by Tim Bonyhady © all rights reserved
The demand for writing about
Aboriginal art - like that for most other art forms - is directly related
to the demand for the work itself. The greater the market for the art,
the more books, exhibition catalogues and articles result. Hence the
wealth of writers about the art of Papunya, west of Alice Springs in
the central desert, while other regional forms of Aboriginal art typically
have just one or two. More than any other Australian art movement except
the Heidelberg School, Papunya painting sustains what an economist might
think of as a genuine marketplace of ideas.
Yet the market, typically, is
only partly responsible for who writes what about Aboriginal art. The
way in which anthropologists acquire expertise through extended fieldwork
is also significant. Most anthropologists pursue this fieldwork in relation
to just one Aboriginal community - even if they return their again and
again. In doing so they may become part of this community just as it
becomes theirs, both off and on the page.
Arnhem Land exemplifies how most
different regions have their own writer. The art of the Yolngu people
from Yirrkala to Blue Mud Bay in eastern Arnhem Land is the prime terrain
of the anthropologist Howard Morphy. That of the Kunwinjku people around
Oenpelli to the west, who have a very different language and culture,
is the territory of the anthropologist Luke Taylor. In between - around
Ramingining in central Arnhem Land - is the domain of the arts adviser
and curator Djon Mundine.
This type of territorial demarcation
diminishes the chances of debate, whether over matters of fact or ideas.
But just as competition is no guarantor of good writing, so monopolies
need not be a cause of bad. An art form may have only one voice but
be better served than by several as demonstrated by the literature on
Arnhem Land, from Morphy's Ancestral Connections (1991) through
Taylor's Seeing the Inside (1996) to Mundine's central contribution
to The Native Born (2000).
One stock recipe for books and
exhibition catalogues about Aboriginal art is to present an assortment
of essays by authors with this regional expertise. The results, on the
whole, are lame. Not only is the geographical coverage of these books
and catalogues necessarily limited but their essays also typically offer
little new. Repeated recycling blights publishing about Aboriginal art
possibly even more than it mars writing about non-Aboriginal art.
Sylvia Kleinert's and Margo Neale's new Oxford
Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture is unprecedented
in its breadth and depth. No other book has presented such an
array of material, both old and new, about Aboriginal art. Its
production in just four years is itself a significant achievement
given the difficulty of coralling academics and curators, let
alone art writers. Its very bulk - eclipsing the 716-page Oxford
Companion to Australian History edited by Graeme Davison, John
Hirst and Stuart Mcintyre in 1998 - is a powerful affirmation
of the significance of Aboriginal culture.
Yet as much as the Aboriginal
Companion extends the cultural landscape, it also flattens it. Organized
part geographically, as well as partly chronologically and thematically,
the Companion divides Australia into six regions, each of which receive
more or less equal treatment. The art of Papunya - one of the most remarkable
expressions of Aboriginal culture - consequently looms no larger than
the much more modest products of artists from Torres Strait. The Companion
equally gives little sense of the many different accounts of Papunya
The most famous and influential contributor to
this rich literature has been Geoffrey Bardon - the catalyst and,
to a significant extent, also the orchestrator of Papunya painting
in 1971-72. Bardon's pioneering Aboriginal Art of the Western
Desert appeared in 1979, his Papunya
Tula: Art of the Western Desert in 1991. In between and
since he has proved himself a remarkable essayist - more evocative,
even magical, than perhaps any other writer about Australian art.
Yet Bardon has never had a monopoly
on Papunya writing. The ethnographer Dick Kimber, who was more closely
involved with Papunya painting than any other non-Aborigine through
the 1970s, first discussed these 'Mosaics You Can Move' in 1977 and
has kept writing ever since. So too, since the early 1980s has an increasing
array of other writers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Only the
voice of the original artists remains more or less muted.
Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius - the
catalogue of the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW edited by
Hettie Perkins and Hannah Fink - is another big book. But whereas
most of the reproductions in the Companion are poor, the AGNSW
catalogue is one of the most sumptuous Australian art books ever
produced .. and is a triumph of design. The catalogue's photographs
are as compelling as the paintings reproduced. Jon Rhodes' 1974
picture of John Tjakamarra striding through the Kintore Range
in his flash second-hand suit - not unlike The Beatles on the
zebra crossing of Abbey Road four years before - is just one example.
The catalogue's essays are also
unusually original, as well as consistently informative. In several
cases, they too are imbued with the writer's sense of amazement not
just that the Aborigines of Papunya could have produced such remarkable
art in such an awful, impoverished place but also that he or she had
the good fortune to witness at least part of this story unfold. Bardon
draws on 'a particularly cherished memory' in his essay. These were
'privileged times', Kimber echoes, 'I treasure these memories'.
