A way of reasserting and sharing identity: acrylic paintings of the Central Desert. A critical approach

Many different discourses about the “new” Aboriginal art forms, especiallyAcrylic Paintings of the Central Desert, have been constructed during the last 30 years.These constructions have attempted to explain the role, the meaning and the reception of
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  Coolabah, Vol.3, 2009, ISSN 1988-5946 Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians,Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona243  A way of reasserting and sharing identity: acrylic paintings of the Central  Desert. A critical approach. Roser Bosch 1  Abstract: Many different discourses about the “new” Absrcinal art forms, especiallyAcrylic Paintings of the Central Desert, have been constructed during the last 30 years.These constructions have attempted to explain the role, the meaning and the reception of that art form, both in a local arena (concerning the communities in which it is produced)and in an (inter)national one. Such explanatory discourses are used to exceed thespecific object of study – the works of acrylic on canvas – becoming general anddescriptive views of the whole art-production of Absrcinal society, as well as of their culture and their identity. Moreover, these constructions came from two different fieldsthat traditionally – from the end of 19 th century and the beginning of the 20 th onwards – have competed for the imposition and hegemony of their views: one related to theartistic sphere (mainly art criticism) and the other related to anthropological andethnological studies.This article suggests an approach to the Acrylic Paintings of the Central Desert as anelement of identity, reasserting as well as a place for Absrcinal cross-culturalunderstanding. From a critical point of view, many core topics - tropos - from classicaldiscourses about Acrylic Painting -such as the Dreaming, the land, aesthetics, the role of socialization and the power of the representational system of geometric forms- will bediscussed. In order to achieve the former, the mutually excluding polarization betweenArt and Anthropology has been avoided thus bringing together both perspectives.Furthermore, the aim is to recover the too-long-forgotten voices of the artists involved by disregarding the mainstream colonial discourse. Keywords: Absrcinal acrylic painting – post-colonial Absrcinal identity Nowadays, most of the discourses related to Australian Absrcinal art point out that theacrylic paintings on canvas of the Central Desert communities is one of the greatcontemporary markers of Absrcinal identity. Moreover, most of the interpretationsabout these acrylic works read them as the real motor of a renewal of Absrcinal desertculture(s) and identity in the post-colonial context (Caruana 2000).In my opinion, following Myers approach 2 , these acrylic works of the Central Desertregion are regarded as a new phenomenon where traditional meanings and forms, on the 1 All the material used in the present paper is part of the author’s minor thesis research on her second year PhD. This paper and the entire research is being done with the support of “Departament d'Educació iUniversitats de la Generalitat de Catalunya i del Fons Social Europeu". Copyright ©2009 Roser Bosch. This text may be archivedand redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy,provided that the author and journal are properly citedand no fee is charged  Coolabah, Vol.3, 2009, ISSN 1988-5946 Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians,Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona244one hand, and materials and contemporary artistic objectives, on the other, are mixedtogether. The genesis of this contemporary phenomenon is related to the so-called dot art movement  . This artistic movement was born in the Central Desert region during the70s and is strongly marked by the use of the traditional “geometric system of representation” (Morphy 1980, 1991, 1999), also called “code of abstract symbolism”  (Johnson 2000:214), and the transmission of the Dreaming knowledge. In the earlyseventies, Papunya and Yuendumu were the first and also the main communitiesinvolved, but the movement quickly spread out to the rest of the desert communities and became one of the principal economical activities for them. The genesis of this artisticmovement is also related to the Australian historical context of the political struggle for the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights.This relationship between the artistic movement ( dot art movement  ) with the political,economical and socio-cultural levels is the reason why the success of the works is readand interpreted as an assertion of the Desert communities’ identity in the Australian post-colonial context.The present essay analyses the discourse(s) of assertion and renewal, with the final aimof giving a critical approach to it/them and its/their reception in the so-called Westernart market. In order to achieve this objective, the essay is divided into two differentsections. The first one analyzes the already mentioned issue of identity in relationship tothe fast growing artistic success of acrylic paintings on canvas. This analysis is focusedon two areas: the communities’ productive arena, and the (inter)national arena. Thesecond part of the essays concludes this analysis with some critical notes that mayenable a rethinking of the interpretation and reception of the acrylic works in relation tothe discourse of reassertion of Absrcinal identity. Acrylic artistic success and Absrcinal post-colonial identity renewal.Analysis of the discourse. Analysis of the discourse in the communities’ productive context. In order to start the first part of the analysis, focused on the communities’ productivearena, and to facilitate understanding, four different fields related to