Inventing the Contemporary

mclean-how-aborigines2013 was a year of many and varied accomplishments for me.  Not the least of these was reading Ian McLean’s anthology How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: writings on Aboriginal contemporary art (Power Publications, 2011) from cover to cover.

I have to admit it was a daunting task to undertake.  When it arrived in the mail early in the year, my first impression was “big.”  Although it clocks in at only 360 pages, each one of them is crammed full of text, and the carefully chosen illustrations are not a large percentage of the book’s contents.

The second thing that put me off at first was exactly the contents.  I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sent off for the book, but it wasn’t an anthology of short extracts from books, academic journals, magazines, and newspapers.  As I’ve said many times before, I’m a long-form kind of guy.  I like arguments that are slowly developed over time, and that culminate in some kind of epiphany, a drawing together of many strands into a single, coherent vision.

It turns out that, indeed, that is a fairly exact description of McLean’s book, for all that it is a patchwork of facts and arguments pieced together from several decades of writing about Aboriginal Australian art and culture, bookended by two lengthy essays by McLean himself.  And by the time I was past the introduction and into the hundreds of short excerpts from magazine and newspaper articles, scholarly studies, art exhibition catalogs,  and monographs, I was hooked.  Over the course of many months, reading one short piece at a time, I uncovered inspiration, argument, counter-argument, and above all a lively sense, not only of the history of Aboriginal art criticism over the past forty or fifty years, but an appreciation of why this art is so important.

Key to an appreciation of why McLean has undertaken in this anthology is the notion of what he terms “the artworld.”  Unblushingly, this refers not so much to the producers of art as to the commentators on it, the critics, the buyers, and those engaged in art as commerce and art as seen through the lens of the history of ideas.  While there are more than a few essays (as I’ll refer to them generically) by producers of art–the artists, mostly Aboriginal, who feature in the book’s pages–the real focus of McLean’s investigations is on the reception and interpretation of the art by those who, in one way or another, find their livelihoods in the appreciation of art.

Some might take exception to this tack, seeming as it does to concentrate on the market more than on the artists, and indeed, in other venues, this approach has been excoriated as colonialism.  The beauty of McLean’s comprehensiveness, though, is to give ample space to some of these views, and to include where possible, statements from artists themselves (admittedly mostly, though not entirely, artists like Judy Watson and Richard Bell who are comfortable engaging critically with the marketplace).

The book opens with a long essay by McLean entitled “Aboriginal art and the artworld” in which he traces the intersection of the two cultures, Aboriginal and settler, to try to come to an understanding of why Aboriginal art in Australia has become an important, perhaps pre-emininent, part of the aesthetic discourse in ways that have not been mirrored in Europe and the United States.  He admits that the critical literature on Aboriginal art has yet to produce a complete historical synthesis of the achievements of the artists.  But he also insists that the impact of the astonishing vitality of the art has forced Australian art critics to re-examine the foundational discourses of their discipline and to seek out new methodologies.  This process is far from complete, as John Carty has eloquently argued, but McLean’s goal here is, in part, to provide a sourcebook for future studies, to delineate the issues that need to be addressed, and to secure the validity of the enterprise in terms of the dominant Western critical discourse.

McLean’s essay looks back to the time before the Papunya revolution to the point when Australians first began to engage with the artistic output of Indigenous peoples.  He looks at the defining questions of fine art, modernism, authenticity, social and cultural integration, and self-determination.  He then examines how these issues led to the first engagements of curators with Aboriginal art, beginning roughly in the 1960s and continuing for the next two decades.  Once the curatorial world (art galleries and museums) had invested in the collection of Aboriginal art, critics and historians began to follow along, turning their theoretical and investigative minds to explanations of the social and aesthetic phenomena that the art threw into relief.

Growing interest in Aboriginal art not only in Australia but also in Europe, through the work of Karel Kupka, early French exhibitions like D’un autre continent: l’Australie, le rêve et le réel (1983) and Magiciens de la terre (1989), and in America with the tour of Dreamings (1988) coincided with the ascent of post-modernist critiques of art and the theoretical fallout from the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition in 1984.  This was followed by increasing commercialization of the Aboriginal art market in Australian in the 1990s, and the growth of art produced by Aboriginal people living and working in metropolitan centers.

In the past two decades, there has been an increased presence of Indgenous voices in these dialogues.  Much of this has been critical (in the sense of negative) but much has also been simply demonstrative or documentary.  It includes the positions taken by the members of the Aboriginal Arts Board, beginning in the 1970s, the political proclamations of activists like Gary Foley, the scholarly investigations of Marcia Langton, and the increasing visibility of statements by artists like John Mawurndjul in this century.

Having thus set the stage, McLean turns the bulk of his volume over to the voices of the artworld itself.  The first section of the anthology, “Becoming Modern,” explores issues and attitudes from a historical perspective and provides further background.  McLean has provided “titles” for his extracts that differ from the titles of the original works reproduced throughout the anthology, and a good flavor of the content of this first section can be gleaned from the table of contents wherein one can see that the titles (or headlines) of many of his selections begin with the words “Aboriginal art is …”  The predicates for this statement include the words of the following list: cultural adaptation; ritual revival; not traditional; esoteric; intercultural; traditional; international art; universal; country and western (Judy Watson’s contribution); and changing (John Mawurndjul’s).

