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A new ritual in contemporary Aboriginal art

Paper presented by Dr Sally Butler, University of Queensland
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008

Dr SALLY BUTLER: First of all, thank you very much to Margo and to the National Museum for inviting me, not only to this symposium today but also to participate in the one in Tokyo. It was a fantastic experience for an art historian to be there at the coalface, looking at the impact of the reception of contemporary Indigenous art in a place like Japan and to hear what people were saying. If this wasn’t complex ground enough, that made it a great deal more complex. I have to say just in that regard: another aspect of the Eurocentric perspective was brought home to me because I know that colleagues and I were very enthusiastic and eager to hear a Japanese perspective of contemporary Indigenous art and we were imagining all kinds of things about calligraphy and completely what now is a Eurocentric idea of contemporary Japanese people, about the way that they would engage with the art. Of course, modernism has such a long history and people have a very sophisticated practice, education and knowledge of modernism in Japan that they were engaging with the art in quite similar ways to us. Possibly in a few more years it will become more complex and different from Australia. Getting back to this issue of modernism, it was interesting how non-European modernism is. It is not something that is owned by Europe at all. That is part of my paper - although it is not a paper; it’s a ramble. I will try not to ramble too long.

I would also like to digress to acknowledge what I heard last night: the concept of ‘Margo the magnificent’. As someone who worked with Margo [Neale] on the very first Emily exhibition, I want to make note of what an extraordinary effort it takes to get together an exhibition like this. People ought to be aware of the logistics and the politics that go behind these things. The bureaucratic politics between art institutions and anthropological museums and so on, the politics between art dealers, the politics between Aboriginal people and white fellas, and the politics within the Aboriginal community - it was an unbelievable experience to see Margo navigate her way through that.

I haven’t even got to the politics of Kngwarreye herself, someone who produced over 3000 works of variable quality but also variable genius. How do you sort that out? How do you select it? It is very easy to look at this now and start to make some sense of it, but Margo had nothing. She had one huge problem and all these artworks. She had some very good connections and advice. It was one of the most extraordinary things that I have ever seen. It put me off curating for quite some time, and I am really not over it yet. But I want to acknowledge that Margo is an extraordinary figure in art history. She will be written about by art historians for her role in not only Emily Kame Kngwarreye but also in the whole cross-cultural art history in times to come. So take a bow, Margo. [applause]

I also want to reiterate some things that people have said earlier: It is important to remember that Utopia as a name is not ironic. I have been to Utopia on quite a few occasions and it is a beautiful landscape. It is full of colour, full of variety. There is lush, green vegetation that bursts into massive vibrant colour of wild flowers. The sunsets and sunrises are beyond belief. In fact, in the Holmes à Court publication Utopia: A Picture Story, Annemarie Brody writes the history of how it was named Utopia by a couple of would-be pastoralists who ended up calling it the ‘Utopia pastoral station’ because they had come via the Simpson Desert, which is quite barren, and they came to Utopia, which did appear in that context as a utopia.

This is important to remember because Kngwarreye’s work is about a visual reference to that country. It is her admiration of a spectacular natural beauty, which is something that is possibly universal. We all respond to natural beauty. If there is something there in the way she is using colour and certain sensations of light and so on - if anything is universal, I think the sense of the love of her for a spectacularly beautiful country surely does come through to us in some sense. However, the argument I am putting forward here is not a universalist argument at all. It is attempting to look at Kngwarreye’s relationship with modernity, trying to understand her engagement with modernity and modernism in some sense, as is provoked by the title of this symposium.

I want to argue initially that the modernist aesthetic is not new to Emily Kame Kngwarreye when she starts painting at all, and I will go through the process here. There is a whole history of Aboriginal image making since European contact in central Australia that is part of Kngwarreye’s aesthetic, just as is her Aboriginal experience, insight and background. I will tease that out as I go. We know that in Anmatyerre and in an Aboriginal world view there is no specific term for ‘art’, basically because art is interconnected with all aspects of their life. So they don’t actually have this discrete term ‘art’. But therefore nor do they have the discrete distinction between art and craft. So when there is craft making going on in central Australia, it is image making; it is mark making in an Aboriginal world view.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye lived in central Australia for most of the twentieth century and the central Australian Aboriginal communities are not isolated little communities. As far as gossips go and people talking about what other people are doing, they are among the best in the world. So they know what’s going on. Utopia knows what’s going on with Pitjantjatjara people, Walpiri people - there is an ethos of minding your own business but few people do it.

To say that Kngwarreye is a person who has no knowledge of modernism, modernist aesthetic or modernity is to deny the real life history of living in central Australia as an Aboriginal person in the twentieth century. In fact, more than saying Kngwarreye is a genius because she paints the whole lot of Alhalkere, I would say she is a genius because she paints the whole history of Alhalkere in the twentieth century. She brings a history of contact plus a deep insight of Anmatyerre culture and Alyawarr culture into her art in a way that is realised and resolved that is simply extraordinary.

