An­thro­pol­ogy Ob­jects & Be­hav­iours

Acts of de­fi­ance

Domus - - CONTENTS - By Carlo Sev­eri

The con­tem­po­rary art that comes to us to­day from non-Western, African, Amerindian or Aus­tralian cul­tures is of­ten ex­plic­itly con­ceived as an act of re­bel­lion. Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines have long made con­tem­po­rary art an arena for po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. Their works bring into the world of im­ages a harsh crit­i­cism and con­dem­na­tion of the colo­nial im­pact, a pe­riod which is still fairly re­cent in Aus­tralia, and very much alive in peo­ple’s mem­o­ries. Yet as soon as this same art en­ters the mar­ket and is ex­hib­ited in gal­leries, it of­ten loses its sense of re­bel­lion. It may ap­pear, by a strange mis­un­der­stand­ing, “ab­stract”, “an­ces­tral” or po­lit­i­cally in­nocu­ous. We can look at two ex­am­ples, taken from the work of a great Abo­rig­i­nal artist of con­tem­po­rary times, Paddy Bed­ford (Kim­ber­ley, 1922 – Ku­nunurra, 2007). Where is the re­bel­lion here, where is the drama? To un­der­stand this, we first have to be re­mem­ber some of the typ­i­cal con­ven­tions in this way of pro­duc­ing art. Bed­ford’s paint­ings are always land­scapes seen from above. The pro­files of land­forms and wa­ter­ways or the trails that cross the desert re­veal the pres­ence in the land of an­ces­tors – both hu­mans and an­i­mals. So the earth is the em­bod­i­ment of be­ings alive and present, in the past as in the present. Bear­ing this in mind, we can now look at two paint­ings by Paddy Bed­ford: here we find land­forms, paths and rivers. Some points in the land­scape seem more in­tensely marked in white or red. Speak­ing of these paint­ings, Paddy said that they tell the story of a mas­sacre that took place in his home­land near a well in his par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. The im­age is not there­fore of a static land­scape. It is an itin­er­ary, a path that leads the eye to the place where this mas­sacre took place. If we feel the pres­ence of the an­ces­tors in the earth, we un­der­stand that the path traced in the earth is also a wound made in the body of one of them. By fol­low­ing the trails, a hill or the course of a river, the gaze re­turns to this place of mem­ory, which is also part of the body of an an­ces­tor, and is prompted to linger there. Hence, Bed­ford’s land­scapes are nei­ther “ab­stract” nor static. These are paths that lead to a place where some un­ex­pected ac­tions mark the traces of suf­fer­ing. Only the Abo­rig­ines know this “geo­graph­i­cal” way of mark­ing the mem­ory. To out­siders, Bed­ford’s paint­ings of­fer only a few traces in space, sur­rounded, one might say, by a poignant si­lence. We should add that Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture goes even fur­ther than a sim­ple cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the land­scape (the earth) and the an­ces­tors. The anal­ogy es­tab­lished be­tween a pre­cise place in the land­scape, a given spot, and a spe­cific per­son is so pro­found that a place and a per­son may bear the same name. A per­son “is” a stream, just as a stream “is” a per­son. If the an­ces­tors are the earth, their de­scen­dants are or will be made of the same earth. We then un­der­stand that the trace marked in the land­scape is also a wound, of which the body, the artist’s mem­ory, bears the traces. The works of Paddy Bed­ford are in fact a chal­lenge, the rev­e­la­tion of a tragic past that lives on in the mem­ory of Abo­rig­ines to­day. A mem­ory in the form of a land­scape, where re­bel­lion, for those who can see, is made in­tensely ev­i­dent.

Carlo Sev­eri (1952), an an­thro­pol­o­gist, is Di­rec­tor of Re­search at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences So­ciales in Paris

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