Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Australian Aboriginal Art in the Sixties

Unrecorded Melville Island artist, depicting a shark, sea-snakes, fish, shells, and other features encountered on a canoe journey in Snake Bay, Melville Island; ochre on bark, 28 by 19 inches; collected by C.P. Mountford, 1954.

  • Ronald M. Berndt, ed. Australian Aboriginal Art. With chapters by R. M. Berndt, A. P. Elkin, F. D. McCarthy, C. P. Mountford, T. G. H. Strehlow, J. A. Tuckson. With 73 plates in full color. New York: The Macmillian Company and London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd, 1964.

This book is the earliest general book on Aboriginal art I've been able to find in a Seattle library. (All the pictures in this post are from it). By 1964, the commercial sale of Central Desert paintings in modern media (acrylics on canvas) was starting to get underway, but was still regarded with scorn as a debased product for tourists. There's none of that in this book; this is all traditional artists depicting traditional scenes in traditional media: ochre and other natural pigments applied to bark or wood or stone with traditional implements.

Which is not to say "primitive". Ronald Berndt, who along with his wife Catherine was the most prolific and perceptive anthropologist of the Aboriginal peoples in the 50s and 60s, is careful to point out that, far from being a "primitive survival", as the old-fashioned Herbert Read put it, "the Aboriginal art available to us today is contemporary, or almost so, and no more prehistoric than the people who are responsible for it."

This was a hard idea for people to get their minds around in the 1960s, especially anthropologists; note that they still treat their subject anthropologically, and bury the artists' names deep within the footnotes, if they bother to collect it at all; they are still generalized representatives of an alien primitive culture. And much of the art depicted in the book is not only traditional but traditionally sacred, with ritual and often secretive meaning. It's interpreted in a modern way by modern people, is the conclusion Berndt is striving for, but he's not quite able to make the leap into seeing these artists as people fully involved in the modern world in quite the same way as his fellow researchers back at the University are. But he's getting there.

All the pictures reproduced here are traditional in style; but the root forms of modern styles are visible. Aboriginal art today, almost 50 years later, is a modern art; even if the forms echo the tribal traditions, they are identical to them, and they are market productions. Berndt seems to think, in 1964 at least, that market productions can't be art; he is not yet willing to let these artists be modern (or have names). Such is the state of white thinking in 1950s and 1960s.

I hope to show in some future posts just how wrong he was, and how powerful modern Aboriginal art can be (much more so than the etiolated, often vacuous, culturally starved productions of many civilized modern artists. Much of this art is not sacred, but is mundane and everyday; but it still throbs with power. For just a hint of the electric visual jolt of some of this work, even in the traditional mode, check out this Picasso head, by an artist who had never heard of Picasso; followed by some other favorites:

Joshua Wurungulngul, of the Gunwinggu people in the Oenpelli region of western Arnhem Land; molded ochre head, 6.5 inches tall; collected by R. Berndt, 1950.

Minimini, from Groote Eylandt, barracouta fish; ochre on bark, 36 by 13 inches; collected by F. D. McCarthy, 1948.

Dowdie (b. 1921), Milingimbi, NE Arnhem Land, Julunggul the rock python, protecting her eggs from the Wawalag sisters; ochre on bark, 28.5 by 15 inches; collected by the Methodist Overseas Mission, 1959.

Unknown artist, from Cape Stewart, north-central Arnhem Land, sacred maraiin painting, usually painted on men's bodies during secret rituals; ochre on bark, 20.25 by 11.75 inches; collected by the Welfare Branch of the Northern Territory Administration, 1959?


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the interesting post. We have featured it at the Aboriginal Art Directory: http://www.aboriginalartnews.com.au/2008/02/australian-aboriginal-art-in-the-sixties.php

Mr. Poe said...

Fnarf FTW!!

Mary Jo said...

So Cool!

sexy said...
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ugo said...

Very interesting!
Please check out my aboriginal art website http://www.karoline-art.com