Yet what makes this writing most
interesting is how so many questions remain unclear. Here, for once,
is a form of Aboriginal art discussed at length by a host of accomplished
writers. But key ingredients of the Papunya story are either obscure
or the subject of increasingly diverse, often contradictory explanations.
The first few years of Papunya painting - particularly the period in
1971-72 which local Aborigines sometimes call 'Bardon-time' - is still
not the subject of anything like a coherent, convincing account.
The confusion over why the artists
initially revealed so much secret material by depicting sacred objects
such as tjurunga, then how and why they made their paintings more secular,
is most significant. The conventional view has been that Aboriginal
religious practices, including the treatment of restricted material,
were traditionally more or less static. In the Aboriginal Companion
Franchesca Cubillo, the Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian
Museum, argues instead that what has been sacred or restricted has never
been the subject of fixed, unchanging rules. Yet the reasons why Aborigines
have revealed this material to non-Aborigines is still a major issue.
Cubillo is just one of many recent
writers who argue that this disclosure has been and remains a matter
of choice on the part of Aborigines. 'The Community itself', she maintains,
'dictates and orchestrates the fluid nature of restricted material'.
Yet this argument ignores the power of non-Aborigines to encourage,
if not induce, disclosure. Rather than being just a matter of Aborigines
deciding to demonstrate the depth and strength of their culture, it
has also been due to an array of outsiders - often anthropologists and
collectors - saying 'We want your secrets'.
When Bardon first discussed this
issue in 1979, he explained that he 'did not want to know any of the
secrets' behind Papunya painting. Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri was, he
recounted, one Papunya artist who 'readily understood' his concern that
'secret-sacred topics should not be painted for sale'. Judith Ryan of
the National Gallery of Victoria has suggested that Bardon actively
'attempted to steer the artists away from secret-sacred elements'. Dick
Kimber has dubbed Bardon 'innocent'. But Christopher Anderson and Francoise
Dussart have linked Bardon to the disclosure of this material, suggesting
that the Papunya artists possibly depicted it due to Bardon asking them
"to do 'special' paintings for him".
A more common explanation is
that the first Papunya paintings were not produced for public sale.
The sociologist Vivien Johnson has suggested that the artists painted
them 'primarily for themselves'. Kimber has suggested that they were
produced more for Bardon who not only was treated by the Aborigines
as 'a first-stage initiate', which entitled him to see what other whitefellas
could not, but also was forming his own collection of paintings.
Either way, as more than one
writer has put it, 'as soon as the works began to be sold the art began
to change'. Rather than reveal their secrets to the marketplace, the
artists developed ways of avoiding or hiding the sacred. The dots, which
became markedly more prominent in Papunya painting from 1973, are typically
thought to have been crucial. Kimber identified them in 1981 as a prime
means of 'eliminating some elements used on some sacred objects'. Ryan
characterized them in 1989 as 'masking', even 'camouflage'.
Yet Bardon was quick to try to
sell the first Papunya paintings. Acting as the artists' 'agent', although
without ever receiving a commission, he took some to Iris Harvey's Arunta
Art Gallery and Bookshop in Alice Springs. His main outlet was another
Alice Springs gallery, Pat Hogan's Stuart Art Centre. Bardon took 29
paintings there in about July 1971. A year later, he had brought in
18 more consignments - a total of 620 pictures.
These paintings also won prizes
and sold fast. In August 1971 Kaapa Tjampitjinpa was one of the joint
winners of the inaugural Caltex Art Award in Alice Springs. In October
1971 the new Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory bought
a remarkable 78 of the 130 paintings in the first 3 consignments taken
by Bardon to the Stuart Art Centre - a degree of immediate public recognition
enjoyed by no other new Australian art movement, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.
This early success - often overlooked
as part of crude generalizations that the artists' work was ignored
and neglected throughout the 1970s - confounds the claim that Papunya
painting was not initially in the public domain. It also makes sense
of the Papunya men's appetite for painting with European materials.
As Bardon records in the AGNSW catalogue, the Aborigines were 'amazed'
by this new source of income and promptly began painting with unprecedented
enthusiasm. Without these sales, the movement could well have fizzled
as the Aborigines came to dismiss Bardon's claim that 'painting was
a way of making money'.
