Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Objects/Histories)

Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Objects/Histories)

by Fred R. Myers

ISBN: 9780822329497

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Arts & Photography/Painting

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Truth or Beauty: The Revelatory Regime of Pintupi Painting

Rather than grasping objects only as cultural signs and artistic icons, we can return to them, as James Fenton does, their lost status as fetishes-not specimens of a deviant or exotic "fetishism" but our own fetishes. This tactic, necessarily personal, would accord to things in collections the power to fixate rather than simply the capacity to edify or inform. African and Oceanian artifacts could once again be objets sauvages, sources of fascination with the power to disconcert. Seen in their resistance to classification they could remind us of our lack of self-possession, of the artifices we employ to gather a world around us.-James Clifford, "On Collecting Art and Culture"

At Yayayi from 1973 to 1975, the painters located themselves some twenty yards south of the main camp, a camp principally of canvas army tents and other temporary shelters, among the big shady trees along the dry creek of Yayayi. Theirs was the most consistent routine in the Yayayi community. As I reported in my dissertation, the painters spend "most mornings, at least, at their place, near the male ritual area. The painters' day camp cannot be approached [in those years] by women or children and here they sat, joined by non-painters, painting and talking among themselves. I spent many of my mornings here as well, listening to gossip and discussions of mythology and ritual. The composition of the group varied, but there was usually a group there" (Myers 1976, 111).

I listened to the gossip about current events with which people entertained themselves while painting, and I avidly pursued the stories the paintings embodied, both for my own ethnographic work (these were "myths") and so that I could help to document the narratives that art advisers believed contributed to the paintings' salability. These documentations provided the specific stories related to the iconographic form in paintings-stories of the ancestral beings described by Pintupi as Tjukurrpa, or Dreaming, who traveled across the face of the land, whose actions left marks on the landscape as its significant features, who defined the meaningful order of being, and who left behind the essence of all future beings (Myers 1986a). Glosses of such stories typically have accompanied the works in sale, proving their "authenticity" to Western buyers by defining the paintings' mythological base and showing that the forms are more than arbitrary, pretty designs. This selection of significance, which allows some Westerners to focus on the "spirituality" or "religiosity" of the paintings, is actually a rather complex and ironic construction that reflects in part the Aboriginal claim of why their paintings are valuable.

In my initial work among Pintupi people, I was concerned primarily with how Western Desert people understood themselves: I looked at the structuring and movement of bands over the land (the practices of territorial and spatial organization) and Pintupi concepts of the self. I came to understand the relationship between spatial organization and identity as dynamic, reflecting the internal politics and contradictions of Pintupi social life (Myers 1986a). Like other anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s (Anderson and Dussart 1988; Dussart 1988, 1993, 1999; Morphy 1977, 1983b, 1992), I discerned the Aboriginal emphasis in painting to be on the question of individual identity and the acquisition and distribution of authority to reproduce particular designs. But Aboriginal understanding of what the paintings meant was not simply an internal matter. The painters imagined the circulation of their paintings and the relations this involved with whites to be subsumed within a single cultural model (Myers 1980a, 1980b, 1986a), not intrinsically limited by the supposed boundary of white and black.

These concerns, then, defined my interest at the time in painting in Pintupi communities: the emphasis on which people had the right to depict what stories (and in what places), the conflict between Aboriginal understanding of the value of their paintings (as based on significant and prized religious knowledge and experience) and what the whites paid for them, and the contradiction between the collective economic goals of the artists' cooperative and the relationship of the arts adviser to each participating painter.

The Local: Not Quite Out of the Way

Acrylic paintings are intercultural objects. Their social biography begins in the Aboriginal communities where they are manufactured, but their production is not so simply rendered. The paintings do not fall easily into the category of "primitive art," for example, which is usually reserved for objects as dense with local meanings as these. Deeply resonant of indigenous culture and value, celebrated for their testimony to the survival of those cultural traditions, they are nonetheless objects as much of the present as of the past.

