(mixed media; black&white)


Mackerel sky over Balgo in the remote north west of Western Australia

by Robyn Ferrell

I go with a friend Jennifer to the exhibition ‘Genius of Place’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Kathleen Petyarre’s canvasses are ravishing, and enormous.

Their rhythmic repetition is arresting, and we sit for an uncounted moment of lost time to absorb this. Then, we go to the café, asking ourselves: why do we feel we ‘get’ those paintings?

They are called ‘Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming’, about which I know nothing. I don’t know what it means to speak of a lore belonging to a lizard. So how could I appreciate this painting when I obviously don’t understand the same thing by it as the artist?

Another show, another canvas: in the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., I come upon a painting by Mark Rothko and I sit in front of it, rapt, for a similar uncounted moment. I feel I am on my own in the room – only on the way out do I notice the attendant. He is an African American dressed in uniform, who having seen my emotion steps out of role for an instant – out of the whole oppression of American race relations and the weight of money and tradition in Western Art – and says to me: ‘wonderful, isn’t it?’

When I look at Rothko, I feel that with patient study and diligence I could come to understand it, and I felt the attendant shared that understanding. But, despite sharing the recognition of something that day at ‘Genius of Place’, it feels like whatever art historical or philosophical sophistication or painterly experience I bring to Petyarre’s canvas, there will be something occluded from me.

Indigenous art is coded as arcane, as belonging to a world I don’t belong to. It raises centrally the question of cultural appreciation. What notion of appreciation would I need to comprehend the viewing of Rothko and of Petyarre in these two experiences?

But this plays so quickly into a real world dilemma about politics and art that at any moment I feel in danger of getting lost in it. The very existence of ‘indigenous art’ is postulated against a ‘high art’ – even just ‘Art’ – and is this political or aesthetic? I need a view of art that broaches its political context, and a notion of politics that can tolerate appreciation.

An artwork is ‘Untitled’, paradoxically, when it needs no introduction. When it belongs securely in a line of visual images that share qualities – scale, subject matter, palette, mood and a cluster of techniques – that make it instantly recognisable as a kind of art. The ‘look’ of the work is such that it is locatable in a sequence of similar (but not too similar) works of art. This generic similarity refers to tradition or style.

The emergence of Aboriginal acrylic painting as a genre of contemporary art was a dramatic art event. From a kind of image catalogued as anthropological and placed alongside other artifacts from the so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, these artworks became declared as contemporary art, and even as ‘the last great style of the twentieth century’.

You can see these paintings in contemporary art spaces, while still experiencing its anomalous appearances in museums of natural history. There are original features of this art that allow it to make its visual language intelligible through the genres of contemporary art and natural history, even while embedded in its context as the longest continuing tradition of sacred art.

But ‘Untitled’ in the political sphere evokes something else. It produces anxiety, for those demands unrecognised and unenforceable whether as a consequence of disenfranchisement, dispossession or statelessness. Title is a legal concept that confers a right, and so it follows that to be untitled is to be without the protection of the right.

The proximity between the illegible and the illegitimate, the untitled and the unentitled are not, in the case of Aboriginal art, a mere trick of language. The remarkable emergence of the artistic genre is even more revealing when seen as the opening of a political domain.

Uniquely in the history of fine art, the becoming-legible of this painting tradition was the same thing as the making-intelligible of a political demand of title to traditional lands. The new kind of art became recognisable as a visual culture, as a new kind of title (native title) became legible in law. The vivacity of the painting testified to the deep sense of country that Aboriginal people held as law and tradition. And its visuality catalysed an extraordinary shift for non-Aboriginal Australians who then saw its brilliance even while they didn’t know its sacred meanings. The title became visible, where it hadn’t been before.

This is the heroic version of the emergence of Aboriginal painting onto the international stage. It’s suitable to the epochal event of the unveiling of a new politics as well as a new art. But actually, things are also more nuanced. The cultural epiphany is real enough – paintings have sold on the international art market for six-figure sums and the various land title hearings continue throughout Australia, in which the anthropological experts and Elders testify to the Aboriginal law as given by stories and designs.

Yet at the same time, the indigenous communities still suffer from deprivation and disadvantage, the traditional ways of life are still occluded by alcoholism and abuse, and the artists themselves still die in poverty while the gallerists and collectors take their profits first. A cluster of whitefellas – anthropologists, public servants and politicians – make a good living off these problems. A further cluster of whitefellas – commentators, writers and scholars – make contact with these dilemmas from time to time, without any seeing anything changing much for anyone, and especially not for the Aboriginal artists.

I came to suspect that the epiphany of Aboriginal painting title was of a different kind than its publicity announces. We were witnessing an emergence of meaning, of new genres and politics. But these moments were much more revealing of the first world globalising than of the consciousness of colonial sins, or even the coming forward of a new appreciation of differences.

The success of Aboriginal painting, as both art and politics, became for me a case study in how any image can become generic if it can become enough of a commodity to take its place in exchanges – and how this extends to political identities and cultural beliefs as much as to works of art.

