Anthropology Objects & Behaviours
Acts of defiance
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