If the "primitivism" debates that rocked anthropology, art history, and cultural studies (Clifford 1988a; Foster 1985; McEvilley 1985; Manning 1985; Price 1989; Rubin 1984; Torgovnick 1990) explored the problem of intercultural movement critically, but from a metropolitan point of view, the circulation of Aboriginal acrylic paintings offers a parallel more grounded in what I call a "local art history" (see chapter 3). The primitivism debates revealed how the opposed categories of "tradition" and "innovation" regulate fabricated boundaries between the modern West and a supposedly premodern Other (Cohodas 1999). But their focus on a generic and general West and its Other threatens to return the study of these paintings to an insignificant place in what Arthur Danto (1986) has delineated as the Hegelian march of a unilineal, world historical "Art History." In the context of settler nations like Australia, the paradigm of authenticity has a more particular combinatorial capacity than that of primitivism.

Those of us who worked in close proximity to the practice of Aboriginal painting struggled to articulate the cultural context of these objects and to explain their meanings as local people understood them. At the time, however, we did not necessarily grasp the processes of which we were part. In this chapter, I attempt to provide a kind of reflexive double vision: an account of the way in which acrylic paintings were understood in the early stages of their production, along with an account of how I came to know the work.

Based on the cultural meaning of paintings, the discourses applied by the painters I knew, I have come to recognize that consideration of the social practice of painting should guide analysis. Although I began in 1973 and begin here by addressing what anthropologists call "cultural context," I have found the apparent stability of such a concept to be inappropriate for my account. Instead, my interest lies in the unsettled and unsettling nature of the encounter between traditions of theory and practice.

There are numerous possible categories of analysis for Pintupi paintings-transitional art, hybrid art, "art by destination" rather than "art by intention"-but these simple codifications provide little historical or analytical purchase on painting practices. Certainly, a universe of meanings and practices exists within which Pintupi paintings find significance and value for painters. Following Pintupi concerns, therefore, it is necessary first to understand the relationship or reference of these forms to an ontology that lies outside the paintings before one can engage with the visual form itself. The painters stress not their beauty (or aesthetic value) but their referential and ontological truth, defined as their relationship to the Dreaming (see Myers 1989 and hereafter).

But the significance of Pintupi painting does not stop with this manifest articulation of value. Although "aesthetics" as a problem in the Western sense of artistic creativity does not appear to concern the Pintupi much, the vitality of formal organization in the work argues for its importance. Thus it can be shown that the processes of accommodating their own internal values and those of the European market, as with the art of Yirrkala (Morphy 1992; N. Williams 1986), has led to important formal changes (Graburn 1976, 32). The question of "traditional" or "nontraditional," while significant to the "primitive art" collector (Clifford 1988b; Cohodas 1999; Price 1989; Steiner 1994), is of little help in unraveling the processes through which a system of design has been constituted in a complex historical collaboration. Nor does it provide much instruction about the semiotic potentials of elaborated form.

Many observers of tourist art, in Australia and elsewhere, have been concerned with the extent to which this painting is "indigenous" and traditional. There is no simple answer. In my view, the issue itself is a significant example of the collaborative production of Aboriginal cultural and ethnic identity within a white-dominated society. To evaluate Aboriginal practices as either traditional and authentic or, conversely, as touristic is not a simple interpretation of "facts." Our evaluations are acts of representation, necessarily dialogical and intertextual. What I try to do is lay bare the extent to which such representations, as social facts, are addressed to, assume, or are aware of other competing or contesting representations. The broad dialogism evoked in the work of Bakhtin (1981) has particular significance for anthropology in this regard, in understanding anthropological accounts as presuming a multivocal or polyphonic context. We then recognize cultural translation not as a statement of Aboriginal facts but as an authoritative position in defining meanings.

