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Late-style modernist – a ‘boundary rider’ view

Paper presented by Djon Mundine
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008

DJON MUNDINE: Thank you all for coming here to listen to us speakers. Sometimes when you become a thinker, you can think too much and you wonder where your thinking and reality ends and begins. The title is something like ‘I’m a late modernist’ or latte modernist, I pondered, and I am an outsider in many ways. First of all I would like to acknowledge the traditional land owners who were here before. It’s a gesture that people should always remember to make. We talk about modernism in history and once upon a time we would open on event such as this with toasting the Queen. To acknowledge that by making that statement is a giant modernist statement. I am a boundary rider, so to speak, if there is such a thing and I am on the outside of many things.

I begin my opening remarks normally by saying my AAAA disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist or archaeologist; I don’t claim to be an artist; I’m not an academic; but I am an Aboriginal person. And although Emily is not from my country and I am not from hers and this isn’t my country here either, there are some observations I can make. We had the statement that ‘modernism is the art of modernity’. Aboriginal art is the art made by Aboriginal people and ice cream I think tastes like ice cream.

We sometimes struggle with Europeans in this country. Every society has its own logic and its own form of expression. The problem is that Eurocentric views seem to think that European logic fits with everything else. The most famous film made by the filmmaker Wim Wenders was called Wings of Desire - The Sky over Berlin, which is such a loaded German historical spiritual statement about angels but about German history it is so self-evident. It was Wenders who said, ‘You cannot place another story on a place. Every place has its own inherent story, historically and spiritually.’ He bemoaned the fact that the Hollywood machine, which is a variant bastard version of Eurocentricism, takes stories and places them where they need or where they think. In fact the copyright for his script of Wings of Desire was purchased by Hollywood and eventually plonked into Los Angeles, the city of angels. On the periphery level this film is about angels so we will stick it into Los Angeles. Wim Wenders had already made a film about the drug culture in Los Angeles, the drug gangs and the extreme violence within America to do with the numbers of guns and the prevalence of drugs of all kinds where half the population has a very funny view of reality. He said that was the story of Los Angeles; his story had nothing to do with it.

The story of Aboriginal art in this country is a Robinson Crusoe type of story. It’s the story of a white Eurocentric European male who is ship-wrecked on a tropical island in the Pacific. He believes or would like to believe in that Eurocentric tone that the island is unoccupied physically, socially and spiritually. Then one day in his travels on that island he sees a mark. If you know the story and the story of the footprint, he sees a ‘sign’ in academic terms, and that sign - that tells him the place is occupied; he is not alone - is Aboriginal art. Then he meets the person and tries to interact with that person, but the first thing he does is he names that person. And in naming that person he appropriates that person, he dominates that person and he colonises that person. A great historical, social and intellectual moment is missed and cast into the background of history.

I only met Emily once. I have never been to Utopia.(Have most of you been to Utopia? Don’t be shy. I am not Richard Bell. I won’t bite your head off.) Many people have been to Utopia, and that’s probably metaphorically as well as physically. But the irony of such a place being called Utopia surely shouldn’t be missed. As I said I have never been there. I was mainly involved in my career in the artworld as an art adviser and a curator of art from northern Australia, from the bark painting tradition of Arnhem Land, and just as much involved in what’s called urban Aboriginal art, which is seen to be the art of the south-east.

In my statement that ‘Aboriginal art is art made by Aboriginals’, what is inherent in that statement is that all Aboriginal art is in fact contemporary art. I mean by contemporary not in a Western sense of descriptions going through modernism, postmodernism etc. In fact, the debate seems to be one step behind the reality all the time: why don’t we talk about Aboriginal art as if you are going to talk about it as postmodernism surely, not modernism? But I look at all Aboriginal art as being contemporary art, and that is made probably within the last 50 years. It is not surprising that most of the Aboriginal art in collections in Australia and around the world in the collections of all kinds - when you talk about them in art terms and not documents - 90 per cent of that art work was collected post World War II, which makes it very contemporary. Most of that art was made as a response, as a form of communication back to the Empire to people trying to colonise Aboriginal people. It’s a response to what is happening within Australia.