The next section is “Zones of Engagement.”  Each of these presents short commentaries from  a geographical or cultural arena, and each is replete with contributions from acknowledged experts.  Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, Nigel Lendon, Banduk Marika, and Ivan Namirrkki present on the art of Arnhem Land.  Contributors to the section on the Western Desert include Nic Peterson, Imants Tillers, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Eric Michaels, John Kean, and Fred Myers.  Lin Onus, Djon Mundine, Marica Langton, Brenda Croft, Gordon Bennett, and Judy Watson dominate the section on Urban Australia.

The last two sections of “Zones of Engagement” offer perspectives from “the Australia artworld” and “abroad.”  These deal less with the making of art than with its critical reception in commercial and academic circles.  Tim and Vivien Johnson, Terry Smith, and John Mawurndjul are among the Australian contributors here.  From abroad, Suzanne Pagé, Lance Bennett and Jill Montgomery discuss the art’s reception in France; John Weber, Ronald  Jones and Fred Myers report from New York.  Howard Morphy offers a perspective from London, Andrei Kovalev from Moscow, and Bernhard Lüthi from Düsseldorf, while Djon Mundine looks broadly across Europe and the United States.

The third set of selections is broadly termed “Issues.” It is the longest of the volume, and covers questions of gender, ethics, modernism, aesthetics, appropriation, commerce, and politics.  I found this part of the book to be the most fascinating and thought-provoking.  Although there is plenty to debate in the material presented earlier, these are the most contested areas in current critical discourse concerning the place of Aboriginal art in the contemporary, globalized marketplace as well as within the cultural sphere of Australian society itself.  There is a huge variety of viewpoints presented, from a similarly diverse cast of contributors.  Academics (Terry Smith, Roger Benjamin and Marcia Langton) butt up against the promulgators from the popular press (Nicolas Rothwell, Sebastian Smee, Robert Nelson, and Louis Nowra).  Christine Nicholls, Apolline Kohen, and Eric Michaels offer perspectives from the coal face.  Pijaju Peter Skipper and Ngarralja Tommy May offer perspectives from the bush, while Richard Bell speaks from the big smoke.

Finally, there is the briefly considered question of “Futures.”  Most of the selections from this section were written since 2001.  In some ways this is the least satisfying part of the book. It rehearses on the one hand the themes of the passing of a way of life, if not a culture, that has defined much of the Aboriginal art that is now considered canonical.  On the other hand it indulges in speculation, abstraction, and theories of “post-Aboriginality” without ever advancing a reasonable definition of that concept.  Perhaps this reflects  growing concerns about the viability of the marketplace (although all of the essays predate the GFC, the resale royalty, and the changes in superannuation regulations that have shocked the market in recent years).  Perhaps all this simply reflects the unknowability of what has not yet occurred.

The book concludes with another essay by McLean, which offers the explanation, finally, of “How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art.”  Essentially, the concept begins with the problem of modernism’s exhaustion.  The social, psychological, aesthetic, historical, and theoretical frameworks that characterized the great artistic achievements of the first two-thirds (roughly) of the twentieth century have run their course.  The notions of individualism and the veracity of the subjective experience that characterize much of twentieth-century art collapsed along with the imperialism that had defined much of modern history; post-modernism showed that the supposed objectivity of Western science and positivist thought were just as arbitrary and indeed subjective as the interior monologues of twentieth-century literature, and just as prone to error.  The hope of discovering “Truth” vanished.  Instead, the key insights of Modernism were turned on their heads, deconstructed, and the multiplicity of experience seemed a better signpost in the search for a description of the human condition.

Politically, the collapse of empire brought about a resurgence of Indigenous culture and the desire for some form of Indigenous autonomy.   We are now, in the twenty-first century, accustomed to seeing Chinese art of recent pedigree in commercial and curatorial art spaces; art by leading African practitioners such as El Anatsui seems to be among the most exciting work on the scene.  Thus “contemporary” art, defined not simply as “art of the now” but as a discrete movement that can be recognized as distinct from Modernism, is intrinsically, perhaps essentially, an art of globalization.  It is art that not so much rejects the Western canons as operates outside them while at the same time infiltrating them.

This is not art that was created by opposing Modernism, as the Minimalists aimed to counter the supposed excesses of Abstract Expressionism or as Impressionism tried to expose the limits of Realism.  Rather, contemporary art emerged outside the sphere of Modernism, independent of it and not quite in opposition to it, for opposition in some ways grants the old order at least a nominal validity which it seeks to overturn.

McLean locates the first and most significant emergence of the new order in Papunya.  The work that was produced there in the 1970s and 1980s escaped the “limbo” of “traditional fine art” or “ethnographic fine art” and jumped straight into being understood as “contemporary art.”  It did not so much repudiate the progressivist, teleological biases of Modernism as operate in a sphere completely other to them, one that cast into high relief the “basic ontological gap” between Aboriginal and Western ways of thinking, perceiving, and responding.  Here is McLean’s conclusion:

In the 1980s Papunya Tula painting revealed to the artworld something about itself that had not yet been brought into focus by Western contemporary art.  Because the constitutional differences of modernist no longer mattered, Aborigines initiated in tribal lore could also make contemporary art.  This lesson, that difference was the opportunity for something more, is also the first prerequisite of globalism.  In a straightforward historical sense then, Australian Aborigines were amongst the first to show an artworld, raised on the ethnocentric and historicist blinkers of European modernism, what contemporary art after modernism felt like.  In doing this, they played a decisive role in the artworld’s globalisation at the end of the twentieth century.

