Crossing Cultures with Owen and Wagner

Stephen Gilchrist (editor), Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College 2012)

Until now I’ve assumed that exhibition catalogues were basically illustrated lists, of little or no interest to anyone who hasn’t been to the event they relate to. The Crossing Cultures catalogue has made me think again. My rethink was given a serendipitous boost by Mary Beard‘s contribution to TLS Books of the Year lists. She wrote:

Let me put in a plea (not for the first time) that we don’t forget the great contribution of exhibition catalogues, which often goes far beyond a simple record of the show concerned.

Like the esoteric-sounding catalogue she had in mind, Crossing Cultures ‘includes some wonderful essays and entries’. The bulk of the book is devoted to ten substantial essays, while the illustrated list – the ‘exhibition checklist’ – takes up less than a quarter of its pages. Since very few of my readers are likely to visit the exhibition (it’s in New Hampshire) or see the catalogue, I’ll give you a quick guided tour. The Art Student’s words when she first flipped through the book echo my own response and serve very well as a TLDR: At last, something that might help me understand some basics about Aboriginal art.

Will Owen kicks things off with an account of how he and Harvey Wagner created the collection of Aboriginal Art which they are now donating to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, and which constitutes the exhibition. People often bemoan the influence of collectors as a key part of the commodification of art and the art scene under capitalism. Will’s essay gives a different perspective. It describes how the urge to collect grew from being captivated by the art, and led him and Harvey to build relationships with dealers and artists, and to a deep engagement with ‘the complex social and cultural elements that informed [the art’s] creation’. Will’s blog demonstrates the intelligence, erudition, and passion he has brought to that engagement. (Will and I met online when I blogged about an exhibition of work from Aurukun, at which he and Harvey bought a sculpture over the internet. I think of him as a friend – and our copy of this catalogue is a generous gift.)

Then comes a trio of general articles:

Howard Morphy’s ‘Aboriginal Australian Art in America’ explores the role that US exhibitions and collectors have played in the process by which the non-Aboriginal art world has come to recognise ‘the value and aesthetic power’ of Aboriginal art, beginning with an image from the New York Times in 1941 that juxtaposed a bark painting from western Arnhem Land with paintings by Dali and Miro: decades before anyone would have thought of doing it in Australia, a US exhibition was suggesting an equivalence between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art. An observation that’s relevant to this exhibition:

The building of collections of Aboriginal art with a historical depth has … happened outside art museums, through the activities of private collectors and ethnographic museums.

In ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Issues Facing Contemporary Indigenous Art in Australia’s Remote Communities’ Brian Kennedy, former director of the NGA, summarises the social and political environment of Aboriginal art in recent decades – he doesn’t name John Howard or Mal Brough, but their dark presences are very much there. The general principle:

Each and every non-Indigenous person who hangs a work of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art on the wall of his or her home or office thereby publicises Indigenous culture and sooner or later should contemplate the circumstances in which these works are made.

‘Painting the Law: Understanding the Law Stories in Aboriginal Art’ is an overview by N Bruce Duthu of the notion of the Dreaming and the importance of country in Aboriginal cultures. Duthu, a Professor of Native American Studies, quotes tellingly from a number of Aboriginal people, including this exchange between Aboriginal legal scholar Christine Black and David Mowaljarlai, senior law man from the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley:

‘What about the areas where there are no Aboriginal people surviving, or at least living traditionally there any longer?’

‘You’re wrong there thinking like that. The land remained, you can’t get away from that. It acts for the people and their imprint is still there. If the land sinks into the ocean, the symbols will still be there. Only if the whole continent is blown to pieces and nothing is left of it, then it will be finished.’

Each of the remaining six essays focuses more narrowly

In ‘Daguerreotypes, Stereotypes, and Prototypes: Reframing Indigeneity’ Stephen Gilchrist, curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue, discusses photography. Six contemporary photographers are represented in the exhibition: Christian Thompson, Darren Siwes, Destiny Deacon, Bindi Cole, Ricky Maynard and Michael Riley. The essay takes us from a time when photography was a means for colonisers and anthropologists to define Indigeneity to the present when Aboriginal photographers

manage to push through the burdensome expectations of making racially explicit work and instead speak up against the persistent climate of ideological repression.