Trying to put Western desert art as Emily fits into a category on one way is really interesting. Aboriginal art was taken into the cathedral of Western art in Australia in the post World War II period - in the 1950s, 1960s and so on. In that time no-one quite knew how it really fitted in. Obviously, as people have been saying this morning, Emily didn’t do her PhD in French impressionism or American abstraction. None of the artists I have worked with had read an art book in the Western sense. All these things are pretty self-evident and we puzzle with them.

So what we do is that we try - that is we collectively, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal Australians - to work out how does Aboriginal art fit into a Western history and how does it fit into our Australian history. As was just said at the tail end of the last talk, in Japan you can have Japanese minimalist. There was a period where Japanese minimalism was taken on; there was a period of Japanese surrealists and so on. In Australia in the 1950s you have Australian abstractionists, surrealists and so on.

Aboriginal art comes from somewhere else and, as Ian said quite correctly, it doesn’t come from a Western art history. Therefore, the development of Aboriginal art is something pretty unique in the sense that, yes, it does have a history of 30,000 years of art practice. Even in the visual art field it is 30,000 years of development where people were playing around with mark making, people were playing around with colours and creating visual art.

Then you have the ‘catastrophe’, as it is called, of the coming of the Europeans, the collision that happens between two cultures, and in that Aboriginal people react and interact by using Western art materials. The interaction should be seen as a material thing, not as an intellectual process. Aboriginal people are using Western materials but are trying to tell an Aboriginal statement or expression, and that is one of the most important points. Aboriginal artists aren’t trying to do abstract expressionism to create minimalism or any of those things, unlike Australian artists who took on the influence of minimalism and the Japanese and lots of other countries where they were touched by what was happening in supposedly the centre of the known universe. Despite Aboriginal people being in interaction with Western societies for over 200 years in Australia, they never saw Europe as the centre of the known universe.

Emily’s centre of the known universe is where she was born and lived. She came to Canberra and in fact that is where I met her when she was getting her Keating Fellowship. I met her in Parliament House as a very quiet, seemingly warm, old woman that looked up and smiled and shook hands with people, and most probably wondered what the hell was going on. No-one really spoke to her very much and vice versa. So that is where I am coming from.

My experience with Emily is of another Aboriginal person trying to cope with the interaction with Western society with white Australian society, trying to do the right thing, trying to be good mannered, trying to explain herself in ways that are not offensive, etc - trying to be what’s called a sophisticated person, as she was. People told me many things. There were anthropologists who worked with Emily. There are myths that she didn’t talk very much etc. There is an anthropologist friend of mine who spent a day with Emily and another group of women and said that Emily talked to her for hours. Of course she couldn’t understand anything Emily said, and most probably that’s a metaphor for the whole story we are trying to struggle with today. Emily spoke for about three hours to this woman who knew many Aboriginal languages, but she couldn’t understand anything she said.

I saw this person and people raved about her – sorry about my colloquialisms - people thought that her work was so strong, so inventive and so intellectual and yet not really knowing it. In a way most probably today it is like the four blind men and the elephant trying to make sense of things. They were very few of us here who can speak Anmatyerre, or whatever Peter Garrett called it last night. In fact when you can’t even say what it is it is interesting where the communication begins. There seems to be some form of virus going through the country at the moment, and it’s called public speaking consultants who are telling people how to pronounce words. So even the ABC is saying stupid things like Toowoomba and Balleena instead of Ballina, and making even worse abominations of attempts to pronounce artist names from the centre, as we got an earful last night.

My own thing with Emily was that her beautiful work and I really appreciated the very basic mark making that she was doing. I used to sell Aboriginal art before. I will confess to that. I wasn’t quite a carpet bagger. I was an Aboriginal version of that, so most probably a linoleum bagger, so to speak. I never used these terms. It was quite interesting to hear people break into the vernacular of ‘the Matisse of Maningrida, the Picasso of Papunya and the Rubens of Ramangining’, and so on. However during a funny conversation with a German friend of mine, Ulrich Kremple, who is a major international art curator, he remarked that Emily was more like what’s called the black ‘Grandma Moses’. Grandma Moses is a white person in fact who was born in the last century. Anna Mary Robinson was her name and she was born in 1860. The example came from this: she was an embroidery maker practising person. That is what she was famous for. She had no training in the arts at all. She started to paint very late in life and came to be known as Grandma Moses.