The video below captures Ian McLean’s address at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2012 on the subject of how Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art and expands on the themes he introduces in his paired essays in the book.  But it in no way captures the richness of the source material that this superb anthology, reference work, polemic, and compendium of thinking on the subject brings together.  How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about Aboriginal art or who seeks even a basic introduction to the complexities of what may be not simply the “last great art movement of the twentieth century,” but the first of the twenty-first.

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Gapuwiyak Calling

Save the date!  On Friday, March 14, 2014 a pair of exhibitions opens at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland.  Written on the Body is curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young.  But what I’m really looking forward to learning more about is a new exhibition curated by Miyarrka Media, the team that brought us Christmas Birrimbirr.  Called Gapuwiyak Calling, it promises to demonstrate some fascinating new developments in Aboriginal media, especially the ways in which cell phones contribute to the creation of cultural expression in remote communities.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a couple of stills and rough cuts of video presentations that will be included and I can guarantee that it will surprise audiences and even make them laugh.  More to follow in the weeks ahead, but here’s a preview from the Miyarrka Media website.

“We decided to name our exhibition Gapuwiyak Calling because we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us. We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things. Maybe you’ll answer us?” – Paul Gurrumuruwuy

In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile network generated a wave of creative energy across Arnhem Land. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling lightning-speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this emerging digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next.

So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media.

Gapuwiyak Calling celebrates mobile phones as technologies of creativity and connection. Curated by Miyarrka Media, a media-arts collective based in the northeast Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak, it features phone-made material collected over the past five years, as well as film and video produced specifically for this exhibition.

The show features a number of elements brought together as one multi-media installation. This includes phone-art collage featuring giant green frogs and dreadlocked babies; videos from family bush trips; fragments of mainstream television and movies re-voiced with Yolngu jokes in Yolngu languages; middle-aged women dancing the yabby to the theme from Flashdance in blue grass skirts ordered from the internet; cut and pasted family photographs uniting the living and the dead in flashing gif files; young men dancing furiously to the Can-Can song while making claims about Yolngu Culture; and a short film about the variety of ringtones in use in Gapuwiyak, from ceremonial songs, to gospel and hip-hop.

Although much of the content is deliberately playful and precisely not-traditional the Yolngu curators nonetheless see the exhibition as an opportunity to assert enduring and meaningful connections between generations of Yolngu kin living through times of enormous social stress and change.

Structured according to a Yolngu poetics of call-and-response, the exhibition takes motif and meaning from the actions of an ancestral mokuy (trickster spirit) who lives in the stringybark forest that surrounds Gapuwiyak. In ancestral times this mokuy signalled other clans with his dhadalal (special digeridoo) sensuously establishing enduring and ritually significant relationships between places and people across the region. Gallery visitors will be greeted by this special dhadalal call—a call which in this context gestures to the possibility of new kinds of digitally mediated relationships both within and beyond Arnhem Land.

For Miyarrka Media this show represents more than simply an opportunity to travel to Brisbane to exhibit material from an exotic and separate elsewhere. The installation is intended to position both Yolngu and gallery visitors in a relationship of potential connectability made possible by these new technologies and the shared imaginative and communicative spaces they animate. And so the exhibition poses several implicit questions: What kinds of new recognitions and reciprocations is this exhibition attempting to produce? Why does this matter at this moment in Australian social, as well as technological, history? How might we answer this call from Gapuwiyak?


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The Lure of the Ineffable

Below, two paintings,  On the left, Johnson Ooldigi Lan’s Tjitji Kutjarra (Two Children [Boys]), 2013.  On the right, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, c.1665.

ineffable-johnson-lane ineffable-vermeer

From the first time I saw the presentation of Desert Boards on the Raft Artspace web site in June of last year, I fell for the painting by Johnson Lane above.  Even now as I look back at the archive of the exhibition, it still strikes me as the most amazing work in the show, a show that is full of strong, inventive paintings in a broad range of styles.  I don’t know anything about Lane, other than the fact that he paints for Warakurna Artists.

I was hard pressed to even say why this painting appealed to me so much.  Something about the compactness of the image, and the way that the colors, seemingly so light, had settled at the bottom of the frame.  The starkness of the contrast between the light and dark is striking, but the darkness doesn’t feel oppressive; rather, if anything, it feels vast and weightless, and perhaps imparts a bit of that feeling to the circles themselves.

Well, we bought the painting and hung it.  After several weeks of continuing to wonder about its appeal, one evening Harvey looked at it and said, “Vermeer.  Girl with a Pearl Earring.”  I grabbed the iPad, looked up the Vermeer painting in Wikipedia, and spent a while looking at the two of them as I perched on a chair in front of the Lane.  I’m still as bemused as ever, but I’m convinced that some deep memory of the Vermeer was floating in my subconscious: the luminosity of the image against the black background, of course, an impression of circularity, of draping forms, of light falling in the darkness, or of light almost emanating from the darkness.  Those judgements are vague, and probably inept, but I haven’t been able to get the comparison out of my mind.  And not knowing what else to do with it, I thought to share it with you, my readers.

I hate to say that what appeals in art is the sense of mystery that it invokes.  I don’t want to rest on the judgment of “ineffable (“too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words”).  I would never suggest there’s the slightest connection between the artists, or that Lane had even seen, let alone considered the Vermeer when he sat down to paint; there is no argument for influence to be made at all.  Yet the more I continue to look at the images side by side, the more I enjoy what each makes me see in the other, for example the way that the green, white and pink tones in the lower middle roundel fade in and out of one another like the blues and golds shimmer off each other at the fall of the drapery from the girl’s turban.  Or the tiny trail of paint flecks that lie against the black at the upper right roundel like a distant astronomical vision, like the tiny moon and the wisp of a cloud below it, the places where light strikes the sphere of the earring.

