Crossing country: The alchemy of Western Arnhem Land art

Binocular: Looking closely at country
Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
25 September - 12 December 2004

These two exhibitions, one of work from the Western Desert, the other from Western Arnhem Land, afforded a clear overview of recent developments in the two dominant traditions of Aboriginal Art. 'Binocular' was more contemporary in focus, whilst 'Crossing Country' was a survey of around two hundred years of art from the West of Maningrida. Since the early 1980s, when Aboriginal art entered into the 'fine art' sphere in earnest, Indigenous artists have insisted that they are as responsive to change as any Western artist. The exhibitions were a testament to this, while 'Crossing Country' also gave a fair impression of how such change revolves around the mainstays of ancient tradition.

There is, however, a discernible difference between how Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists consider 'change' in art. For the latter, change is largely conceived of as the subjective relationship to upheavals and stagnations in politics and fashion; the inevitable turn of the temporal wheel. This of course also pertains, to a greater or lesser degree, to Aboriginal artists, except that the artists who work on the land are constantly responsive to alterations in the land, from the changes in atmosphere in a day, or as a result of millennia. What is always so refreshing about such Aboriginal art is its preeminently unsentimental attitude to the natural world. Whereas Western eyes view nature as separate and external, for Indigenous artists, nature is an extension of their own body, hence anathema to the nature-culture binary. The changes in the land are always seen together with cultural and personal change. The closed, or hermetically concentrated, nature of their compositions are thus reflections of this seamless and internally driven continuity. Western tradition is as cyclic and as reflexive as that of the Aborigines, except that, for Indigenous Australians, remembering is recognisably more internal to their language and everyday activities, and inextricable from systems of belief. And it is for this reason that non-Indigenous Australians, when not dismissive of, or hostile to, indigenous culture, often have recourse, once again, to sentimentality.

Rich counterpoints to these exhibitions were the David Malangi Daymirringu retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia ('No Ordinary Place') that closed at the same time as 'Binocular', and the Bridget Riley survey which opened in December at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Malangi exhibition, though no doubt not fully accessible in its meanings to people foreign to Glyde River custom, was an opportunity to understand what makes the work of a traditional indigenous artist 'good', namely the extreme intensity of his designs and his interpretation of motifs.

Curiously enough, Bridget Riley was cited in curator Beverley Fielder's catalogue essay to 'Binocular', firstly with the epigraph, 'Painting is, I think, inevitably an archaic activity and one that depends on spiritual values', and later, she was cited together with fellow abstractionists Victor Vasarely and Joseph Albers. Riley's allusion to the spiritual may strike many as a little odd, especially since her designs have been reduced to wallpaper and textile design, but it reveals a commonality with the art presently being produced from the Western Desert which, with every year, has become increasingly dazzling and shimmering. Riley and Vasarely descend directly from the impressionists; linking them are the pointillists who tried to simulate natural phenomena by juxtaposing tiny dots of pure colour which was to be mixed into secondary colours through the perception and proximity of the viewer. Op art takes such experiments to an hallucinatory extreme and attempts to make the canvas a phenomenon unto itself, both reliant upon, yet independent from, the external natural world.

To a sensibility which has no access to the ritual stories of the respective moieties, these recent Aboriginal paintings of artists from Kintore, Kiwikurra, Wirrimanu (Balgo) and Utopia offer a viewing experience, seen through the lens of Op Art, that indeed makes earlier more reticent styles (with their encrypted sacred meanings) more accessible. For they reveal that the painting from this region has been simultaneously representative of what is seen and emulative of sensory effects. The way in which many paintings merge silhouetted landscapes with aerial views is well-known, and most of us know that the concentric circles represent waterholes; but we also can see that such work is not all a matter of decoding. It is a matter of the artist attempting to give the viewer an unmitigated sensory fix. The interspersing of ochres with canary yellows, crisp blues, purples and vivid greens results in images which have a vertiginously musical quality. Musicality is a term often used in relationship to French Symbolist painting, but it is even more appropriate for Aboriginal art since some images derive from designs related to family songlines and to body painting.

It is dangerous to speak about feeling with regard to such works, as feeling is too often construed as the province of ineffable inner subjective behaviour. The feeling evinced in these paintings is a relationship, perhaps not articulable in my own words, of an inner subjective relationship married to a phenomenal experience, the feeling of the world on that day or in that season; and how that season infers the countless seasons before and after it. Moreover, these feelings are infused by totemic richness, what is below the land as much as above it. Referring to the paintings of the great Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, the exhibition's co-curator, Ken Watson comments that 'The paintings literally visualise the unseen power residing in the land via surface traces emanating from deep underground. It is as if the ancestral spirit is vibrating for that place'. The images are physically resonant with a physically experienced spiritual condition. The designs can be very simple, yet even if the surface is an intricate medley of lines, they are more likely to be painted as an accretion of smaller sections, a dense composite of dot-like components, rather than through glib sweeping strokes. The advantage in this technique is the ability to charge the surface with a stippled, textured, low-relief quality reminiscent of the textured paint used in body painting. The rituals of dance and the rituals of applying paint are therefore different in degree, not in kind. The time spent on what are ostensibly simple images engenders an easily perceptible serenity, or vibratory character that is far from superficial.

Because water is more plentiful there than in the Desert region, the painting of Arnhem Land is not as concerned with journeying; the connoted spaces of the paintings are seldom as vast. The work in 'Crossing Country' revealed an intricate and varied relation to place, and the differing modulations of the sacred between one work and another. Although all the art emanated from the 'supreme presence' of the rainbow serpent (Ngalyod) , the keeper of all the sacred places (Djang) , the images range from anecdotal whimsy to ritual solemnity. Disarmingly, these supposed opposites are sometimes mixed, as often occurs in the poles devoted to the Mimi spirits.

The exhibition contained images of incidental allegories, and epic stories of travels and encounters. Life and death is merged in the living being's relationship to the spirits of the past, and figuratively, in the characteristic x-ray technique with which figures are commonly depicted. Levels of the sacred can be suggested to the uninitiated viewer through the hieratic nature of the imagery.

Just as many elders still paint using natural pigments and binders to make their ochres, the women are still weaving the manjabu (fish traps) in the manner passed down over thousands of years. The traps vary in size and their shapes are never the same, though they always have a capacious womb-like shape. It is frequently commented that these are the objects from Aboriginal cultural production that look the most deracinated and out of place within the urban gallery context. I would argue that, if not taken too far, this incongruity is salutary, because it acts as a corrective, emphasizing the necessary ties of Aboriginal work to its place, community and individual.

In the notes to 'Crossing Country' is a remark made by John Mawurndjul in 2003: 'Sometimes I think about this crosshatching and it makes me cry. I'm a magic man, I dream and understand'. To most of us, the crosshatching may not make us cry, but such a comment shows that any genuine feeling is grounded in deep knowledge and deep experience. At least these exhibitions provide a distinct and real sense of how crosshatching, stripes or dots might make someone cry.