The ‘mixed-media’ of Aboriginal studies turned out to be another site for colonisation. The workshop, and our larger project, as an emblematic whitefella activity called ‘knowledge acquisition’, collided with ‘the indigenous Other’ in many small ways. Politely, thoughtlessly, self-servingly, well-meaningly.

Ordinary white middle class habits – shopping, tourism, taking photographs – revealed the making of white sensibility in a postcolonial country. The aim of the research project had been to learn something of Aboriginal women’s art. But my enduring lesson was how we turned out to be whitefellas, with all the complicated responsibility and shame that brings home.

Our grant was to research Aboriginal women’s art. My collaborator, Jennifer, arranged for a family of Warlpiri women artists to come to Sydney from Lajamanu, on the edge of the Tanami desert, for a workshop.

An outback art centre in the north of Australia

The action of desert women’s painting has been described by Jennifer in her research into these women’s paintings as being to ‘make a mark’ on canvas like the traditional designs are made on skin. In doing so, the signs evoke the imprint on country of the ancestors’ actions; the fires, the dancing, the food, the fighting.

For the women, Jennifer has written, there is a specifically ‘breasted’ way to view their attachment to country; the ceremonies that the signs refer to are dances in which breasts are painted up and move in rhythm, conjuring the attachment of all to the land like a suckled child attached to its mother.

This is a very different view of culture and place from the Western model of land ownership. Yet ‘country’ is evoked for the viewer, even the uninformed one, by the vivacity of the painting itself. The spectator can enter country not so much by viewing, as by touching with the eye, its rhythm, colour, texture and contour.

The sacred nature of these canvasses is embedded in the experience of viewing them. Perhaps this is why Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the leading lady of the Desert acrylic style, when pressed to describe what a canvas depicts, would reply: ‘You know’. The Dreaming is communicated directly in the feeling for the work.

Jennifer’s research work has been in the anthropological field, with Warlpiri women artists. Mine has been as a philosopher writing in the field of feminist theory. What we really had in common was the experience of being mothers ourselves at the same time as being academics, giving us – in our own desiccated first-world way – an experience of this ‘sacred’, the experience of ‘life bearing meaning’ as Julia Kristeva has it. Perhaps we imagined that our maternity might engender cultural appreciation.

French anthropologist Catherine Clément, travelled to Senegal in search of the feminine and the sacred, and wrote to Julia Kristeva (psychoanalyst and philosopher and her good friend), of the strange trances of some Senegalese women.

Clément declares she was disappointed with the explanation for these rites given her by the dignitary who has escorted her to the ritual. ‘A member of the African elite giving the name hysteria to what I called a trance’, she wrote. He uses the more scientific word perhaps because he fears the coloniser’s judgement.

In the context, Clément is more anthropologist than female, and she represents the modern westernised ideal of ‘civilization’ that masks a black&white racism. Clément is taken aback, but perhaps she doesn’t see that, in this moment, she’s more white than woman. And in her portrayal, the Senegalese women’s sacred is seen as a kind of sexual, in shades of Gauguin and the Musée de l’Homme before it morphed into the Musée du quai Branly.

Kristeva writes back that she has returned from New York to the painful impression that the French are sulking over history, which these days is going on elsewehere. She has a vision of American-Africanness before her:

They are not in a trance at all, these black ladies who manage the store racks, the department offices of universities, the branch offices of banks, and even, sometimes, the panels at symposiums and other televised or cultural events.

This, too, is racial stereotyping, barely disguised. ‘These dark matrons display professional competence and unfailingly solid nerves’, she opines.

Despite their lapses, Clément and Kristeva explore an enticing hypothesis: that women, as bearers of life, are open to the sacred. And more, that this openness is occluded in the secular modern of technological society, which is gendered masculine. Kristeva had been in New York to lecture on Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who has her own take on this gender reassignment of modernity.

Clément doesn’t merely write to Kristeva, Kristeva to Clément. They publish the correspondence as a contribution to feminist theory. (The Feminine and the Sacred, Columbia University Press 2001). This self-consciousness about their rapport is not unusual for the time of its writing, and it certainly provided, in my mind at least, a model of the kind of research project that Jennifer and I were undertaking.

Aboriginal painting was expressly narrated as sacred art, and especially, the understanding of Women’s Dreaming seems overwhelmingly to be a reference to the metaphysics of maternity. But the parallel was more about us, because it because we struggled with imagining ourselves as mothers and intellectuals.

The sexism of the university remains virulent, and enters into almost every transaction with it, from the model of academic authority to patronage and career advancement. I found Clément and Kristeva seductive. Their model of how to do this thing called cultural theory was hard for me to resist; as women but professors, scholars but truants, they smuggled their contraband of the affective side of life into the language of philosophy.