But for once, I am content not to seek out meaning.  Sometimes beauty is its own reward and serendipity, even in the eye of the beholder, a pleasure unto itself.

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The Dilemma of “Dreaming”

dilemma-dreamingChristine Nicholls, researcher and curator at Flinders University, recently published a trio of articles on the website The Conversation (whose tagline is “academic rigor, journalistic flair”; I like that) concerning the problematic nature of the terms “the Dreaming” and “the Dreamtime.”

Rather than rehearse them here, I am simply going to recommend that you follow the links and read them for yourselves.  In the first piece, “‘Dreaming’ and ‘the Dreamtime’: an introduction,” Nicholls offers a brief critique of the terms’ inadequacies and notes the number of “closely affiliated ancillary vocabulary” terms, especially in Warlpiri, that add resonance and complexity to the concept expressed by the word jukurrpa.  She notes the wide range of terms in the numerous Indigenous languages that correspond to the Western Desert language variations on jukurrpa, and suggests that a broader use of these original words might benefit our comprehension by removing the misleading connotations of “dreams” from the concept as well as by forcing the non-Indigneous language speaker to confront the very difference that inheres in the concept.

The second piece, “‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: who dreamed up these terms?,” she traces the origins of the terms back to Spencer and Gillen, through their adoption by A. P. Elkin, and to a kind of canonization in the work of W. E. H. Stanner (whose explicative “everywhen” would garner my vote for a substitute term, if such a transformative replacement were possible).  She notes the problems that are compounded by translation in European languages, where the word for “dream” is most commonly employed, without resort to the gerundive “Dreaming.”  (I will go here one farther and say that in my memory, a translation as “Dreamtime” is far more common, be it the French temps du rêve or the German Traumzeit.  Fascinatingly, the French Wikipedia glosses temps du rêve as “Tjukurpa en langue anangu“, while the German version references the “engl. Dreamtime oder Dreaming.“)  Nicholls also includes a discussion of one scholar’s solution for translating the term into Croatian, which provides an interesting look at strategies for introducing nuance.  Nicholls devotes  the rest of her second piece to explicating the concept, and ends by repeating her plea for English speakers to take up an Indigenous term in place of “the Dreaming.”


Such usage of Indigenous terms is relatively easy to undertake in specific contexts, where jukurrpa indicates a reference to Western Desert concepts, and specifically, perhaps to Warlpiri as distinct from tjukurrpa among the Pintupi.  Wangarr signals Yolngu meanings; ngarrankarni locates us in the Kimberley.  But what do we do when we speak of the concept in southeastern Australia?  What words do we employ if we wish to indicate a more generalized notion that applies across language groups?  Is there a good option in those cases?  I don’t know, and to be honest, I haven’t really thought about it before.  Such ticklings of my consciousness are one of the reasons I enjoyed Nicholls’s articles.

Perhaps we don’t even need a unitary word or phrase.  There are indeed plenty of English idioms that have been adapted to specific contexts.  We speak of law and business, of creation ancestors and creation time, of cosmologies and world views, of stories and myths and philosophies.  I am neither poet nor linguist, but I can imagine myself getting by quite nicely without ever saying “the Dreaming” again.  Perhaps it’s worth a try.

Nicholls’ third installment in the series was published this week, “‘Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what’s the relationship?”  This time around she looks at the connections between the stories told (for example, in contemporary paintings) and the country that they describe or are situated in.  Although once again focused largely on Warlpiri examples, this week’s article does offer a brief look at a story from Arnhem Land that concerns the proper preparation of the potentially deadly cycad-palm fruit.

Nicholls has aimed her essays at a general audience, quite appropriate for The Conversation.  Too often those of us who sleep and breathe Aboriginal art lose sight of the stunning degree of complexity these cultural issues involve and the subtleties that are often lost either in highly technical writing or in the souvenir-shop and wall-calendar marketplace for “Dreamings.”  Nicholls hits a middle ground, and for that we should be grateful.

Update: A fourth installment, explicating two paintings (by Yolngu painter Charlie Burarrwanga Matjuwi and Warlpiri artist Lily Hargreaves Nungurrayi) and their relation to country and ancestral stories, has now been published, and a fifth is alluded to.  Stay tuned to The Conversation.

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The Grace of God

Old-Masters-cover“How to paint the grace of God?”

That is the surprising question with which Wally Caruana opens the essays that introduce this extraordinary compilation of Old Masters: Australia’s greatest bark artists (National Museum of Australia, 2013).

A few years back, I visited the National Museum for the first time and, after wandering through the Yalangbara exhibition that was on display at the moment, rendez-voused with John Carty.  John treated us to an experience that I would have otherwise have missed: the “archives” of the Museum’s collection of bark paintings and artifacts, housed in glass cabinets and kept dark and shuttered except for a few brief periods each day when the doors are opened, the lights raised, and visitors allowed to stroll through the wonder cabinet.

The experience was over all too quickly: there was much to see, precious little time, and apart from John’s own knowledge, no guide map for us.  I remember only being stunned by the variety of objects, by the overwhelming beauty of many of them, and by an almost visceral sense of an encounter with lost time, with history swelling up before me.

