Three piv­otal books re­flect in­dige­nous art’s jour­ney from an­tiq­uity to moder­nity, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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