On the aesthetics and politics of Aboriginal art

I’ve been reading Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context (Columbia University Press, 2012), by Robyn Ferrell.

The book deals with Aboriginal acrylic painting – work produced by indigenous artists based in the Australian desert. Ferrell is particularly interested in the work of female artists, though much of the book actually relates to acrylic painting produced by Aboriginal artists of both sexes. As is noted at various points in the text and the dust-jacket blurb, this style of art bears some superficial resemblance to abstract expressionism, as might be suggested if you glance at this painting by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, but the understanding of art and its role (and of the world more generally) that lies behind it is completely different from anything you’d expect of, say, Mark Rothko.

I must say that I found this book disappointing – perhaps I picked up the wrong impression (e.g. from the blurb and the opening chapters) of what it was going to be about. Before I get to that, I’ll point out some things that I liked and that might make the book attractive for some readers. For a start, it gives a good overview of the history of Aborginal acrylic painting, which dates back only to the early 1970s, even though it draws on much older traditions. It also has some fascinating and enlightening discussion of the near-impossibility for university-based researchers of carrying out sociological research involving Aboriginal artists. The local cultural expectations for interaction are not easily compatible with the kinds of formal accountability that are (probably rightly) expected of grant holders. This must be frustrating, and when, near the end of the book, Ferrell writes directly and clearly about her experiences, the pages come alive.

Unfortunately, there is also much to dislike about the book. Although it raises some interesting questions about the aesthetics of Aboriginal art, it goes nowhere near giving an answer to them. Ferrell is happy to talk about there being “masterpieces” as well as inferior work, but we never get learn what criteria she has in mind.

Some of the questions are fairly obvious. The images can be very attractive, even exciting, for Westerners, purely because of the characteristics of pattern and colour that have nothing to do with any esoteric meaning, or any discipline of fidelity to it (or to any techniques of expressing it). Thus, there appears to be a disconnection between the way the work is appreciated by, say, gallery curators and the general public in Australia and other Western countries (on one hand) and how it is intended by the artists, and how it is understood and evaluated by their peers and their immediate communities (on the other hand). At the end of the book, I feel that this fairly obvious point has been raised, but not explored in any detail at all. I am little the wiser about the aesthetic characteristics of Aboriginal acrylic art, or about its esoteric meanings, or about the relationship between the two.

As a white Western man, perhaps I shouldn’t know some of this stuff. But even establishing that would require a much more intense discussion, and a better set of arguments, than the book ever embarks upon.

It also fails to tell me anything new or detailed about the international art market and how it interacts with the local cultures that produce the work under discussion (despite this being one of the aspects highlighted in the blurb). Once again, I am little the wiser.

There’s some useful discussion of the recent debate in Australia, particularly over the last twenty years since the High Court’s judgment in the Mabo native title case, about Aboriginal dispossession and the plight of remote Aboriginal communities. The discussion is likely to be most useful to non-Australian readers, however, as much of it is very well known within Australia. There is also a certain reluctance to draw clear conclusions, even nuanced or complicated ones, about all this – much of the discussion is highly inconclusive, though Ferrell does take a surprisingly uncritical stance toward the current Northern Territory National Emergency Response (otherwise known as the Intervention), which has actually received a great deal of criticism in Australia. It’s drawn flak pretty much continuously for lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities, denials of legal rights that are available to other Australians, and, more recently, for inadequate or perverse outcomes.

I have no strong opinion, one way or the other, about the merits of the Intervention, but surely some of this needs to be addressed in a bit of detail once its merits are under discussion.

And in any event, the relationship between these larger political controversies and the official subject of the book – Aboriginal acrylic painting – is never made clear. This artistic practice and the body of work that it has produced undoubtedly take place against the historical background of Aboriginal dispossession and the current background of ongoing deprivation and related controversies. It’s fine to discuss these, but once again I’m not much the wiser about how, in any detailed sense, they relate to the art that’s under discussion, or how it relates to them.

In all, an interesting topic, but a somewhat frustrating and disappointing book, at least from where I’m sitting.

  1. Recent art from the Pintupi community in WA, particularly that by female artists, has taken a distinct turn towards what students of modern western art would call “op-art” – the use of techniques such as oscillating and vibrating patterns which play tricks on one’s eyes. The same question you raise applies to this so-called “optic turn”: to what extent are such effects intended deliberately by the artists?

  2. There is something bizarre about a consideration of “aboriginal” art with materials imposed by the conquering culture. It’s not unlike a consideration of the economy of aboriginal New Guinean axe makers after the introduction of steel axes by white men destroyed their stone-age culture.

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