Now a generous selection of that history has been put into a more extended (if still all too brief) exhibition that highlights the grandest painters of the twentieth century bark tradition.  My friend Henry Skerritt has published an informative and useful analysis of the intent of the show–to reclaim these paintings as art–and I refer you to his essay, “New Lines of Flight,” which was published in Art Guide Australia on January 14, 2014 for his sensitive interpretations.

I will return instead to Wally’s question: How to paint the grace of God?  It might seem a strange opener for a show of bark paintings, for while we may easily recognize the sacred content and context that is conveyed through ochres applied to flattened husks of stringybark trees, I doubt many of us have ever considered these paintings in the light that Wally suggests we ought.

The essays that are included in the catalog stand as signposts to an answer to Wally’s question, in that they offer hints to the meanings that are so often inaccessible without a detailed knowledge of the mythologies (if you will) that they illustrate: the stories of the Djang’kawu and the Wagilag Sisters, the creation myths at Djarrakpi where Narritjin Maymuru comprehensively documented Manggalili clan stories, the Morning Star ceremonies that arc across the northern shores of Arnhem Land, even, on a more historical level, the arrival of the Macassans in their sailing ships with their knives of steel that would transform material culture in the region.

The essays, by Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor, Alisa Duff, and Caruana himself, are of an almost cruel brevity.  Each of the authors takes one section of Arnhem Land as his terrain, and couches his discussion in terms of a larger concept.  Morphy discusses abstraction in the paintings of the eastern Yolngu; Taylor examines expressiveness in Western Arnhem Land; Caruana looks at “the shapes of things” in the central regions.

old-masters-dickThough the essays are each only three pages long, they attempt to strike a balance by elucidating general principles with pointed illustrations to particular works reproduced later in the catalog.  It is a mark of the deep understanding that each of these scholars brings to his writing that these abbreviated synopses can be thrilling in their insights, in the ways that they will help you to look at the paintings with fresh eyes.  Discussing Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru and John Namerredjie Guymala, Caruana offers this succinct analysis of the hunting scenes they often paint:

The energy of many of their works is created through the dynamism of the mimih hunter’s body as it propels a spear, and the outline form of the kangaroo that may be fleeing or turning to face the hunter, as well as the striking patterns of colour blocks or crosshatching that glow within the body of the kangaroo.  In Western Arnhem Land this emanation of the designs is called kabimbebme (literally, ‘colour coming out’) and artists strive for this effect, as well as to achieve body form appropriate to certain movements, careful linework, exciting constructs of colour, elements of symmetry, and overall dynamic balance within the picture frame (p. 22).

Or here is Morphy on the paintings of Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Mawalan Marika, and Narritjin Maymuru:

Elements of figurative representations … become components of geometric designs.  The digging sticks and circles are, in a sense, both geometric and representational, but in Mithinarri’s paintings, the limbs of goannas or the feet and legs of birds will continue as extended lines to become part of a clan design or background pattern.  Yolngu use figure-ground reversal to create shapes that reference sacred objects… (p. 27).

You could spend hours (and I did) examining the color plates in the catalog to see how the artists have achieved these effects; indeed, just knowing to look for them or to note their absence in a given work is quite like being handed the keys to the kingdom.

And that last simile, of the keys to the kingdom, brings me back to Caruana’s opening interrogative: how to paint the grace of God?  It seems to me that in the contemplation of these magnificent paintings, beautifully reproduced in the catalog and, I am sure, stunning to see in person, that we are never far from the concept of transcendence.  As with all great art, these paintings point unfailingly beyond the physical, even as their immediate presence and beauty becomes breathtakingly clear.

old-masters-narritjinAny dozen of these paintings taken together could revolutionize your appreciation for the artistry of bark painting: the images are crisp, dynamic, pulsating.  With over 120 works in the exhibition, the cumulative effect is staggering, the more so because so many of these works are unfamiliar.  Even among the large selection of Narritjin’s works there are multiple surprises.  I have looked at a lot of Narritjin’s paintings over the years, thanks in large part to Howard Morhpy’s extensive documentation and scholarship, and I like to think I am fairly adept at recognizing and reading his iconography.  Nonetheless, the works in Old Masters introduced me to astonishing new variations in the familiar topography of Narritjin’s paintings of country.   Where I expect spareness and symmetry, I found abundance, narrative, and in some cases, a pinwheeling energy of composition.

Perhaps the most surprising single painting in the show was Narritjin’s Coat of Arms, the like of which I had never suspected.  Painted in 1963, the year of the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petitions, it is an astonishing work of individual creativity.  Narritjin takes as his ostensible inspiration the kangaroo, emu, and shield design of the Australian coat of arms.  He then imposes upon it the sacred geography of Djarrakpi, replacing the heraldic shield with the spear thrower as a symbol of authority, and populating the conventional map of Australian with the iconic animals of his country, the whole supported by the gunyah, or sand crab, that is one of the prime symbols of renewal and continuity in Narritjin’s body of work.  It is a work of stunning sophistication and ingenuity, and in this regard is typical of the exhibition as a whole, even if its subject matter appears on the surface to tend toward the mundane rather than the spiritual.  Of course, in truth, this painting is every bit as transcendent and spiritual as the most “conventional” clan designs in a bark by Yirawala, Nganjmirra, or Dawidi.