A stronger explanation - most
clearly developed by Kimber in a 1995 essay 'The Politics of the Secret'
- turns on whether the paintings were seen by other 'tradition-oriented
Aborigines', not whether they were for sale. Kimber suggests that no
other senior Aborigines saw Kaapa Tjampitjinpa's prize-wining picture
at the Alice Springs show or the paintings at the Stuart Art Centre,
which were never visible from the street. Instead, they first saw one
of the new paintings at an Aboriginal arts and crafts display at Yuendumu
in August 1972. Then, in late 1973, a senior Walpiri man saw a large
group of Papunya paintings stored in Alice Springs.
The response, on these and later
occasions, was intense. In 1972 there was an 'angry uproar' from senior
Pitjantjatjara men who considered the painting a 'serious transgression'.
In 1973 the Walpiri man was so shocked both by the number of pictures
and by their content that he 'spoke in whispers, telling of a man he
believed to have been murdered because of the secret-sacred aspects
depicted in one painting'. When an exhibition of Papunya painting was
held at the Residency Museum and Art Gallery in Alice Springs in 1974,
a bout of stone throwing led to several of the paintings being removed
from public display.
Whether dots were the artists'
means of hiding this sacred content is another matter. Johnson first
queried this argument in 1991 in the exhibition catalogue, The Painted
Dream, on the basis of one of John Tjakamarra's first paintings. She
argued that the very detailed dotted background of this Ground Picture
from 1971 'brought into doubt the view that this element entered the
style several years into the movement, when secularisation ... became
part of the artists' concerns'.
Kimber added to these doubts
in 1995 when he attributed the artists' embrace of dotting at least
partly to the arrival at Papunya of Peter Fannin, a new arts adviser
who was otherwise a botanist with a keen interest in the vegetation
of central Australia. As explained by Kimber, the Papunya artists responded
to Fannin's particular interests (as they had earlier to those of Bardon)
by depicting more plants and bush foods in their work. Dots were a conventional
means of doing so in the Aborigines' ground paintings, hence 'not surprisingly'
they became 'more prominent in much of the new acrylic art'.
The anthropologist Fred Myers further undermined
the 'camouflage' argument in the most interesting essay in Howard
Morphy's and Margo Smith Boles's Art
from the Land (1999). Myers, who began studying Papunya
painting already in 1973 while working in the central desert,
accepts that 'the politics of secrecy' may have been 'a factor'
in dotting becoming one of its hallmarks. But he implies it was
probably not of great consequence as it 'was not a dominant theme
of discussions' he had with Pintupi artists between 1973 and 1975.
When Hetti Perkins and Hannah
Fink recently reflected on this Papunya literature in Art and Australia,
they suggested that these discrepancies were partly due to most of the
writers being 'protagonists' who took 'refuge in the partiality of personal
reminiscence'. They also emphasized the complexity of writing anything
like a definitive account of Papunya painting. 'It is a story that cannot
be told in any one way', they observed, 'Anthropological, political,
historical, art critical: it is all of these things at once, and none
of them entirely'.
Yet these problems are far from
unique to Papunya. Most writers about particular regional forms of Aboriginal
art are or have been entwined in the development of these movements
whether through long stints of fieldwork (in the manner of Howard Morphy
and Luke Taylor) or through years as art advisers (in the manner of
Djon Mundine). Most, if not all, other Aboriginal art forms would similarly
benefit from writing which draws on anthropology and politics, history
and art criticism.
One possibility, still, is for
the original artists to have more of a public voice. As Dick Kimber
recognized in 1995 in 'The Politics of the Secret', his account
could 'undoubtedly be refined by the surviving artists if they so desire'.
Since then, many have died, but eight of the original 30 are still alive.
While they might not want to discuss the secret, they might illuminate
many other, less sensitive aspects of Papunya painting's first years.
Yet the inconsistencies and gaps
in the Papunya story are a spur for more writing not just about Papunya
but also the many Aboriginal art forms which have been subject to interpretative
monopolies. If these movements sustained more writers, there sometimes
would be radical revision of existing accounts. In other cases, the
new writing would simply confirm and embelish the old. Yet even this
corroboration would be valuable. Even the best writers need competition,
if only to show how good they are.
Tim Bonyhady's latest book is 'The Colonial Earth',
published by Melbourne University Press. This article first appeared
as 'Sacred Sights' in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2000,
Spectrum pp. 4-5.
- Sylvia Kleinert & Margo Neale (eds), The
Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University
Press, 758 pp.
- Hetti Perkins & Hannah Fink (eds), Papunya
Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 320
- Bernice Murphy (ed), The Native Born:
Objects and Representations from Ramingining, Museum of Contemporary
Art, 242 pp.