As fellow Australians who have lived in the twentieth century, part of that history is also our history. We may not have gone to Utopia, we may not have gone to central Australia but, particularly in terms of design aesthetics and things that are going around about Aboriginality but simply about different tastes and trends, we both live in the same world. I would argue that Kngwarreye is not totally isolated from that at all. I want to go through why.

The device or the vehicle that I want to talk about this is in terms of the concept of ritual and I am arguing that the concept of ritual is the vehicle for change in contemporary Aboriginal art. We conventionally look at the term ‘ritual’ and don’t actually use it much in contemporary art history because it has a connotation of a static repetition of something from the past. But when you look at the way ritual is brought to bear on contemporary Aboriginal art, you can see that it is a dynamic vehicle for change. It is how they move through and engage the modern world in the twentieth century.

In terms of the function of ritual in a pre-contact Aboriginal culture, and I am generalising here, certainly the idea of a ritual ceremony or what have you was that it was a big event. There are all sorts of rituals, but I am using ceremony here to start with. A ceremony was a big event that brought together the interconnectedness of all aspects of life, and this is one of the fundamental tenets of an Aboriginal world view. It is how you make sense of the world: you find the interconnectedness between all things. You have a dreaming story for it or you understand country as my body; the reason why the stars are in the sky; the reason why my brother is my brother and why I shouldn’t speak to my mother-in-law, and so on. It is that interconnectedness. These ritual ceremonies, these huge performance events bringing together dance, song, body painting, ground painting, painted weapons, dreaming stories - an entire collected wisdom of your community - was a way in an oral culture to remember that important collected wisdom. They don’t write it down in books but they remember it. They remember it in a very specific way.

These ritual performances were the framework for maintaining not only a body of knowledge about the interconnectedness and inter-related relevance of all aspects of your life but also for making sense and creating meaning for new things that come into your life. Basically it is when they say ‘keeping the dreaming alive’, keeping it relevant, regenerating it, keeping it active, keeping it and making those connections - making sense of the world. We all understand how we have a framework to make sense of the world. We have different frameworks. In their framework this interconnectedness is extremely important. I believe that they use the concept of ritual in Aboriginal art not only to maintain that interconnectedness but also to connect themselves into the modern era, into modernism or modernity, into a world where now white fellas, for better or worse as far as they are concerned, are a part of their world.

Rather than Aboriginal culture being modernised, I want to suggest that Aboriginal artists ritualise modernity. I am just shifting it for a moment. You can attack me for saying, ‘You are just trying to speak from an Aboriginal perspective but you’re not Aboriginal. How can you do that?’ I accept that, yes. I don’t know enough to say that I can speak from an Aboriginal perspective at all. But as an art historian I sometimes think: I don’t really know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a psychotically affected Dutchman of the late nineteenth century, but it doesn’t stop me having a go at talking about what Van Gogh might have been about. Sure it is part of the European tradition, but at the end of the day that man’s life and that man’s world is pretty far distant from mine. It is this idea that there is an act of communication here and there is something going on. At the end of the day with Emily Kame Kngwarreye, her history, her time and the political issues that were going on are much closer to me than Van Gogh’s context. So, yes, I am trying to look at an Aboriginal perspective of the relationship between her art and modernity but I think that in some sense it is reasonably valid.

The images I have up there [shows images] show a lineage between the movement from Aboriginal ritual to contemporary art that we are fairly familiar with. In terms of Papunya we have the original ground paintings, magnificent three-dimensional performance works of art where all of the beautiful materials from country - all sorts of different coloured ochres and feathers - are made into these huge ground paintings. Beautiful poles are painted. In relationship to whatever ritual dreaming was being performed, people would paint up similarly and sing songs and relate, and that would be a completely interconnected body of knowledge related to that ground painting.

When the Papunya painters first get an opportunity to paint on canvas, they paint in an idiom that I would argue is much more akin to the idiom they were used to of poker art or making images of Aboriginal culture on souvenirs, which had been going on for decades prior to this, and there had been a substantial economy in making images for white fellas. Remember, I am saying there is no clear distinction between art and craft in an Aboriginal world view. Making images is the first kind of connection - for a culture that was being assimilated and being told ‘Stop being Aboriginal. If you want to survive, just behave like white fellas, don’t use language, don’t use your culture, don’t make those images. Stay away. However, as souvenirs we wouldn’t mind a few images on your objects, thanks’. It’s this window of opportunity. Many Aboriginal people in central Australia participated in this kind of image making. It’s a first connection; it is one of these interconnections. White fellas are prepared to have a look at this. They are interested in image making of Aboriginal culture in this way. It would be difficult to say that Kngwarreye would be totally ignorant of that entire trade that was going on in central Australia.

