Three pivotal books reflect indigenous art’s journey from antiquity to modernity, writes Nicolas Rothwell
The history of art is an ever-changing story, and so it is proving with the brief, tumultuous saga of the Aboriginal art movement, a sunburst of creative energy that has already done much to change the way Australia sees itself and the world sees Australia. For many admirers of contemporary indigenous art-making, the origins of the movement can be traced to the little settlement of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, where a group of desert men began painting on boards and canvas in the early 1970s. Some prefer to look back even further and cast their focus on the cattle station at picturesque Oenpelli, on the western edge of Arnhem Land, where bark painting for sale to outsiders was pioneered just over a century ago.
There were Aboriginal artists and sketchmakers aplenty on the early frontier in Victoria and NSW, and the roots of the indigenous artmaking tradition reach back deeper still in time, down the millennia. The painted and engraved rock art and cave art that survive across the length and breadth of the continent form the longest continuous sequence of image-making found on earth. If the precise date and true point of origin of Aboriginal art is contentious, so too are the details of its story: the arc of its ascent, the nature of its trajectory, its relationship to traditional indigenous culture and to developments in the wider world. At least the key events in recent years since its emergence as a contemporary art current are established and the different regional schools well defined, but the movement’s evolution and its ultimate fate remain unclear. Does it have a future as an independent, autonomous tradition or is it destined to merge with contemporary culture as a piquant entertainment, to become fodder for international biennales and exhibitions, to flow in placid fashion into the vast, restlessly surging ocean of world art?
Its significance as an agent of transformation in this country is not in question. Already there have been two comprehensive general histories of Aboriginal art by prominent credentialled experts, Wally Caruana and Howard Morphy, and both are works of impressive sweep and lasting influence. These are now joined by a third, yet more ambitious overview, Rattling Spears, by the leading academic scholar of the field, Ian McLean. Each of these accounts offers a detailed chronicle of the movement’s various stages. Each tells the same tale yet casts it in a different light. Each bears the date stamp of its Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa
(1972) by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula