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Images of Earth & Spirit
A Resurgence Art Anthology
By John Lane, Satish Kumar
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2003 Green Books Ltd
All rights reserved.
Images of Dreaming
Fifty per cent of the Aboriginal people of Australia consider themselves to be artists, says Victoria King
THE ABORIGINAL ART of Australia contains an extraordinary vision, incorporating a non-dualistic seeing and a profound sense of place.
Perspective within Aboriginal culture is a high ground. In land-based cultures a perspective is valued not just for outlook, but for meetings, community, and a way of life. To see a situation from all sides implies wisdom and compassion.
The Aboriginal way of life is dependent upon sensitivity to the environment, to oneself, to others, and between different language groups. The artist becomes a scribe of mystical and profane events, the two interwoven. The paintings on rocks and cave walls become maps of experience. Flying over the Australian desert, looking down over an infinity of ochre-red expanses of colour, one sees Aboriginal paintings spontaneously coming to life.
The gesture an Aboriginal painter makes with his or her ochred brush has a life born from Dreamings, from their ancestors, from time immemorial. It is made literally on the land, the artist's homeland, a spiritual centre. The artist is enacting a ritual carried out at one time or another among peoples of all continents. It is direct. Here the doing and the being are one act.
The curator of the South Australian Museum, Peter Sutton, comments: "There is a very strong connection between the use of symmetry in Aboriginal art and the powerful commitment to the balance of reciprocity, exchange and equality in Aboriginal thought."
Aboriginal art appears abstract, yet is distinctly narrative. It is based on obligations to the land, to each other, and to the ancestors. The Dreaming symbols are by the artists who are connected with them, and these have been passed on to them by the elders of the community. The Dreaming is literally sung on to the canvas, bark or ground. These Dreaming songs are the essence of Aboriginal culture. The meaning, the cosmology and the art are one whole.
Dreamtime is a term used to express the Aboriginal cosmology of creation. It is an embodiment of the spiritual forces of the Universe. It links a natural and spiritual philosophy with the self and the land. While the Dreaming stories are sacred and particular, the individual artists are free to express their own interpretations, holding the original story as inspiration.
THE HISTORY OF THE modern Aboriginal acrylic dot painting movement began in 1970 in the government settlement of Papunya. Here a group of senior initiated Aboriginal men began making art from their own culture. From the rock paintings and rock engravings, the ceremonial adornment of the body with ochre designs and ritual sand paintings made of ochres, blood, feathers, twigs and seeds, an outpouring of thousands of years of experience flowed profusely into this new acrylic medium and has become an internationally recognized art movement.
Peter Sutton says: "You can know its visual aesthetic impact on you, but you need to approach the works on more than that narrow front if you are going to get into them deeply. If you know nothing about the Dreaming story involved, all you have done is colonize it, remove it from its context and turn it into a bit of wallpaper."
Rob Russell stated that fifty per cent of indigenous people in Australia refer to themselves as artists. With all of the introductions and intrusions of Western materialism into their culture, they have made a choice to continue to honour and celebrate that which is sacred to them through painting, printmaking, sculpture, dance, music and acting.CHAPTER 2
Art that Connects
Aboriginal art carries the viewer into the heart of a landscape that is at once physical and spiritual, believes Matthew Sturgis
"OH, YES – ABORIGINAL Art; it's all those dots and circles, isn't it?" Many critics, when faced with the broad field of Aboriginal painting suffer from a foreshortened cultural perspective. They assume a homogeneity amongst the peoples and works of aboriginal Australia. Differences are flattened out and everything is merged together. Of course there are elements of shared belief and common iconography, but it is the differences that are more telling.
Australia is a continent, and the aboriginal peoples, who made it their home for over forty millennia before the arrival of European settlers, developed with all the diversity that might be found amongst the peoples of Europe or Asia. There are over 400 different aboriginal languages, and even more distinct peoples. Each group has its own cultural traditions, fostered over tens of thousands of years – traditions of music, dance, ceremony and painting. Each people evolved its own iconography, its own forms of representation for paintings that were made on rock shelters, on bare torsos and on the shifting sands.
With the development of the contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement during the second half of the twentieth century, these traditions have found a new outlet and have developed a new vigour. Paintings are now made for sale and permanent display. They are made in multiple media – in paint on bark, board, canvas and paper.
THE WORK PRODUCED by contemporary aboriginal artists, far from conforming to a single style, reflects the diversity of the culture from which it springs. Over the course of summer 1999 there was a rare opportunity to see in London something of this strength and diversity. On show at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery there was work from three of these very different artistic traditions: bark paintings from Arnhem Land, dot- paintings from the Gibson Desert, and some of the richly idiosyncratic art from the wetlands of Ngukurr in central northern Australia.