Similarly with Albert Namatjira. Namatjira’s recognition throughout the Aboriginal community is something that is yet to be written about, it is a piece of art history that needs to be researched. I say that because I know that the Mornington Island artist Dick Roughsey, in his own autobiography, wrote when he first met Percy Tresize - he comes from Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria - he went up to him and said, ‘I want to be the next Namatjira. Teach me how to paint’. And Tresize says, ‘Stick with bark painting for a while and we will see how it goes’. The presence of Namatjira in the Aboriginal world as someone who successfully negotiated these connections with the white fella world was immense.

The other thing that Namatjira does that we understand now more than we did at the time was that, in an Aboriginal world view, it’s an acceptance of innovation and creativity. Aboriginal art has never been created in this way ever before, but he gets recognised by white fellas. He gets hailed and becomes the first Aboriginal citizen. To say this does not have impact on Aboriginal people is to deny them any intelligence whatsoever.

Albert Namatjira is being creative and innovative. As white fellas we see him at one stage as being a product of assimilation: ‘He’s Aboriginal but he has sold out. He has started painting like a white fella’. When we get to the post-colonial era we get very uncomfortable about that. Aboriginal people, particularly Arrernte people at Hermannsburg, never had any problem with that. We forgot to ask them, ‘Do you have a problem with what he’s doing?’ No. Why? Because he was keeping the Dreaming alive. He was sustaining some visual image making about his relationship with this country, his love of this country, his connections - his interconnectedness - at a time when it wasn’t happening any other way. They understood that to the point that today if you go to Hermannsburg and say, ‘Could you show me your traditional art?’ they will show you a watercolour painting. That’s their tradition. They totally believe that as their tradition. Sure, ‘Namatjira, old man Albert, he invented the style of watercolour painting taken from white fellas’. But it doesn’t matter. It is performing a function with this ritual of interconnections between all aspects of life and recognition from white fellas - an acceptance that we have a culture - is a very important aspect of that interconnected philosophy of life in the twentieth century at a time when there was almost something that we could call ‘cultural genocide’. It is there. It is there fighting back against that.

So art/image making is circulating in this souvenir market. It is circulating via the recognition and the fame of Albert Namatjira but also, as is very well recorded in many of the books about Emily Kame Kngwarreye and again particularly the Holmes à Court publication Utopia: A Picture Story, since the late 1960s and certainly during the 1970s there is the print making and Aboriginal art and craft initiatives that arose in response to Aboriginal communities being successful in land claims, and Utopia is a perfect example. Aboriginal people regain freehold title of their land. They are back on country. They have ownership of their country. It’s kind of ‘now what’, and they are looking for economic self-sufficiency initiatives. Art and craft making is seen as one of those initiatives.

The Australian government was very vigorous in funding that Aboriginal art and craft initiative in central Australia. There is a long history of people like Jenny Green, who was one of the first people to teach batik - and again Emily participated in batik making - and Julia Murray who came into the Utopia community and taught them the actual technique of batik printing. However, they used that technique in order to express their own Indigenous culture.

The point I want to make here about modernity is that there is something about fabric painting and design that is highly modernist in essence. There is a sense of all-over design. If you think about it, as an artist who has no history of what an artwork is in terms of our point of reference, it has a frame and you create an image inside it. It all relates to the frames, Clement Greenberg tells us endlessly. If you don’t have that idea, an art can be a souvenir or a scene that Albert does or traditional iconography or batik painting and what have you, the idea that when you get a piece of fabric and you do an all-over design and you do repetitive motifs that interlap and you pay attention to flatness and a kind of ongoing, continuous aesthetic - this must have a large impact when they come to canvas painting.

These images are some of the designs [shows images]. Some wonderful research about Aboriginal textiles done at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney [see web article called ‘Paperbark Women’] is going to reinvigorate the history of textile aesthetics in central Australia and other areas and the impact on so-called ‘accidental modernism’ when they start canvas painting - I don’t think so. I think they have had a long history of a certain kind of modernist tendency on a flat surface such that when they come to a canvas painting - and a great deal of Emily’s work is of all-over painting, colour field painting - the essence of colour theory and design translates into canvas painting magnificently.