the success of acrylic painting should be distinguished: the political, the economical and the socio-cultural. For each of them, only the main and most debated consequences of the artisticsuccess will be pointed out in relation to the discourse of the reassertion of identity, inorder to give an overview of the situation. Each of these fields constitutes an integral part of any construction of identity. They are different parts of the whole, while relatedto each other.Fist of all, the  political  field   is one of the clearest levels where the consequences of thesuccess of these works allow a discussion of Absrcinal identity. The traditionalmeaning of the Absrcinal aesthetic practice is unavoidably linked to the primaryrelationship and the responsibilities of Absrcinal people with regard to their land. Inthe pre-colonial historical context, knowledge and also “country” were transmitted from 2 “For the Absrcines of Central Australia, the acrylic paintings on canvas (as well as the paintings on bark) are a new form, objects made for sale and not for their own ritual or practical use” (Myers 1991:27)  Coolabah, Vol.3, 2009, ISSN 1988-5946 Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians,Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona245generation to generation through aesthetic practice. In other words, it is in theknowledge encoded in the aesthetic motifs and in the painted dreamings and storiesfrom the Dreaming tradition where the responsibility of “to hold the country” (Bird1992, Myers 2002) is learnt within each Absrcinal group (Morphy 1991).The new acrylic art, using the traditional set of motifs and meaning, enablestransmission and emphasizes that central relationship of Absrcinal culture(s) with theland. Through the new artistic practice and its success Australia’s Indigenous peoplehave been able to prove and demonstrate their sovereignty over the land; a fact deniedsince the proclamation of  terra nullis  by Sir Richard Bourke in 1835. Therefore, thenew artistic practice quickly became a powerful instrument of political struggle (Stanton2000).This use of art to claim the native title of the land is admirably modelled in the  BarungaStatemen (1988). A project which has its precedent in the  Bark petition (1963) 3 . Thoseinitiatives are symbolical moments in the struggle for the Absrcinal sovereignty over the land. And at the same time, both emphasize that the acrylic paintings are –as thetraditional aesthetics were- a reassertion of the Absrcinal connection to the land. Thisrelationship is one of the central and more characteristic issues of the Absrcinalidentity.Less symbolically than  Bark Petition or   Barunga Statement  is the direct link betweenthe early success of the acrylic works and the return to the so called “ancestral” lands bymany groups during the 80s (Kean 2000). As Vivien Johnson –among other theorists- points out: “The self-repatriation of the Pintupi had only been possible because of theindependent income generated by their paintings” (2000:214). Consequently, the artisticand economical success of the acrylic paintings impacted actively on the politicalstruggle and helped to change the situation of delocalisation of many communities inthe Central Desert forced out by the governmental policies of the mid 19th and 20thcenturies.The second notable level where the artistic success allows for the voicing of thereassertion of Absrcinal identity is the economical  one. Many artists acknowledge andaffirm that their artistic activity is closely linked with the income it represents 4 . Theseincomes are especially important for those communities that returned to their ancestrallands and which are established deep in the Australian desert. Nowadays, the production of acrylic works for the fine art and the  souvenir  market isthe most profitable Absrcinal industry in the Central Desert region. As John Oster affirms this cultural industry is “one of the key drivers in regional and remote Australiawith comparable status as the cattle industry” (2006). 3 V. Yunupingu, G. (ed.) (1997) and also Morphy H. (2000). 4 Johnson (2000:216) mentions the following testimony of an Absrcinal painter, Cassidy: “We make plenty of money. We have plenty of good painters here. It is something my people always do well. Eventhe young fellas are getting interested in this. We can do work for ourselves for a change and not just takeyour government money”. This quotation remark the important link between economy and the newartistic practice in the context of Absrcinal self-esteem (Myers 1991).  Coolabah, Vol.3, 2009, ISSN 1988-5946 Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians,Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona246Art centres are the core structures of that cultural industry. The control of the financialincome and its return to the community-members is one of the principal tasks of artcentres. The income generated by the artistic industry allows for an important degree of Absrcinal economical autonomy. Nevertheless, governmental support and subsidiesare also needed by Absrcinal communities in the desert regions and its hinterland(Oster 2006).The third signalled level where the consequences of artistic success clearly involve areassertion of Absrcinal post-colonial identity is the  social  one. Changes in Absrcinaleducation of traditional Law and in the social cohesion of the communities’ productionare examples of this.In Vivien Johnson’s words (2000:217): “The desire to become an artist motivatedindividuals in Alice Springs to learn more about their Dreaming stories and designs(…)”. This re-education (Ryan 1989:71-72), with “Absrcinality” at its centre, wasneeded by younger generations and middle-aged Absrcinal people who grew up inmissions and who had denied-access to their own culture(s) due to governmental policies of assimilation during the 20th century. Moreover, this re-education was