Although it is a common assumption that bark painting is somehow the authentic mode of aboriginal artistic expression, this is not the case. The Yolnu people of Arnhem Land have, it is true, always decorated their bark shelters. But the great tradition of Arnhem Land bark painting is more recent. It has its origins only in the 1950s.
Their position on the wild yet fecund coast of central north Australia has given the Yolnu people both an enduringly strong sense of their own culture and a long tradition of interaction with outside peoples. It was the Yolnu who, several centuries before the arrival of European settlers, had come to an accommodation with the Malayan trepang-gatherers who made seasonal visits to their shores. As a result of such contacts Yolnu culture has long developed a sense of openness to outside influences.
The images and stories depicted in their bark paintings are drawn from their age-old traditions; the iconography and the method of painting are ancient too. The materials used are part of the mythic landscape they depict: the bark itself is cut from the Eucalyptus tetradonta, or stringy-bark tree; the pigments used are ground from the local earth; and they are fixed either with orchid juice or wood glue. But the impulse behind the work and the format adopted are inclusive. The pictures were made – and continue to be made – for sale or gift, as part of an ongoing dialogue between aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds.
VERY DIFFERENT IN TONE, in style and in origin is the work of Warlimpirrnga and Walala Tjapaltjarri, two artists from a 'Lost Tribe' of aboriginals who lived – without white contact – in the Gibson Desert on the borders between Western Australia and the Northern Territory until 1984.
The two artists were born in the 'Bush' – probably in the late 1950s, or early 1960s – and while other aboriginals in the area were being forcibly settled on government stations further east, their small family group escaped the net. They continued to live the traditional aboriginal life of nomadic hunter-gatherers, travelling through their harsh but beautiful environment along their ancient 'songlines', observing the time-honoured rituals and ceremonies of their culture. They avoided all contact with twentieth-century Australia until 1984. It was then that they were 'found' by a party from a recently resettled aboriginal outstation at Kiwirrkuru.
The discovery created international headlines. It also created a new life for the wandering tribe. Needing to find wives from outside the limited family group, they moved to Kiwirrkuru, the tiny settlement of some 180 people, famed as 'the most isolated town in Australia'. It was at Kiwirrkuru that Warlimpirrnga and Walala began to paint on canvas for the first time, setting down the stories and images of an unbroken cultural tradition stretching back tens of thousands of years. Their work was, from the outset, distinguished by an extraordinary intensity and assurance. Using modern acrylic paints but the limited repertoire of symbols and the distinctive aerial perspective of most aboriginal 'desert artists', they created paintings of great power. The strength of the work was recognized at once. It carries the viewer into the heart of a landscape that is at once physical and spiritual.
This sense of interconnectedness not only between all the elements of the living landscape – plants, people, animals, rocks, skies, rivers and the firmament – but also between the living landscape and its origins in the great creation myths of the Dreamtime, is an element that lies behind all aboriginal art, no matter what its medium, or its outward form.
It is found in the paintings of Warlimpirrnga and Walala, in the barks and prints from Yirrkala, and also in the vivid, colourful canvases of Djambu Barra Barra. Stylistically, Barra Barra is one of the great originals of the Aboriginal Art Movement. His bold images of crocodiles, buffaloes, ant lizards and 'Devil Devil Men' are engaging and instantly recognizable.
Yet his originality is rooted in tradition. The animals and the stories he depicts are his totemic heritage, and the way he depicts them owes much to past practice. He trained as a bark painter, and he still employs the distinctive tropes of Arnhem Land bark-painting – cross-hatching, mixed perspective and 'x-ray vision'.
He has, however, combined this tradition with new media. Like most of the artists in his community at Ngukurr, he has adopted acrylic paint and canvas, and he uses them with extraordinary exuberance. His painting takes one to the heart of the great paradox of Aboriginal Art: it is at once the most ancient and the newest of artistic traditions. It draws on unbroken cultural tradition that still conceives of Land, Spirit and People as a connected and balanced whole, and it employs forms and symbols that have been sanctioned by millennia of unbroken use. And yet it constantly seeks new ways of combining its symbols and of expressing its truths.CHAPTER 3
Wonder of Oneness
In this art there is no battle of egos, only a celebration of unity. By Rebecca Hossack
GERTIE HUDDLESTONE came to painting late, and had her first exhibition when in her sixties. An Australian aboriginal, Gertie was born at Ngukurr in the Northern Territory and still lives nearby. Her paintings, bursting with bright colours and clear forms, are perhaps more accessible than many of the non-representational 'dot-and-circle' pictures of the Western Desert aboriginal painters. Yet, they share many similar concerns.