She is an example of an individual who was successfully beginning a career in the arts at a very advanced age. She began painting in her 70s, not her 80s - that is Emily who was in her 80s – when she gave up embroidery because of arthritis. A New York collector saw one of her paintings and bought it and she took off also like Emily. She was taken off because it was an inoffensive commodity in a sense with very naive landscapes and rural scenes. At one stage it was said that she was most probably the best-known American artist in Europe. Her artwork was used for an advertising campaign by Du Barry cosmetics - I’m not a fashion freak so I don’t understand this - with a lipstick gloss called primitive red.

Harry Truman, the President of the day, presented her with the Women’s National Press Club trophy award for outstanding accomplishments in art in 1949, and in 1951 she appeared on the See It Now television program. So she is very famous, a very iconic figure. I was looking at the sideways self-portrait of Emily outside which is such a weighty incredible image of Emily. You can see how far we have travelled when you think of the Aboriginal head of ‘one pound Jimmy’ on the postage stamp. We actually do know who the person is and, more than that, we would look stupid if we didn’t know who she was.

I thought about this for a while and being the whizz kid - because as you know I’m a great quip with wit and I used to tell this story until one day I told this story and an independent woman then took me to task about the differences between Emily’s work and Grandma Moses. It is interesting in that I would never think of Emily as a naive artist and certainly not as a folk artist, which is where Grandma Moses comes out of American folk art tradition. Somehow she jumped the barrier, the canyon, to get into the fine art world.

I had some discussions with Ian and some other people in the last week about the whole inclusion of Aboriginal art into the Australian art scene. It sits there like a cuckoo in the nest - in a positive sense though, not in a negative sense. It’s really an interesting thing about Australians that we could see the value of Aboriginal art and we could see it fitting into our society. It’s like Aboriginal people have been in fact connected to Australian society. There are lots of historical references of Aboriginal people not only in sport but in everything we do - as Germaine Greer alluded to in another essay, the influence of Aboriginal society and the influence of Aboriginal practices, social, physical, etc, are things that we have denied as a nation and as a society taking on board and influencing us as Australian society. It is most probably the public moment in a way where we do acknowledge Aboriginal presence and Aboriginal admiration - the things about Aboriginal life, the things about Aboriginal intellect that we actually admire and should look at more and take on board rather than this Eurocentric view.

In a more contemporary essay last year I spoke about the fact that Australians are waking up to the fact that we are not a colony, we are not Europe any more - we most probably never were. We are not even a colony of Europe any more; we are a country existing in Asia and the Pacific; and the quicker we swing around to adopt practices and realise where we are and change the vision, the more comfortable we’ll all be and the more comfortable Aboriginal art will sit in to that lexicon in a new way and create a new lexicon of art history that doesn’t rely on Western art history - to describe it as Robinson Crusoe did, to name it.

It would be stupid to talk about Japanese cultural history and continually use Western terms. The best thing about living in my counter-racist way in Japan and being at the National Museum of Ethnology is that you really knew you were in Japan, because when you went in every object for about half the museum was Japanese. The whole history started with Japan. The next room then was Korea, China, Mongolia, and somewhere way up the back you came to a little diorama of Europe with this little village, with a mannequin in clogs and with bulls and cows etc. That is as far away as Europe is from Japan; and it is as far away as it should be intellectually and socially. It’s a great thing for a country and for society to have that self-confidence. Maybe one day, most probably not in my lifetime, we will see that in Australia.

I think that has given you enough to think about. It may not quite be on the form and the colours that we are seeing here, but that is really the heart of the art as it’s been said. People shouldn’t have too much angst about the form and even the language that you are using to have this embracement of Aboriginal art. All that is really needed is to read the sign. Instead of describing the sign, it would be like some Martian finding a sign to the gents and trying to talk about it in aesthetic terms - read the sign. Thank you.

Date published: 11 March 2009