I am pretty sure that it is Christopher Hodges - correct me if I am wrong - who writes in one of the books on Utopia about how the batik making fits perfectly into ritual activities that would have taken place on Anmatyerre communities prior to contact. The idea of sitting around a hub cap full of molten wax with the fabric across your knees, moving the fabric across as you paint your design - again think of all over aesthetic and what sort of imprint it has on people - yarning, talking to each other, talking about the stories that you are painting. Here in the middle [shows image] we have Emily singing the emu dreaming and clapping as she has just finished the batik that is in the exhibition [Untitled 1988]. Here there is this kind of ritualisation of modernity. Sure there is a modernist aesthetic happening, an influence of external techniques and everything, but there is a ritual activity there that in some senses is ritualising modernity, absorbing and procreating it into their way of life, making the connections between the way they see the world - it is them making sense of modernity. Why? Because it is in their face. Of course they are going to make sense of it. Anything that has come into their lives in the entire history of Aboriginal culture they have made sense of it, they have philosophised over it.

Similarly with body painting, again there has been extensive writing about how, when they first came to canvas painting, it was suggested that the women translate body paintings into canvas. The first efforts were quite figurative but again figurative art has a long history. It goes back to the figurative elements that were on the souvenirs. They have already been doing figurative art in a Western sense for a long time. Similarly the first Papunya paintings were very figurative. In that centre one [shows image] we have a very good visual representation of the body painting, the head gear, the designs for the poles and the designs that would be on the ground painting.

In fact, they were so representational it caused a great ruckus in the central Australian community because they realised that secret sacred knowledge was potentially being disseminated across different Aboriginal communities. So it wasn’t secret sacred knowledge being presented to white fellas because, let’s face it, we wouldn’t have a clue if it was standing right in front of us whether it is secret sacred - and they know that. But they do know there are women who shouldn’t look at men’s business and children who are not initiated who should not look at initiated material and so on. When this art started circulating in central Australia they had to renegotiate that aesthetic and bring it back into its proper ritual.

We then get the development of the more abstract but still in some sense very literal depictions of ceremony. [Shows image] That is an early Johnny Warrankula where you can still see the ceremonial figure on the far right, and you can see a great deal of the emblems that were being much more specific in the 1970 and 1971 paintings. As Christopher says, great artists are great artists. They are people who have visual solutions for conceptual problems. That is what an artist is. They are faced with this problem: first, how to represent ground paintings on a two-dimensional surface; and, second, how to reveal and conceal secret sacred knowledge at once - we want to show we have a sophisticated culture; we want people to know that there are secret bodies of knowledge that are important to us; but we can’t reveal it entirely. So you get this aesthetic dialectic, the dotting over and showing a visual ambiguity of reveal and conceal - magnificent artistic solutions to a conceptual problem - great artists. And Kngwarreye is one of those.

[Shows image] This image shows the Mornington Island artists where the original body paintings that were used in ritual ceremonies were originally translated onto bark at the request of anthropologists who wanted traditional authentic examples of this aesthetic. So they asked people to paint in ochres, using the ochres and feathers that they had on the body painting and putting it on to bark. There was very much a sense that this is traditional because it’s the traditional materials. But the actual discrete object of a bark painting is not traditional at all - it was the walls of huts. They didn’t actually make a bark painting as such; it’s a post-contact concept. But in a Eurocentric way we tend to look at that as being more traditional than what the development of this art goes along - so the more schematic paring down in acrylic on canvas and then increasingly into what we see again as a greater degree of abstraction, yet nevertheless containing these very literal references back to the ritual itself.

With Kngwarreye I am simply arguing that she has this unbelievable ability to maintain the ritual. When she first starts painting it looks very abstract. We have the Grevillea flower, we have the body painting, we have the little emu’s foot up the top [shows image]. Again it’s this inscription of awelye, whole lot. In some sense I think ‘whole lot’ means interconnectedness. I am doing what the ritual always does. I am interconnecting my awelye, my Alhalkere, my emu dreaming but I am interconnecting it with the modern world with a reception of white fellas using the history that I have of souvenir market, creativity and innovation impressed upon us by the recognition of Albert Namatjira, and an entire design aesthetic via batik making that she would have been imbibing the entire time.

The really exciting thing about the abstraction of Kngwarreye is that it really does bring a new language of abstraction to us. The idea that it’s utterly abstract yet there is this incredible literal referencing, as in the emu painting I just showed. But also I was struck speechless by the rock art that I was shown a photograph of [shows images]. On the far left is Lindsay Bird Petyarre, who is Emily’s nephew, so it is Alhalkere country. This is a large waterhole on Alhalkere and inside the lip of that is rock art that Lindsay was there showing the person who took the photograph. I know it is white fella misunderstanding - maybe - but this rock art of these beautiful abstract lines and Emily’s painting, if that’s a coincidence, well so be it. To me it is why this is Aboriginal art before it is abstraction - but, yes, it’s both. It is a creative genius who has brought all of that together from an experience over the twentieth century, which I think is just extraordinary. Thank you.

Date published: 8 October 2008