While I can say that Narritjin’s painting may be the most surprising of the lot, it is impossible to pick even a dozen of the “best” from this assemblage.  In one way or another–composition, color, historical significance–every one of these works is masterful, engaging, and worthy of prolonged consideration.  What is most astonishing is that they form part of a single great collection and that they appear to have been exhibited so little over time.  They deserve a wide audience and represent a gold mine for further study, which I hope this exhibition can spur.

The essays at the front of the catalog, as I’ve noted, are suggestive and illuminating, if all too brief.  Throughout the pages that illustrate the paintings further brief explanatory texts discuss individual artists, clans, and paintings, although again all too briefly.  This material is supplemented by an appendix that features short biographies and photographs of the artists.

All this inspires in me a longing for extensive documentation about the stories behind these paintings, and the conditions of their creation and circulation.  I imagine something along the lines of Helen Groger-Wurm’s magisterial Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, published in 1973 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which remains in my mind one of the pre-eminent sources for the interpretation of the bark tradition.  (Indeed, several of the paintings included in this exhibition were collected by Groger-Wurm and annotated in her book.)  These paintings were made to instruct balanda on the nature of the Law, and as stunning as they are as aesthetic objects, they should speak to us as fully as possible.


In the meantime, another striking exhibition of bark paintings is approaching its final days at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.  Transformations: early bark paintings from Arnhem Land, curated by Joanna Bosse from the collections assembled by Donald Thomson and Leonhard Adam, is more narrowly focused in its scope on paintings derived from ceremonial designs, but is no less stunning and rich in what it offers.  For those who want a deeper look at the meanings encoded in the works of these old masters, this video of a discussion Bosse led with Wanyubi Marika, Howard Morphy, and Lindy Allen will amply repay your curiosity.  Together these two exhibitions offer incredible insights into the artistry of Arnhem Land and an extraordinary glimpse of the grace of God.

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Redfern Revisited

redfern-now-2The second series of Redfern Now was a stunner.  I’d had high hopes and high expectations for the return of this highly acclaimed television drama, and I was not disappointed.  I’d like to say that I enjoyed watching it as much as I did the first season, but somehow “enjoy” doesn’t seem to be the appropriate sentiment.  I admired it; I was blown away by the acting.  But each episode was extraordinarily painful to watch.  That is a testament to its power and success.  But it sure hurt.

The six episodes this year provided some continuity.  Leah Purcell reprises her role as Grace from the first episode of season one, in which she tried to care for her sister Lilly’s kids instead of going on a long-awaited family vacation.  This year, she’s still trying to take care of family, but the family this time is the Shields, Eddie, Nic, and Joel, whom we met last time around in episode four, which concerned Joel’s expulsion and loss of scholarship for refusing to stand for the national anthem at his school.

Indigo and Allie (Dean Daley-Jones and Lisa Flanagan), whose disturbed domestic relations were the focus of episode five last year, are back as well, and there’s still trouble.  Some of that trouble gets sorted out by the long-suffering Indigenous copper, Aaron Davis, and it’s wonderful to watch Wayne Blair in action again.  But Aaron is still haunted by the death of Lenny, the young troublemaker who pushed Aaron’s buttons too hard while in custody.

What’s equally intriguing is the way these characters’ stories get upended in the new season.  In the second episode of the new season, “Starting Over,” Indigo hasn’t changed much; he’s still violent and abusive.  Allie throws him out again, calling the cops to take him away after he bashes her in a fit of jealousy.  But I hadn’t expected to see copper Aaron fall in love with Allie, much less to discover that the attraction is mutual.  I found this episode to be one of the best in the series, not only because it satisfied the desire for a happy ending better than most, but because in the course of its single hour it offered up so many surprises, went in so many directions that I hadn’t seen coming.

Episode five, “Pokies,” offered its share of surprises as well in its continuation of the story of the Shields family in the days after Joel’s act of adolescent rebellion in last seasons’s “Stand Up.”  Last time around it was Eddie who seemed completely at loose ends.  He was a man searching for some shred of pride and who banked his own sense of self-worth on his son Joel’s academic promise, a promise that Joel’s recalcitrance threatened.  This time Eddie, approaching his fortieth birthday, takes pride not only in his son but in his job, and is surrounded at his birthday party by friends who clearly prize him.  This time, rather, it is Nic who is in trouble, gambling away the family’s finances at lunch-time sessions at the pokies, hiding her accumulating debts by sending dunning statements from creditors to her sister Grace’s address, cheating the other blackfellas at the cultural center where she works, and ultimately conspiring with a nephew to stage a robbery from the center to cover her losses.  It’s a simple narrative, simply told, and you can almost see the way that it’s going to unravel from the very first.  And yet, in another sense, the conclusion is left open-ended.  We know, in the final moment, what comes of Nic’s retreat to a hotel room where she overdoses on pills and alcohol, but we are not told how that action will play out in the dynamics of the family.  That much is left to our imagination.

Our imaginations also have to fill in the consequences of the strife that permeates “Babe in Arms,” the story of a mixed race couple with a new baby whose incessant crying slowly drives its mother Janine (Caren Pistorius) to the brink of unstable behavior.  Isolated, lonely, bereft, she walks down to the bottle shop one day and leaves the baby alone, crying, in their home while her husband Justin (Meyne Wyatt) is off downing a few beers in the wake of a bitter argument.  In the days that follow Janine is trebly burdened, by unabated loneliness, by grief at the loss of the baby, and by the suspicions of all around her.  Her sense of guilt prods her to ever increasing strife with Justin until she forces him to admit that he suspects her of having murdered the infant.  At that moment there is a bitterly ironic reversal, and we are left, as in “Pokies,” to work out for ourselves what will happen to the family dynamic in the future.

