Homeland: Sacred Visions and the Settler State

In spite of supporting a vast artworld of curators, critics and collectors, the 'otherness' of Aboriginal art in the Western canon persists, fuelled by white settler reluctance to acknowledge history. The valorisation of the life and work of Emily Kame Kngwarray is one of the great imponderables of our time. Her extreme age, traditional origins, style of painting and prodigious output were the causes. Most significantly she demonstrated the possibility of human intimacy with landscapes.

The barely concealed suspicion of the most acerbic critics of the Aboriginal art market is that transactions are driven by a demand for primitivist art product as surrogate contrition. They may be right in a perverse way. It is unlikely that Prime Minister John Howard, who will not apologise to the 'stolen generations, would be photographed with a backdrop of 'dot-style' desert Aboriginal art, as corporate executives were in the 1980s. Such a scenario would signal a stance towards indigenous Australia that he vehemently refuses to adopt on behalf of the settler state.
This suspicion goes hand in hand with a refusal to accept Aboriginal art into the global canon of fine art. This reaction, if it were not generalised as a racist gesture to all Aboriginal art, has some legitimacy. Much that has been labeled Aboriginal art is mere decoration using certain distinct conventions. This skepticism that Aboriginal art might contain any of the universal values held to be at the core of the Western art vision is a prickly, dissident theme in Australian criticism. This refusal might explain the persistent attacks on the classical Aboriginal art masters, most of them in their dotage, non-English speakers and nonliterate in English. Their voices are not just muted by the primitivist discourse; they cannot reply, except to affirm or deny some alleged malpractice concerning the authorship of works
Some critics prefer the highly localised content of Aboriginal art, a category of Aboriginal art differing little from the museum category of "primitive artefact". Some argue a wider significance in Aboriginal art, based on a culturally relativist belief in the essential equality of human endeavours and on their deep desire for reconciliatory gestures, such as the acceptance of Aboriginal art as a central feature of modern Australian culture. That centrality might be a chimera: it has been noted that Australians enlist Aboriginal culture "to brand, sell and to define" themselves . The content of the art is irrelevant; the main drama is the stance of the Western observer.
The foremost effect of the art market is that a highly literate world of curators and critics constructs the predominantly visual world of hunters and gatherers on the margins of the global economy. Buyers and collectors want guarantees that they are buying authentically Aboriginal images arbitrated by the cool urban alchemy of art market curatorship. Catalogues explain why particular paintings are important, and therefore expensive, the biographic and ethnographic details of the artists and the works accompanied by cleverly crafted essays illuminating the deeper meanings of the works.
This mediatory aspect of Aboriginal artbetween mundane race relations and utopian idealsis surely the problem for the proponents of the exclusion of Aboriginal art from the canon based on the Western traditions. How could 'primitive art' sustain its high idealsbeauty, pulchritude, sublimity, nobility, grace, and universality? Even though Said and other scholars have explained how the art, imagery, and literature of the Imperial reaches find their way back to the centre and continually feed its cultural dominion, the 'otherness' of Aboriginal art remains virulent.
Can reconciliation come from an artwork? From earliest times the religious art of Christian Europe was a means of seeking a form of reconciliationdivine redemptionthrough artistic propitiation. As well as the pre-Reformation adornment of cathedrals and churches, wealthy men commissioned religious works for their private chapels, adorning altar screens and frontals with paintings of biblical themes, saints, and themselves, their wives, children and even servants. These representations mediated between the human and divine worlds, asserting the fitness of the subjects for residency in the afterworld.
Perhaps we will never know why the 'spiritual content' of Aboriginal art from the classical genres, such as central desert, Kimberley and northern Australian bark painting, is so fascinating to the sophisticated fine art audiences of the Western world. But this fascination has some highly revealing features.