As the title suggests, Françoise Dussart’s ‘Mediating Art: Painters of Acrylics at Yuendumu (1983–2011)’ focuses on the work of Warlpiri artists in the Central Desert, particularly Yuendemu. After reprising the history of the beginnings of acrylic dot paintings at nearby Papunya, she draws of decades of conversations with Warlpiri artists, she explores the relationship between the acrylic art and the Dreaming stories it reflects, and pushes at the edge of how non-Indigenous people can read and understand the art:

Rooted in colonial and evolutionist views of exchange 
with indigenous peoples, practices of collecting have relied 
and continue to rely too often on sampling, on finding the
 ‘iconic’, on serial individualizing (concentrating on the career of a single artist), and on ‘preserving’. It may be time 
to instead embrace the truly panoramic representation of 
paintings from a specific time and place. Understanding 
the practices of indexicality articulated by Aboriginal painters will likewise force collectors and museums to think beyond sampling practices and the kinds of power relations
 that such practices generally structure.

Jennifer Deger’s ‘Art + Emergence’ focuses on northeast Arnhem Land. Her concern is to take her readers past looking at Yolngu barks and canvases as ‘elaborate messages in need of decoding’, to find ways to ‘sensually encounter’ the works – which means more than just finding them pretty. At the same time she writes very interestingly about the issue of who has the right to tell the stories that are contained in some paintings.

Sally Butler, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland, ranges from Cape York to Brisbane in ‘The “Presence” of Queensland Indigenous Art’. Queensland is huge, and the range surveyed in this essay is huge – from traditional Aurukun sculpture to the text-based protest art of Gordon Bennett and the extraordinary variety of Vernon Ah Kee’s work. Sally Butler, like most other contributors, quote artists of more traditional work in ways that indicate political / diplomatic intentions. An old man from Aurukun declared about Kugu Law Poles, ‘ I know your laws: now you can know mine.’

Among other things, Henry F Skerritt’s ‘Strange Relatives: Negotiating the Borderlines in East Kimberley Painting’ tells the story of Rover Thomas, and places his art in the context of Keith Windschuttle’s reactionary revisionism, which prompts me to reflect that if you were looking for a beautifully illustrated introduction to Aboriginal culture, history and politics, including the impact of dispossession, massacre and colonisation generally, as well as the integrity, courage and sheer brilliance of the ongoing struggles of Aboriginal people, you could do a lot worse than this book.

In the final essay, ‘Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction’, anthropologist and curator John Carty argues that in the process of claiming Aboriginal art as fine art rather than ethnographic artefact, ‘we have somehow neglected the basic disciplines of formal and art historical analysis’. Western Desert artists have moved on in their use of traditional forms, becoming increasingly abstracted, but art criticism has not kept pace – he traces the process in the works of ‘the incomparable Emily Kam Kngwarray’:

Her artistic trajectory resonated with the broader history of Western abstraction in ‘impossible’ ways, and yet it also expressed what some have come to interpret a a kind of Indigenous modernism. But the effusive proclamations of Kngwarray’s ‘genius’ have tended to obscure the fact that her dissolution of the structural and iconographic aspects of the aesthetic system was part of a broader creative process in much desert art of recent decades. Kngwarray has become the iconic embodiment of that process, yet singular as she was, her work encompassed developments in the abstractions of desert painting that both preceded and followed her own individual career.

He then gets down to cases, and has a fascinating discussion of concentricity, of dots and their relationship to meaning.

So, it’s not Contemporary Aboriginal Art for Dummies by any means. Each of the contributors speaks from deep knowledge, and many Aboriginal voices are quoted. But, speaking as a dummy, I find it hard to imagine how a single book could do a better job of informing me on the subject. Plus, of course, the images are plentiful, and brilliant.

One response to “Crossing Cultures with Owen and Wagner

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