Their work was a tantalising kind of reportage that somehow suited my insecurities. Kristeva writes in one letter – this time from Oxford where she is giving the prestigious Zaharof Lectures – that ‘the very celebrated “return to philosophy” cuts both ways: when the philosophers return, women are not among them’. And Michele le Doeuff, another French Feminist philosopher who had taken refuge in Oxford, had earlier written a whole book about the ruses women had to resort to in order to write philosophy (her leading lady was Simone de Beauvoir), including calling it social/political science.

Above all, the idea of female friendship that underwrites the epistolary text was overwhelmingly attractive to me. I best understood my desire as the desire for the companionship of a mother’s group turned theoretical.

I arrived at Balgo on an ‘air art tour’ organized by an art dealer. Balgo is a remote Aboriginal community in the Western desert which has seen its fair share of trouble, but which also sustains an Art Centre for a community of celebrated acrylic painters. We had a professional photographer with us, who had come with the commission to photograph the Art Centre, and those of the painters who would agree, for a magazine article.

The young girls from the settlement were keen on photography. They hung around holding the equipment and making up part of the scene. One of the girls was playing with the photographer’s reflector. It caught the sun and reflected onto her face in a way that took her magically out of her remote community and into the world of fashion. It rendered her face suddenly not shy but frankly beautiful, highlighted by the reflections of her impromptu hat.

Older Aboriginal people resist photographs being taken, because they keep the dead hanging around. But the Balgo girls had set up a photographic exhibition, portraits of their family, at the Art Centre. They were keen to photograph us, too. They live as we all do in a world of magazine photographs and TV pictures, and if they feel part of the world beyond their small and troubled settlement, it is because they are connected to it by images.

I wanted to use the photograph I’d taken of her in the writing up of the research, because it seemed to make this point. But I hesitated. Would it offend cultural practice? Worse, would it disrespect the findings of the recent Northern Territory report into child abuse and neglect in communities, “Little Children are Sacred”, which were still raw?

The Circuit Court was sitting the day the air art tour took us to Turkey Creek. Warmun artist Mabel Juli is a nationally-collected artist and traditional custodian of the Moon and Stars Dreaming, which could be plainly seen in the sky that evening. But she was in court as a mother with other mothers that day, supporting their adolescent sons on various charges, trying to keep them out of jail.

The old artists gave us skin names to help make us part of their Aboriginal group. My son was given the Warlpiri name Jupurrurla. A relative of the artists’, who had the same English name as my son, had recently died. Protocol required we not use this name in the workshop, but call him by the skin name, because of the mourning practice that the names of the dead not be pronounced.

The edict hurt me in an explicit but surprising way. In not being able to use his name, I found myself cut off from him. Even though I accepted the concept intellectually, I felt that we were being separated, and I resented it viscerally. My hurt showed up in my inability to adequately pronounce ‘Jupurrurla’. While I learned to say other Warlpiri words, I couldn’t say it without stumbling. It became unworkable to observe this simple difference in custom.

I feel that hurt again when I hear stories of the ‘stolen children’, who had their names changed so they would forget their mothers. They didn’t. Instead, they cried themselves to sleep in dormitories at missions all over the country, as the report into the ‘stolen generations’, Bringing Them Home, records.

Kristeva distinguishes the mystery of life bearing meaning from the technocratic ‘life without questions’, the totalitarianism that seeks to destroy life, or leave life in the domain of the purely instrumental. ‘Modern man is losing his soul,’ writes Julia Kristeva, but he does not know it, for ‘that darkroom needs repair.’ When she likens the soul to the darkroom, she is picturing a head-space of images that reach back into childhood, where the word is first an aural image, and where that image is charged with affect for the child as the voice of its mother.

The association of ideas, according to Kristeva, is a corporeal process – this is not a body separate from its ideas, but a body that motivates its ideas, and that strings them together according to the movement of bodily energy.

The maternal has a special place in the sacred, as generative of meaning and being. Its effects move outward in a double action, into real bodies and into the language used by those bodies. When Kristeva talks of life bearing meaning she conjures this extraordinary matrix of feeling and images.

A poster outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Children are sacred: their conception ‘proves’ that life bears meaning. Growing up, children take on the beliefs of their group as ways of being in their skin. No doubt this was the point of removing Aboriginal kids from their families. The stolen generations policies aimed at erasing a sensibility.

In Washington, where I went to see Rothko, I also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum. They had a powerful exhibit of the lost children of Lodz. The Jewish ghetto of Lodz, where 160,000 Jews were interned during WWII, was a hard place to be a child. There was no power, no running water and rarely enough to eat. Yet some in the community had organized makeshift schools and 13,000 children were known to be enrolled in 1941.

Early in 1942, the Nazis issued a savage command: Give up your children, or the whole ghetto will be destroyed. On the day they took the children, they might as well have cut off limbs.

My mother’s heart was torn up, just reading about this. Despite philosophy, I sat in the museum café and cried to think such things were true, and had come to pass.

Cover image Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming by Kathleen Petyarre

About the Author:

Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.