Bright gleam across the ages

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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