alsoneeded in the context of the governmental reservations, where the social situation ingeneral, as described by many researchers (Bardon (2000), Johnson (2000), Barou(1996) , Barou & Crossman (2005))   was alarming during the 70s, particularly on thesubject of “Absrcinality”. Shame and embarrassment about Absrcinal roots was acommon feeling for the younger generations. Elders saw the chance to proudly transmittheir cultural inheritance again in the new desire to paint (Clark 2005, Johnson 2000,2001:44) 5 .Another consequence of the artistic success on the social level was the creation of artcentres. These places opened a social space for communication, information andencounter with the mother culture(s) in each artistic community. The art centres alsoincreased social cohesion through projects which aimed to encourage collective artisticcreations (Dussart 1999). These collective projects reinforce group cohesion in differentdirections. On the one hand, they help to avoid the risk of individualization and thedivision of the communities into two separate groups of artists: the so called “no-names” and the so called “big names” which was a real threat after the 90s, (Johnson2000:219, Errington 1998:155 –among others-). On the other hand, they reactivated theuse of the traditional relationships with regards to the rights and responsibilities over the paintings and their knowledge (Morphy 1991, Johnson 2001:40, Dussart 1999).The collective projects are also a statement of the cultural richness and complexity of the Absrcinal heritage, not only in the sense of the Dreaming tradition but also inrelation to the political and social traditional structures of the Central Desert 5 Myers (1991:33) mentions the following testimony of and Absrcinal painter, Rita Nungala, quoted byKent S. (1987 A burst of colour in the Western Desert. Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July:48): “ (…) Ishow the young fellas what we Absrcinal people can do for ourselves”. The quotation asserts the proudfor Absrcinal inheritance and the desire to transmit it to the young generations.  Coolabah, Vol.3, 2009, ISSN 1988-5946 Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians,Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona247communities (i.e. the system of restricted knowledge (Morphy 1991) or the relationshipwith the land (Myers 2002, Bird 1992). These consequences on the social level are strongly related to those on the cultural   level. Many interpretations of the new acrylic works read them as a renaissance of Absrcinal culture(s) in a growing context of “ dis culturation” (Johnson 2000:219) in theDesert region. This situation threatened to blend all the cultural diversity of AbsrcinalDesert groups into a unique regional culture (Johnson 2000, Stanton 2000). Theinterpretation of the artistic practice as a cultural renaissance  proposes that thanks to theworks’ success the situation of “ dis culturation” could be superseded in favour of a newcultural reality. The new approach gathers the desert communities together in what has been called a “multitribal network” (McLean 2002). In my opinion, under this term eachcommunity expresses its richness and singularities through variations in a unique andcommon artistic style frame. This artistic style is based on the traditional system of representation and enables cultural expression on two levels. On a regional level, itallows an expression of the whole of the Central Desert region through the use of adistinctive and common style. On a local level, it permits the expression of the richnessof each community through artistic variations in the common style. Those variations are possible thanks to the inner malleability of the “geometric system of representation”(Morphy 1980, 1999). The new interpretation of the cultural Desert reality through the“multitribal network” term is enriching because it abandons the old idea of the CentralDesert region as a single cultural block without singularities (Stanton 2000:194). Inconsequence, the success of the acrylic works helped change western ideas aboutAbsrcinal groups as monolithic and static societies. Analysis of the discourse in an (inter)national context. From my point of view increasing artistic success of acrylic paintings on canvas of theCentral Desert has contributed to the visibility of Absrcinal culture(s) and identity inthe (inter)national arena. The prices these works reach at auctions, the importance of thecollections that include them in (inter)national museums and galleries, the growingmarket of e-commerce, the works sold in the  souvenir  market and the catalogues fromexhibitions around the world help to spread knowledge about Absrcinal tradition andcontemporary reality. This artistic success is also a recognition of Absrcinal identity inthe western world which helps to reinforce the links with the Absrcinal inheritance.Another important goal of the artistic success in the (inter)national arena is the revivalin the 20th century debate on the reception of this kind of Indigenous art. Grosso modo, almost every interpretation raised by Acrylic painting on canvas, since its beginning inthe 70s, clearly comes from one of these fields: cultural anthropology or art criticism.These two academic fields focused on different features of the artistic phenomenon. Theformer evaluates the importance of the “ethnographic context”. That means the role of contemporary artistic activity within its social and religious context. The latter, artcriticism, focuses on the “aesthetic context” (Benjamin 2000), and therefore criteriahave more to do with form and the ontological structure (Burns Coleman 2004) of theworks. From my point of view, this debate is enriching since it opens a space of cross-cultural dialogue that reveals Absrcinal identity and culture(s) to the so called West.


Dec 15, 2018
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