Gertie's extraordinary appeal and power lie in her childhood. She was raised at the Roper River Mission, where her mother sewed clothes for children. Gertie attended the school at night and during the days she worked – gardening, looking after the goats and milking the cows.
Yet alongside this Christian education and farm work Gertie also imbibed the traditional stories of her people.
She learnt of the Dreamtime, which gives to every feature of the natural world a mythic and spiritual significance. And she learnt techniques of hunting and gathering food in the Bush. These two worlds come together in Gertie's art. Instinctively she has drawn from the two traditions of her upbringing a common theme – the unity of Creation.
Her pictures teem with life – with insects, birds, fishes, flowers, grasses, people, artefacts – the symbol of the Cross is also often present. She paints the landscapes around Ngukurr and describes her food- gathering expeditions to favourite sites.
She eschews, however, any conventional sense of scale or narrative. Butterflies are bigger than people, flowers are bulkier than birds. She holds this carnival of life and colour firmly in place with only her unforced sense of design and order. She grasps the pattern beneath the diversity – and she allows us to see both. The world she represents with such directness and vitality is truly holistic. Her vision is of the unity of all beings.
THE GLORIOUS FECUNDITY of nature has, of course, its corollary in the glorious fecundity of the artist's creative spirit. There is a harmony about Gertie Huddlestone's obvious delight in the richness of the natural world and the richness of her palette and her designs. But more striking than this is the place in this rich natural world that she finds for human beings. Their position is not privileged. They are merely a small part of the whole, no bigger and not more important than – say – a beetle.
This understanding is one of the abiding tenets of the Australian aboriginals' world-view. They set no boundary between people and the rest of the natural world. Nor do they arrange creation into obvious hierarchies. In part, no doubt, the aboriginals have preserved this world-view on account of the Australian environment and the way in which they have adapted themselves to it over the millennia.
Without crops or pastoral animals, they have always lived lightly in nature – as nomads, hunters and gatherers. Although they use fire sometimes to clear underbrush, they have no sense of control over the environment. For the aboriginals, human beings are a part of nature, and not its masters. The aboriginals know that they depend upon the gifts of nature. The essential humility of this vision is apparent throughout aboriginal culture and it is everywhere to be seen in Gertie Huddlestone's pictures.
Another aspect of humility is also evident in Gertie's work. Aboriginal culture, traditionally, is shared by the community – the stories, dances, body-painting motifs and earthdrawing patterns are preserved by the tribal elders and passed on to the young when the time is right. There is no tradition of personal authorship. Gertie Huddlestone often works with her sister Amelia George, each of them completing half the work as they discuss the events and places represented in the picture. One only has to imagine attempting this exercise with a friend to realize just how hard it would be both technically and emotionally. The sisters, however, are so sure of their common vision and understanding – so happy to sacrifice the insistent 'self' – that these collaborative compositions show no sign of strain or incoherence. There is no battle of egos, only a celebration of unity.
Gertie Huddlestone gives us a glimpse of the wholeness that aboriginal culture has managed to preserve. Her art offers a doorway into this world, which for all its specific topographical references – the carnival of curious birds, beasts and bugs – carries an unmistakable echo of the universal spirit. Her pictures inspire not only a sense of wonder but also a sense of oneness.CHAPTER 4
The women of Janakpur may be illiterate, but they are great artists. By Rebecca Hossack
IN MANY TRADITIONAL and tribal societies, the word 'art' did not exist. In Hindi, a major language spoken in north India and parts of Nepal, the word meaning 'art' is synonymous with 'skill', which means things well done or acts well performed. These include everything from cooking, dancing, building and singing to painting. There are eighty-four named skills. An art historian from Sri Lanka, Ananda Coomaraswamy, said, "In the Indian way of thinking, an artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist." The women of Janakpur (a town on the plains of southern Nepal, near to the Indian border) do not consider themselves to be artists. Nevertheless, for many centuries they have been painting richly imagined and skilfully executed colourful pictures on the mud walls of their homes. This is part of their way of life, tradition and culture. These pictures relate to the seasons, festivals and myths. Though always beautifully worked, they were never meant to be permanent. They were either washed away in the rains, or painted over with fresh pictures at the next festival.
Excerpted from Images of Earth & Spirit by John Lane, Satish Kumar. Copyright © 2003 Green Books Ltd. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
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