Season two opened with the story that probably generated the most headlines, tweets, and controversy of the year.  Richard (Oscar Redding), a whitefella, and his blackfella partner, Peter (Kirk Page) are raising their daughter together, but when Richard is suddenly killed in a traffic accident, his mother contests Peter’s suitability to be a father.  The specter of homosexuality in the Aboriginal community was not greeted with universal openness in the media once the episode had aired, to put it mildly.  The controversy the story generated mirrored the bitterness of the battle between Peter and Margaret (played against type by Noni Hazelhurst).

Unfortunately, the weakness of the story line itself didn’t help to defend the show against its critics.  Margaret takes Peter to court, and it looks like a certainty that he won’t prevail.  When the couple’s friend Lorraine (Deborah Mailman, radiant as ever) gives him a stern speech, advising him to knuckle down, do his homework, and build a strong legal defense, I had hoped that her homily would put some backbone into the plot line as well as into Peter, but it wasn’t to be.  Peter comes into the courtroom essentially unprepared to do anything but make an emotional declaration of his love for his daughter.  The judge is moved and grants him custody.  Perhaps family courts in Australia succumb to these heartfelt appeals more easily and commonly that they do here in America, but I remained unconvinced of the realism of the outcome.  And I wasn’t any more convinced by the seemingly magical rapprochement between Peter and his lover’s mother with which the episode ended.

A similar sense of an ending too easily contrived weakened, for me, the season’s final episode, “Dogs of War,” in which a spate of common burglaries sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy.  The police recommend that the burgled households buy a dog to ward off future attacks.  Derek (Bruce Carter) takes the advice, and brings home a German shepherd that is a both a pet for his two children and a watchdog.  Across the street Tenile (Katherine Beckett) demurs, but her father Ernie (Ernie Dingo, looking fit and handsome) shows up unexpectedly to install security devices for her.  Ernie is a Vietnam veteran, and angry man haunted by nightmares of his experiences in the war and in denial about the lumps on his larynx that are causing him to cough up blood.  Ernie’s nightmares repeatedly set the new dog across the street to barking at night.  The dog in turn wakes the baby in the house next to Tenile and Ernie.  The baby’s parents, Jimmy and Susie, are enraged and frustrated.  One morning, the police show up when the dog is poisoned; horrifyingly, Derek’s young daughter is poisoned as well.  Ernie ferrets out the culprit, but the process seems too pat and simplistic, too engineered to produce harmony and salvation.


At the heart of all these stories, as was true of season one, is the idea of community and the individual’s relationships within it.  In the first series the very community of Redfern itself seemed almost to be one of the characters.  The action often took place in the same streets from episode to episode; the giant Aboriginal flag mural loomed over the action, and the same cast of recurring minor characters provided a thread of continuity among the stories.  Often the plots revolved around the relationships, not just among the Redfern denizens themselves, but between those citizens and the larger forces of social welfare or the police with which they dealt as part of daily life.

In season two, there is a subtle shift in the way in which these themes are elaborated.  The stories this time are more tightly focused on smaller units, on families or on a small group of individuals.  I was struck by the notion that the stories that are told in season two could be told in almost any suburb in any city.  They are stories of individual strife, of psychological tensions; they are less bound up in the uniquely Aboriginal experience, in the fabric of the place called Redfern, than they were in the first series.

Janine, the lonely new mother in “Babes in Arms,” struggles because she is an outsider, and the victim of racism: she is left to fend for herself because she is a white woman in a black community; she doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t belong.  Peter struggles because he’s gay much more than because he’s Aboriginal.  Mattie, in the fourth episode, “Consequences” has been the victim of a bigamous father, but the scene of her betrayal is only incidentally Redfern and the fact that the other family is white seems of minor consequence to the psychology of the characters who struggle to deal with the father’s transgressions.

I’ll admit to being a little uncertain how I feel about this development.  In some ways, I am disappointed to see the particular give way to the universal, for the character of the suburb itself, the history that is implicit in the streets of Redfern, was a powerful element in the first season.  On the other hand, the new stories broaden the scope in some ways and show us the community in different lights, less anchored to a classic view of Redfern as a locus of oppression and more a collection of human beings with aspirations and burdens that they share with a larger cross-section of society.  In the end, I think I am happy with the direction the series has taken, if only because it shows that the creators are willing to take risks, to try to shed new lights on the community, and to refuse to play to the critical success alone that greeted the debut a year ago.  In short, the second season of Redfern Now demonstrates that the complexity, the creativity, and the humanity that powers the narrative engine are healthy, self-critical, and alive.  Taken together, the two seasons truly represent a landmark in Indigenous storytelling.

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Cookie-PaddyJapaljarriStewartLast week I read with some surprise and no little sadness the obituary notice in the Sydney Morning Herald for Paddy Japaljarri Stewart.  He was known as “Cookie” from his days as a cook at the Papunya settlement, days that overlapped the creation of the Honey Ant Dreaming mural on the school building there, days that presaged his own involvement in painting up the school–the doors this time–at Yuendumu over a decade later.  Those twin events have always stood in my mind as the portals of the Western Desert Painting movement; I know there are other significant milestones scattered in and amongst them, but for a long time Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangku Artists represented in my mind the birth of the movement.  And while there are still a few of those giants in the earth still standing, I find it inexpressibly sad to lose one more witness to genesis.