One cannot hope to escape representation, but there are frameworks that Aboriginal producers insist should be applied in considering the objects, understandings, and practices involved in making images. For some time, however, anthropologists and others have recognized that the so-called "local" for what Anna Tsing (1994) called "out of the way places" is not as autonomously local as it was once thought to be (Clifford 1988d; Wolf 1982). So although I do intend to commence locally, I am anxious to avoid the pitfalls of imagining a pure, original moment of uncontested signification within Aboriginal communities. I do not want to present contemporary Pintupi painting as emanating directly-rather than dialectically and actively-from a preexisting foundation, but I cannot-in light of the painters' own assertions-present it as a simple product of, or imposition by, external authorities. The development of acrylic painting at Papunya has been in historical action.

From the beginning, what these paintings are and what they represent (both directly and indirectly) have been less obvious than they first appear, and their meaning has been an issue both for the Aboriginal producers and for the Anglo-Australian receivers. The paintings elide taxonomic distinctions essential to the "art-culture system" that Clifford (1988d) has shown to undergird Western ethnographic and art museums. In this system, as Elizabeth Davis has explained, two categories of objects-artistic masterpieces and cultural artifacts-"are subjected to valuation as authentic or inauthentic.... For cultural artifacts, value derives from age and exoticism: the less influenced by the `modern' west an object appears to be, the more authentic it is judged to be" (Davis 1999). Correspondingly, the placement of the paintings within this taxonomic system mediates complex relationships between Aboriginal producers and varying non-Aboriginal consumers.

That the paintings-images painted on masonite board, canvas board, and Belgian linen, sold for cash to outsiders-are "closely related to the old traditional tribal painting of corroborees and cave painting" has always been part of their appeal (Farnham 1972). The main concern of the 1970s for those involved with "Papunya painting," as it was known, was to establish the referential nature of its images, what they "said." Understood as "story paintings," they were in need of annotation to be appreciated as "fine arts-ethnology," a category the art adviser Peter Fannin used frequently in marketing them. This emphasis drew on, and appealed to, criteria of the prevailing Western art-culture system. Shelley Errington has argued that "iconicity is the hidden specter that continues to haunt Primitive Art," lurking "at the edges of collecting and categorization" (1994, 209). Iconicity, she maintains, has been a central criterion of "what is allowed to count as art" (208).

This iconographic conception corresponded to what the Pintupi painters stressed to me, namely that their paintings are "stories" (turlku), representations of the events in the mythological past of the Dreaming (Tjukurrpa); and that they are "true" (mularrpa), that they are not made up. They were also invariably somebody's stories, expressive of an ontological link between persons and places that land rights legislation eventually recognized as a special, spiritual-rather than economic-kinship to place (N. Williams 1986).

The paintings' distinctive aesthetic formulation has also been noted, initially in Geoff Bardon's (1979) discussion of their "haptic," or tactile, quality, and more successfully in the 1990s (Caruana 1993; J. Ryan 1990; and chapter 3). However, as art writers have noted, the paintings were principally rendered in what they call (derisively) the "ethnographic" mode, as requiring information in order to be understood rather than appealing to the direct engagement of the viewer. Clearly, the initial categories of translation are not fully adequate for a set of practices in emergence.

Because Western Desert acrylic paintings are not just "pretty pictures," "art," or even "primitive art," I mean here to introduce the "ethnoaesthetics" of Pintupi painting practice, the local conventions and categories through which the men and women who make them articulate their product. I do this in a particular way that leaves open the broadest potential of painting and paintings to be meaningful to participants. Their beauty, their status as art or primitive art, and even their religiosity may provide appropriate frameworks for rendering them intelligible, but these are not intrinsic or exhaustive qualities of things. They are categorizations of them, arrived at by agreement, domination, hegemony, or consensus. Their application must be accomplished in social action, implicit or explicit, and this usually occurs with some degree of suppression or repression of other, contradictory qualities. If they aren't really produced for local consumption, for ritual use specifically, their status as "authentic" primitive art (Errington 1994; Price 1989) is problematic for collectors who regard them as less vitally linked to the life-world of those who make them.


Excerpted from "Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Objects/Histories)" by Fred R. Myers. Copyright © 2002 by Fred R. Myers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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