Bright gleam across the ages
about iridescence that gives rise to so many shared experiences of attraction, power, danger and beauty”.
Since the start of human history, gleaming, glinting objects found in nature have been pressed into duty as ornaments, as grave goods and cultural markers. The attraction seems plain enough. The iridescent is surprising, it whispers of concealed worlds of being, it stands out. Discontinuity, unpredictability of pattern, the strange dance between apparent and real movement — the sheen one sees in a pearl or an opalescent stone catches both eye and mind, for “it is the still, bright, dense thing that moves”.
Ancient Chinese and East Asian cultures saw shining stones much as they pictured dragons: as sources of the life-force, upwelling and pro- tean, worthy both of fear and sacred awe. There is a clear parallel with traditional Australian societies, where the gleam of the rainbow and the iridescent skin of the water python are the wellknown, much-described emblems of religious power, beneficent and threatening at once.
The first Western observer to trace this network of Aboriginal ideas in systematic fashion was the mid-20th-century anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who set out the links in desert and Top End belief systems between serpents, rainbows, quartz and pearl shell, and their telltale importance in the practice of traditional medicine. Sutton, who worked for many years as a linguist and anthropologist in western Cape York, expands here, and ties the different kinds of gleams together.
Rainbows are seen by some Cape people as menstruating taipans stretched across the sky. Snakes bear poison, and are universally viewed as dangerous, but they are also edible. From a psychological perspective, serpents are phallic but also faecal, “thus combining two of the most powerful primal images for the growing human psyche, opposed in luminosity but sharing a common shape”. They kill, and they incarnate life. Thus the taipan, deadly and much feared, is a “lethal healer” in the Wik country of Cape York. By this stage, the concept of iridescence that has held sway for millennia across the continent is coming into clearer focus
Art curators, historians and modern academic authorities on indigenous culture have developed a standard view on the Aboriginal aesthetic over the past few years. They see its use of tight, repeating patterns and optical sheen as a representation of “ancestral power”, now widely accepted as the key to the traditional ceremonies of the inland and the north. Sutton probes further, until his slender exhibition catalogue blossoms into a novel sketch of Aboriginal religion and its expression in art.
Desert dotting, Cape York marks on bodies and on law poles — he treats all these as genres based on “interference effects”, techniques designed to make the image brilliant. They are an art of deliberately created iridescence. Dotting sets up a shimmering in the eye, “rather like the moire effect achieved by crossing one veil or fly screen in front of another”, or like the shimmer of dawn light on a spider’s dew-drenched web. Dots are applied by Cape artists with jabs reminiscent of a rainbow snake’s bite. Indeed, the standard word for painting dots in Wik-Ngathan is “thal-thal-thal-thal” spoken rapidly: a term that may well convey something of the sharpness of venomous stinging creatures and spears.
In this account, traditional Aboriginal art is not a mere static repetition of fixed, prescribed
Soap bubbles, left, and detail from carved pearl shell, right, from the book Iridescence: The Play of Colours