I’ve met a fair number of artists in the last twenty years; Cookie was one of them, although the acquaintance came late.  But in different ways he has held a unique place in my personal history of exploring Aboriginal art, and perhaps that is why I am left pondering his legacy on this cold and rainy January morning.

Like many people, our education about Aboriginal art began with Papunya Tula, but in the early 90’s when we began collecting, the austerity of the traditional four-color palette was giving way to brighter acrylic dazzlers and among our first acquisitions was a brilliant, multi-hued Rain Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus, another of those primordial painters from the Papunya settlement.  This was a time, too, when the artists of Utopia and especially Emily Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre were dominating the market.  The brilliance of color was an irresistible part of the appeal, and it wasn’t long before we fell under the spell of the Yuendumu painters.

And by the mid-90s, Paddy Stewart and Paddy Sims were the touchstones of men’s painting in that community.  My memory is that their works were scarce and expensive in those days, and it was with great joy that we finally located a resplendent work by the latter at Indigenart in Perth on our first trip to that city.  These were the days when Internet commerce in Aboriginal art was limited pretty much to email communications with major galleries in the capital cities and we came home delighted but determined somehow to find another work by Paddy Stewart.

Luckily, the art coordinator at Yuendumu in those days was also a pioneer in the arts of technology, Liam Campbell, and I believe that he was the first remote community manager with whom we were able to correspond electronically.  We wrote and explained our quest to him.  Within a few days he wrote back and suggested that we commission a work—a possibility that had never even crossed our minds.  We responded enthusiastically and in short order Liam told us he’d gone out for a walk with the old man and encouraged him to make a painting “in the old way” for us.   A few weeks later, an envelope arrived via air mail; this was still the days before digital cameras, and so Liam had to photograph the canvas, print the picture, and send it postally.

The painting was a Possum Dreaming (Janganpa Jukurrpa) and this was the story:

Jajirdi [native cat] came from the south of Wantangurru to Yakurdiyi where Janganpa were having a secret ceremony. The Jajirdi saw them but did not realize that the ceremony was on and walked in on it. Janganpa and Jajirdi began fighting as a result, at Yurripajirru. The men fought but the women were not close by as it was men’s business. The Janganpa forced the Jajirdi to be part of the initiation ceremony after they had finished fighting. The concentric circle represent the Yakurdiyi. The Dreaming belongs to Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men and Napaljarri/Nungurrayi women.

Cookie-AndreaNungurrayiMartinWe were delighted, all the more so because in the interim we had stumbled on the work of Andrea Nungurrayi Martin, who painted the same subject (right).  We quickly agreed to purchase Paddy’s work; Liam quickly suggested that if we liked, he would ask Andrea to paint her version of the story for us as well.  This was the first time that we had acquired two works that we explicitly understood to be representations of the same jukurrpa story, and I was fascinated to study the ways in the which the iconography both differed and overlapped in the two works.

A few years later we went back to Australia, in 2001, and for the first time managed to see the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award show in Darwin.  This was the year that the Japaljarri men won the work on paper with their reinterpretation of the Yuendumu School Door designs and I remember gazing at them with a mixture of awe and longing.

That trip around Australia in 2001 was a watershed in terms of our collecting.  We bought our first sculpture, our first bark painting, and while back in Perth, stumbled across the catalog for Beyond the Pale, the show that Brenda Croft had curated the previous year for the Adelaide Biennale; that was our introduction to urban Aboriginal art.  We never lost interest in the desert acrylics, but we had vast new territories to explore.

In 2007 I was able to take part in a tour of remote communities sponsored by Austrade, and I was overwhelmed at the possibility of visiting so many places I’d only heard of and meeting many more artists.  We arrived in Yuendumu about midway through the trip, and after we had all piled into the troopie for the short ride from the airstrip to the art centre, Cecelia Alfonso informed us the Paddy Stewart was gravely ill and had gone to Alice Springs for medical attention.  We spend the afternoon on the verandah of the art centre with Paddy Sims, who was voluble in explaining the Star Dreaming he was painting at the time, but grew subdued at the mention of his brother’s absence.

The following day we were in Alice Springs and went to visit Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjara.  Not long after our arrival, John Oster pulled me aside and asked if I recognized the old man seated in the middle of the room.  You can imagine my surprise when he told me that it was Paddy Stewart.  Despite having spent the previous day hanging out with Paddy Sims (and earlier that morning at Kintore with George Tjungurrayi, Charlie Tjapangati, and Makinti Napanangka), I was suddenly overcome with shyness.  I sat down on the floor near him, and quickly fell into conversation with Pansy Napangardi (it was quite a couple of days!) who was excited to have so many Americans visiting, Americans who might be talked into taking her back to the States with us.  Paddy kept his head down, painting the designs of a Budgerigar Dreaming slowly and precisely.  Eventually he looked up, and I had my iPod ready, displaying a photograph of the Janganpa Jukurrpa he’d painted for us nearly a decade earlier.  He looked at it closely but briefly, and returning to his brushwork said simply, “Old one, that.”

I came away from those two days feeling like I’d dived deep into the well of Aboriginal art history, having met and spoken to some of the heroic figures of the past thirty years, feeling, in some ways, as though I’d met the ancestors themselves.  For of course, I had.  And now another one of them has grown tired and returned to the country he came out of.  The songs endure.

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