One is the struggle with the primitivism and the desire to be free of old racist hierarchies in our society. While it is de rigeur to warn against primitivism in writing about Aboriginal art, there is an advantage in this fetishism. Barkan and Bush (1995: 1-2) writing on the looting of Benin bronzes by the British elucidate the problem by reminding us that "in the end it was revolutionary":
it provide[d] a whole new aesthetic category for European connoisseurs but (more importantly) a new idiom for Western art. In hindsight, the looting and its aftermath underline the fundamental instability of easy distinctions between the "savage" and the "civilized" and suggest the kind of ambiguous appropriation associated with modernism: a mixture of violence and aestheticism; the difficulties of placing and displacing the modern and the primordial; the conflation of the past and the future.
Contrast this with Roger Benjamin's argument in his essay on Emily Kame Kngwarreye for her retrospective catalogue:
the passion for Kngwarreye's work is a demonstration of the 'universality' of great art...Hanging on the argument for universality is, in the Australian context, the vexed question of reconciliation....When a metropolitan audience feels at ease with Aboriginal painting, it can congratulate itself that 'reconciliation' across the gaping cultural, economic and racial divide has occurred. Kngwarreye's work.... performs this task of re-assurance with notably more success than, for example, an Arnhem Land bark-painting or the explicit protest art of certain urban Aboriginal artists& the time is ripe for her work to escape the dominant Eurocentric reading. (1998: 53)
Any reading cannot avoid the obvious: Kngwarreye's work depicts her homeland. The meaning of land most critical to understanding the sacred visions in the classical Aboriginal genre is the inherent meaning of native titlelandscapes humanised over tens of thousands of years and subject to a system of laws and religious conventions which bind particular people to particular places. People and places are transformed from a mere species and a mere geography into sacred landscapes.
These Aboriginal landscapes have been suppressed by the tirades against Aboriginal people by the inheritors of the frontier settler state. Instead of treasuring the unique contribution of the Australian continent and its first cultures to humanity's global estate, native title is despised and repressed in national affairs. The so-called '10-point Plan' amendments to the Native Title Act radically diminished the capacity of Aboriginal people to enjoy their 'sacred endowment' as a legitimate pursuit.
At the same time a new idea is circulating: that it is possible to share the frontier on the basis of an ethical and intelligent relationship. Many writers, such as Tim Bonyhady, Paul Carter, Tom Griffiths, and Howard Morphy, have brought "creative cartographies" to their literary efforts concerning colonial and frontier legacies. They contend with temporal and spatial relationships across the divergent imaginary continents of Australian life.
The fascination with Aboriginal visual representations of landscape in the last twenty years surely reflect a desire for a homeland and a sense of loss and shame at the fate of so many Aboriginal societies. Returning to the idea of landscape in art has forced me to consider the grounds for lavish public regard for traditional Anglo-Australian landscape painting. This is an extraordinary contrast, on the one hand, the infatuation with the traditional Aboriginal genres by a small avante garde of fine art enthusiasts, and on the other, the adoration of Australian landscape or 'bush' painting by large gallery audiences. Both emotional frameworks are expressions of a need to belong to this place, to make it a homeland by visually signing historical and mythological references. One regards images of a homeland, the other the taming of a wild, hostile place.
Our readings of landscape are often historically specific. The works of Fred McCubbin and John Olsen emanate a sense of the landscapes they envisioned that is primarily temporalMelbourne in the nineteenth century and the Pilbara in the middle of the twentieth. In the first, depictions of afternoons spent in the grandeur of a lush, verdant nature remind us that there were forests here before the encroachment of suburbs. In the second, the red, glaring plateaux and gorges of the Pilbara landscape bring to mind the challenge for the miners who were then opening the first large open-cut mines in the region.
The seeming abstruseness of indigenous representations of landscape does not permit the wholesome satisfaction of realist depictions of landscape visually consumed by audiences of the Heidelberg school nor the certainty as to the vision represented. Nor does it allow a decisive apprehension of the Aboriginal image; an uncertainty lingers, not just a sense of mystery, but a doubt as to its purpose and content.
This contrast can be understood in terms of the different approaches to framing the natural world: one minimalist and ancient, based in a hunting, fishing and gathering economy, and the other maximalist, based on imported European land management systems dependent on large-scale alteration of Australian environments.
