One of the leading anthropological experts on Aboriginal art and culture is Fred R. Myers. His 2002 book, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, explores the Western Desert Aboriginal painting movement through a lens that is more culture based than visual or aesthetic. Myers, a Professor of Anthropology at NYU, spent time in Australia during the 1970s as the painting movement was beginning to gain momentum. His insights add another witness to the mystery and power of these paintings.
Here are a few excerpts from the book:
The painters insist that these representations or images are “not made up,” “not made by men,” but “come from the Dreaming”. In this sense, they are described in the same fashion as are persons, customs, and geographic features—all of which are said to have originated in the Dreaming, or as Pintupi people regularly say, “Rjukurrtjanu, mularrarringu” [from the Dreaming, it became real.] They are therefore more valuable than anything humans might invent.
And this, his description of the Dreaming:
It would be inadequate to conceive of the Dreaming simply as a philosophy, as an explanation of what there is, or as an explanation of “the landscape.” The Dreaming is not the landscape itself or principally even an explanation of it, although that is one of its qualities. The landscape instead is how the Dreaming has been materialized, how it has been experienced, a manifestation of it, but it is not an account of what it “is”.
This description–more what it is not than what it is–is reminiscent of some of Western mystical/metaphysical traditions as well as writings about the Tao and Zen Buddhism. It does suggest a liminal zone–one of those in between places that I always find welcoming.