstruse, theoretical fashion, but in a manner revealing of the way in which different cultures regard “traces” such as footprints, and by extension marks on bodies or on canvas.  Where we might regard a footprint as evidence that is “left behind,” for Indigneous people, such an imprint might imply the presence of an animal, or more broadly, a spirit.

The relationship is not that between an agent, the whole, and the imprint of a part of its body such as the foot.  For Aboriginal people, the symbolic relationship is more dynamic. It ties an agent—which can also be a plant such as a yam tuber, or wind or rain—and its various imprints together to allow the interpretation of its performance to be reconstituted: a trace is grasped when it forms part of those left by multiple actions that make impressions on the media …. the many can be one (pp. 247-248).

Glowczewski’s frequent collaborator, Jessica de Largy-Healy, provides a brief look at the inter-relations between Yolngu and Macassans that offers context for one of the most interesting works in the exhibition.  Johnny Bulunbulun collaborated over many years with the Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping.  There is a striking portrait of Bulunbulun that is a mixture of conventional Western portraiture (Bulunbulun as drawn and painted by Zhou) and Indigneous self-portraiture (clan designs executed in Bulnbulun’s trademark rarrk style).  De Largy-Healy also offers an interview with Zhou that details the fascinating story of their collaborations over time.

Portrait of John Bulunbulun (detail), 2007 by John Bulnbulun and Zhou Xiaoping

Portrait of John Bulunbulun (detail), 2007 by John Bulnbulun and Zhou Xiaoping

Georges Petitjean from the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht provides the necessary and invaluable service of laying out the history of contemporary Aboriginal art focused on the rise of acrylic painting in the desert.  He traces the transition of the work from outposts like Papunya and Yuendumu to urban galleries, and thence across international boundaries and ultimately to Europe.  Although the French are generally no strangers to Aboriginal Australian art, this brief history lesson will give those whose prior exposure is minimal a good context for appreciating the work in Mémoires vives, and the place of this exhibition in the French program of exhibiting the art.

A European connection runs through an Australian’s essay as Ian McLean builds his study on “Intercultural Patterns in Indigenous Art” from the observations of Charles Baudelaire on the rise of modernism in Europe.  Baudelaire was, in his time, fascinated by the appearance in Europe of art from faraway lands, not just from la France outre-mer, but also from places like China and Japan.   McLean takes Baudelaire’s musings on this upsurge in cosmopolitanism as a starting point for European engagement with Aboriginal art.

Baudelaire asked what “any honest man — [would] say, if faced with a product of China — something weird, strange, distorted in form, intense in color and sometimes delicate to the point of evanescence? … In order for it to be understood it is necessary for the critic, for the spectator, to work a transformation in himself which partakes of the nature of a mystery — it is necessary for him, by means of a phenomenon of the will acting upon the imagination, to learn of himself to participate in the surroundings which have given birth to this singular flowering.  Few men have the divine grace of cosmopolitanism in its entirety: but all can acquire it in different degrees” (p. 251).

For McLean, one of the ironies that this investigation exposes is that Australia’s Indigenous people have displayed a far greater degree of cosmopolitanism in their appreciation of Western aesthetics and commerce than their supposedly more worldly colonizers have.  From this starting point, McLean goes on to investigate the development of cross-cultural practice, which he defines as those that result from two cultures coming into contact with one another and in so doing enriching and strengthening existing traditions.  Drawing on the work of Thomas Spear, who examined encounters between the British and the indigenous cultures of East Africa, he argues that “‘neo-traditionalism’ should not be seen simply as a return to past practices but as the assertion of present interests in terms of the past” (p. 252).  This strikes me as an eloquent assertion in itself of contemporary Aboriginal art production.

aquitaine-posterThe catalog (and I’m sure, the exhibition) of Mémoires vives is a thorough-going delight.  The essays may not all be equally engaging, but they offer many new insights and perspectives that are worth attending to.  The presentation of the art is uniformly excellent, and the juxtaposition throughout of nineteenth- and twentieth-century work is truly vivid.  Unlike Tjukurrtjanu, where the shields and woomeras seemed adjunct to the Papunya paintings, Mémoires vives makes each integral to the other and enriches our appreciation of both.

Even better, much of the work shown here comes from European collections and is thus relatively unfamiliar in its particulars.  While there is certainly an ample representation of well-known work, especially from artists like Christian Thompson (his Emotional Striptease series is a logical choice to include amidst the artifactual shields and woomeras), many of the paintings included here are new examples to me of the work of familiar artists.  This is not just another greatest hits collection.

I have two minor complaints.  GIven the richness of illustration in the catalog, it is frustrating at times that there is no checklist of the exhibition itself.  While the photographs I’ve seen of the installation assure me that many of the glories on the page are present in the Musée itself, better documentation for the ages should have been provided.

There is an extensive bibliography, but it is maddeningly incomplete.  The essays carry footnotes of the briefest possible formats.  For example, on the points where I have quoted from McLean, the footnotes refer to “Baudelaire, 1965” and “Spear, 2003.”  When I turned to the bibliography to seek out the source of McLean’s references, I found nothing in either case.  Access to a good multidisciplinary database of scholarly literature enabled me to track down Spear’s article in the Journal of African History (“Neo-Traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa,” v. 44, no 1, 2003).  But there were 65 editions of works by Baudelaire published in 1965, according to, and I am thus no wiser about the source of McLean’s quotation.

But truly, these are minor blemishes in an extraordinary work.  Mémoires vives is one of the most exciting visual treats of 2013.  Do yourself and your friends a favor, and add this marvelous book to your holiday shopping list.

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8 Responses to Vivid Histories, Living Memories

  1. You have definitely got me interested to read this catalogue! That question of neo-traditionalism is a fascinating one. Jeffrey Sissons makes a similar argument for Maori culture, but he frames it as a dynamic process of “traditionalisation” in order to offer a more complex take on the agency of tradition.

  2. Will says:

    Thanks, Henry. Sissons, The Traditionalisation of the Maori Meeting House (Oceania 69:1, Sept 98)?

    Interesting to compare Jones and McLean’s essays on this point, as well as the definitions of cross-, trans- and inter-cultural.

  3. Yes, that is the essay I was thinking of – although, it is a topic he riffs upon with some regularity. What I like about Sissons argument is that he recognises that there is a dual element to tradition that is both strategic, but also experiential and historical (ie. a lived response to particular circumstances). In any case, I am very interested to read this catalogue. The other book I am keenly awaiting is the catalogue to the NMA’s “Old Masters” show – they have added a few teasers on their website, and it looks very exciting.

  4. shawjonathan says:

    I feel as if I’ve been the, Will, rather than hearing about it at to removes! The Baudelaire quote is from his essay ‘Exposition universally de 1885’, but I expect you know that.

  5. shawjonathan says:

    … Universelle. Atleastvthat one was autocorrect and not mistyping

  6. Will says:

    Thanks, Jonathan, I did not know that–but was hoping a more erudite reader would!

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