In the last two hundred years, dispossession and settlement have worked radical changes on the distinct Australian environment by extensive land clearing, water capture and other means. The British settlers perceived their new environments as harsh and inhospitable and they actively supplanted these "wild", uncultivated lands with familiar European land use and management systems which they believed they could control, regardless of the suitability of these imported management regimes to local conditions.
The high extinction rate of Australian flora and fauna causes a sense of loss and shame among the environmentally conscious, and this concern also surely excites an interest in art styles that so evidently celebrate human relationships with the natural world.
The very idea of an "Australian" landscape is based on an erasure. This erasure is not simply that of nature subsumed and recast by culture, but that of the distinctly Aboriginal, autochthonous spiritual landscapes obliterated by the recreant settler visions which literally followed the frontier in the canvas bags of artists who came to paint the new land. Land and landscapes shared by settlers and indigenes are divergently imagined. The fascination with Aboriginal art lies in the fact of starkly different relationships with place. Whereas settlers see an empty wilderness, Aboriginal people see a busy spiritual landscape, peopled by ancestors and the evidence of their creative feats. These divergent visions produce a tension, one that spills over into the world of Aboriginal art.
Landscapeplaces, dreams, self
Roger Benjamin is alert to the allure of Aboriginal art residing in its 'spiritual content' in considering the place of Aboriginal art in the global art market: "One reason for this is the established connection between Western abstract painting and 'the spiritual'." (1998:52) "Formal and modernist considerations explain the current appeal of Aboriginal art to the non-Aboriginal audience," he (1998:52) suggests. It is the model of 'traditional' Aboriginality that Western observers "of any sophistication" will turn to in attempting to account for the "protean productivity" of Emily Kame Kngwarreye: "They will consider the artist's religion, her connection to the land and her Aboriginal spirituality (as the popular phrase has it)." (1998:52)
Singling her out from other 'traditional' painters, Benjamin describes her as a "New Modernist Hero", because
several aspects of Kngwarreye's work and career feed directly into the most cherished Euro-American concepts of the artist as genius, and of modernist, formalist, heroics.... its character as all-over painting acted as a marker of relatively 'difficult' high art, whilst the absence of concentric circles, paths and other familiar iconographies marked the retreat from an evident, self-declaring Aboriginality. At one stroke the political requirements for appreciating such a painting had eased, and it had become a candidate for status as a bridge across cultures, for assuming a 'universality' of appeal (1998: 47-48).
What do the other painters of the classical Aboriginal styles have in common for their audiences? First, they are regarded as having spiritual content. Second, they represent sacred landscapes through ancient iconographies. And third, they are narratives of interspecies relationships and of human and non-human biogeography. But with the exception of Kngwarreye, the critics propose, they must be read in their own terms; whereas her work can be read in terms of universal criteria. I am not convinced.
Yet, it is the idea of sacred landscape that is shared by Kngwarreye and the other master painters. Kngwarreye's work has captured an audience because it appears to depart from the well known iconography of the desert cultures, even though the same stylistic features are present: the bird's-eye view, the abbreviated cartographic representation of landscapes whose places and species are familiar and familial. The status of their work in the interstices of frontier and post-frontier cultures is part of the key to understanding the fascination with their artistic output. They endured the frontier and retained a magnificent vision of their homelands that has been transferred to their art.
This special treatment of Kngwarreye requires some explanation. In most respects, it is only the painterly style of Kngwarreye that distinguishes her work from others. The attraction to her work, I believe, lies in the fact of her feminine gender and the shock to curators and critics in the male dominated Aboriginal art market, that a woman could represent Dreamings and develop an individual style in so doing. Why should this be so shocking after all that women anthropologists have written for the last two decades? It is because seeing is believing. They have not seen the ground paintings and sand sculptures at women's ceremonies, because they are secret-sacred. There is a national suspicion about the very existence of women's 'business', in the wake of the vicious attacks on the Ngarrindjeri women who tried to protect their sacred sites at Hindmarsh Island.
