Tag Archives: Keith Windschuttle

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.

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

Shuttling wind

I’m genuinely sorry that Quadrant‘s Literature Board grant has been cut. Quadrant is one of a tiny handful of publications that has actually paid me money for stuff I’ve written. But Keith Windschuttle doesn’t do anything for his reputation, such as it is, for distinguishing between verifiable fact and self-serving opinion or even pure invention when he asserts, ‘This Literature Board has made a patently political decision.’ He characterises Meanjin, Overland and Australian Book Review as ‘overtly left-wing publications’ and asserts that they carry only a fraction of Quadrant‘s literary content.

Well, Meanjin and Overland may come out less frequently than Quadrant, and Overland may be described in the pages of The Australian as loony left. But for what it’s worth, I think Windschuttle is blowing smoke. I’m most of the way through the current Overland, and at a rough count I’d say all but 10 of its 104 pages are taken  up with literary content, as opposed to roughly a third of the 96-page issue of Quadrant I have to hand (March 2007). If Quadrant comes out twice as often as Overland, that suggests something like 64 pages of literary content to Overland‘s 90. Of course, it depends what you call literary: I’m including an analysis of the art of computer games in one publication and some intensely political book reviews in the other. Also of course, 90/64 is still a fraction, so Windschuttle’s assertion may still be literally correct. It’s been a while since I read an issue of Meanjin. I had a look at a copy in Gleebooks the other day and was deterred from buying it by the sheer number of words: tiny type and hundreds of pages. Good luck to them whose eyes are up to  it, I thought. Windschuttle’s claim looks even less plausible there.

As for the overtly left-wing qualities, I would have thought that Overland‘s left perspective was at least as unwelcome in Kevin Rudd’s parlour as Quadrant‘s right. Overland published Germaine Greer’s intemperate criticism of Rudd earlier this year, and the current issue’s one piece of political commentary, Guy Rundle’s ‘When the rubric hits the Rudd’ (terrible title), includes this:

Ruddism is a mode of post-social democratic labour adapted to Australian conditions and history, one that displays no real interest in challenging an atomised neoliberal social order and must therefore explore increasingly specific coercive measures in the management of a population.

Yes, Keith, one can just see Kevin on the phone to his minions at the Australia Council: ‘Send that man a pile of gold.’