Of her age and status, one says, that throughout her autumnal period, that period her prodigious artistic output, she had "one foot in the Dreaming." Her extreme age and religiosity combined with innovation and experimentation are the keys to her celebrity. She was extremely old; her admirers young. She was of a small Arrerndic culture in the central Desert, lived according to the traditions of an unknown antiquity; they are urban, global, of the Nintendo culture. She lived ascetically in austere, religious circumstances in the insistently colonial remote semi-arid inland; they live in gregarious, hyperconsumerist, post-colonial, coast-hugging urban outposts of Europe.
Being intimately connected to her own traditional estates, heir to one of most localised of existences still permitted in the world, she knew nothing of the art traditions of the world and nought about abstract expressionism. These are the concerns of the modernists and post-modernists of other places and other times. For her, the task was that of the exegete of the women's role in upholding the Dreamings of the Aylawarr for future generations.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye represents for her audiences the authentically different. She was authentically Aboriginal; she did not grow up in a mission, but in the traditional partly nomadic, hunting and gathering society of the Sandover River region whose lands were confiscated and granted to white settlers as pastoral leases from the 1860s. She would have already been a very old woman when those lands were granted to the Alyewarr under the Land Rights Act.
Though similar observations can be made of the appreciation of other artists of Kwementyaye's generation, such as Rover Thomas, Clifford Possum, George Milpurruru, David Malangi, Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri and many others who are likewise counterposed to the culture and context of their curators and exhibitions, there was something remarkable about Emily: she was a woman, and a very old one at that when she was 'discovered'.
Western readers of Aboriginal landscape representation are required to learn the conventions of Aboriginal art, just as much as any reader of European art must learn the conventions of historical periods and genres. Aboriginal art requires some hard intellectual work based on ethnographic literature. The paintings are cartographic as well as iconographic, and gender specific responsibilities influence the subjects. Men paint men's Dreamings, and women paint women's Dreamings. Men are responsible for particular aspects of sacred sites and their authority over water sources, increase ceremonies for various species, rainmaking and other matters are legendary. Their iconography of Dreaming Tracks and sacred places is absentfor the urban non-Aboriginal audiencefrom Kngwarreye's work. This is not the case entirely although it cannot be discussed here. Yet herein lies another interesting point. The great majority of traditional Aboriginal paintings represent the extent of the landscape and biogeography for which the painters are responsible as traditional owners. These are large regional landscapes or traditional estates, sometimes including neighbouring estates in which they have interests, their sacred elements, biota and geographic elements. The concentric circles represent water sources and the degree of their permanency in the arid lands or wet-dry regions. Many waterholes are highly secret-sacred, and usually gender specific. Thus senior male or female traditional owners, as appropriate, lead the approach to them, protecting those with them from spiritual danger and authorising the drinking or removal of water under the strictest of conditions. Such places are refugia for the species of the region, and are highly susceptible to human pollution. The iconography of the master painters from whom Kngwarreye is distinguished is usually concerned with the sacred elements of large regional landscapes and the particularities of such water sources, the revered superhuman ancestors whose species element is depicted, and their creative dramas. As gatherers of vegetable foods and small mammals, women tend to paint plant species and the Dreamings associated with them. A confluence of these materialist matters is the source of gender differentiation in art subject, and in the case of Kngwarreye, I believe it explains much about her style.
These considerations interrupt our enjoyment of their work, forcing us to interrogate our pleasure at such apparently simple, startling beauty. The answers are not simple.
It is not simply material beauty that imbues objects with importance. They are collected and valorised because important meanings are recognised. Such recognition derives from the tenor of the relationship between members of different societies and that arises from their efforts to comprehend what is truly important in each other's lives. One thing is plainly clear: Aboriginal art expresses the possibility of human intimacy with landscapes. This is the key to its power: it makes available a rich tradition of human ethics of relationships with place and other species to a worldwide audience. For the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands, their appreciation of this art embodies at least a striving for a kind of citizenship that republicans wanted: to belong to this place rather than another.