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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.


Howard Morphy is a leading authority on Aboriginal art and the director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at The Australian National University. In his article, Seeing Aboriginal Art in the Gallery, he explores a number of issues that I have been writing and thinking about. Here is one idea excerpt:

The theory of a universal aesthetic is intertwined with a theory of viewing that opposes the art gallery to the museum. In this theory works of art should be allowed to speak for themselves. Thus they need their own space for contemplation, and though their meaning and impact will be affected by their relationship to adjacent works, and to the hang as a whole, it is desirable that the act of viewing should take place in space as uncluttered as possible by supplementary information. While the density of hangs varies, as does the amount of information provided, these broad principles apply in art galleries around the world. Museums, on the other hand, are often defined in opposition to art galleries as places where objects are contextualised by information, by accompanying interpretative materials, by dioramas, and by being seen in association with other objects. I think that it is desirable to distinguish the Western concept of ‘seeing things’ as art from the presumption of a universalistic aesthetic and indeed to separate ‘seeing things’ as isolated or decontextualised objects from ‘seeing things’ as art.

Aboriginal art installation at Victoria Museum in Melbourne

Jim Coleman (of Nightingale at Large fame) made the following comment to an earlier post on Ocularcentrism. His insights are too provocative to lay hidden in the folds of this blog:

I wanted to be sure you noticed …the article in the April 16th New Yorker by John Calapinto on the language of the Piraha, a small Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe living on two small Amazon tributaries.

The piece is mainly about Dan Everett’s linguistic studies of the Piraha language—an exceeding “simple” language—and various linguistic controversies, Chomsky, etc., such as doesn’t a language that shows no use of “recursion,” phrase nesting to build complexity, violate Chomsky’s generalization about a Universal human Grammar that has recursion as its fundamental feature.
But—for you and your Australia—note at the end of the article the insights of Everett’s former wife, also a linguist, also proficient in the Piraha language. She learned most from listing to the women sing to (teach language to) their children. In this speech even words themselves apparently disappear and only tones, lilts, clicks, and a lyric essence remains. And yet the story is told, the children learn. So, she hints at a much more modest and near mystical theory of their language.

You refer to the Aboriginal way of perceiving as a challenge to the hegemony of vision in the ocularcentrism of our culture. I’d guess the Piraha offer a somehow similar (or at least equally radical) challenge to our language-equals-thought assumptions. It is a principle of linguistics (established by the great Vergotsky, I think it is) that all human languages are completely adequate to express everything necessary for those speakers. The Piraha appear to sing stories to children that have no beginning, middle, or end. There is none of the ubiquitous nesting of phrases as in our culture and, in some sense, almost no words. To say the do not have a complete language is like saying the Aboriginal people cannot do art.

In her essay, ‘Moorditj Marbarn (Strong Magic)’, Aboriginal artist Julie Dowling quotes Jean-Paul Sartre who described the role of painting as ‘the painter paints the world only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it’. Her belief that painting is her means of cultural and personal survival provides an important perspective to the notion that painting is alive in the broadest sense:

On a metaphysical level, the use of pigments and materials such as ochres is a sacred act coming from sacred lands. Such pigments have power because they project these same values, while we translate the many layers of meaning we possess in our minds and hearts as Indigenous peoples. Such colours create relationships between people and the land by travelling great distances throughout the world on bark boards, carved objects and on canvas.

Janet McKenzie
Mediators and Messengers: Contemporary Art in the Landscape

What a line from Sartre: “the painter paints the world only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it.”


Kathleen Petyarre is one of the better known Aboriginal painters, and deservedly so. Her works are both complex and yet sublimely minimalist, suggesting both the macro and the micro view of the land around her. Many of her paintings pay homage to her dreaming ancestor Arnkerrth, the thorny or mountain devil lizard.

Kathleen’s paintings, like those of her countrymen and women, are more than simple reconstructions of visible spatial features. These paintings offer an integrated spatial, environmental, economic, spiritual and moral “reading” of the land…Abstract spatial features such as socio-political units and boundaries, temporal events that can be linked to spatial features, organizational events, for instance initiation ceremonies, and a high level of environmental know how are also incorporated into the paintings, in a condensed fashion. Each work is accompanied by an elaborate and lengthy oral narrative, the retelling of which can take hours, and which custodians may sing, dance and paint. The paintings are visual, iconic metaphors for these longer narratives…

Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming

The spatial information or patterns that Kathleen creates in her art correspond to and can be mapped onto existing geographic features…Satellite imagery and computer-generated overlays indicate a surprisingly close correspondence to the work of traditionally oriented Indigenous artists including that of Kathleen Petyarre.

Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming

(Quotes are from Christine Nicholls in Kathleen Petyarre, Genius of Place.)

Much of the multidimensionality that Nicholls points to in Kathleen’s work is going to be outside the grasp of a Western viewer (relevant geographic and socio-political circumstances, for example.) While the primary access point for non-Aboriginals into her work is aesthetic, the other dimensions still hold their place. It is like a complex chord with some tones more subdued and harder to decipher, but elemental to the polyphony nonetheless.

As I continue to explore how Aboriginal art expresses a deep and complex relationship to the land, I am also interested in how the art/land relationship shows up in our Western cultural tradition. Ross Bleckner, typically described as an American abstract painter, takes a lot of his imagery from his experience with nature. From an interview with Denise Green:

I actually remember driving down a highway in the wintertime when there were no leaves on the trees and seeing the sun set really low in the back of the trees. The pattern, intensity, verticality and the strobe of the sun was so fascinating because it was both an image and a landscape and it became the whole other thing. Because of its density and light it became almost cinematic. And that became an idea for a painting…

The work for me is just a vehicle to explore the idea of spirituality.

Selection, by Ross Bleckner

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

I’ve been back from Australia for two weeks, but my intoxication with Aboriginal art continues unabated. My night dreams and daytime ponderings are populated with images and senses that are not of this hemisphere.

For years I have studied Aboriginal art though reproductions. As is the case with any artist whose work I feel deeply–Mark Rothko, Brice Marden, Bill Viola, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Lee Bontecou, Gerhard Richter, Agnes Martin, among others–everything shifts when you sit with the work “in the flesh.” When art speaks to you, it is because it is embodied with an essence and an energy field of its own. Spending time with actual Aboriginal paintings has shifted my insides in a way that is hard to describe.

I have been thinking/feeling about how Aboriginal art speaks to an Aboriginal relationship to space. In Geoffrey Bardon’s posthumous account of the Western Desert painting movement, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story, Bardon observes that the painters “felt no need to read a painting from right to left or from a standing position…A painting was read from any direction, as if it were lying upon the earth and able to be walked about…the artists could read their paintings with ease and naturalness while the representations were upside down.”

He also comments on how the Aboriginals had a “predilection for a sensitivity of touch, a hapticity or physical quality different from the visual sensation of eyesight…The painters seemed to me to understand space as an emotional idea, the capacity to feel this idea often excluding any need to visualise what was represented.”

Bardon’s observations speak to profound differences between the Aboriginal and the Western way of perceiving. David Michael Levin (author of Sites of Vision) makes this distinction: “I think it is appropriate to challenge the hegemony of vision in the ocularcentrism of our culture. And I think we need to examine very critically the character of vision that predominates today in our world.”

It may seem contradictory for a painter to be questioning the primacy of the retinal experience. But there are so many ways to map the territory, and it is those other ways of knowing that made me want to paint. Aboriginal artists navigate the terrain with a different set of tools that we, relying so completely on our eyes, may have lost access to through disuse. “Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth.”

Painting by Dorothy Napangardi

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Tree trunks, Alice Springs
Painting by Johnny Warangkula

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Todd River bed, Gum tree, Alice Springs
Painting by Kathleen Petyarre

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Simpson Desert, Northern Territory

It needs to be remembered that Central and Western Desert art works, and the narratives in which they are embedded, comprise high levels of information about the environment, site-specific ‘deep ecology’, interactions between species, as well as offering templates for human intereactions, and ethical and moral guidance. The art work itself acts as a kind of visual shorthand representing these Dreaming narratives, which encrypt Indigenous social memory, or what could be described as ‘cultural DNA.’ Focussing exclusively on the abstract, formal qualities of such art works is ultimately eurocentric, because such interpretations are premised on the suppression or even erasure of this considerable substratum of cultural meaning. This potentially leads to permanent cultural loss on the part of the Indigneous custodians of these narratives.

Christine Nicolls, from Dancing Up Country

Continuing on the topic of Denise Green’s Metonymy

One of the seminal influences on Green’s view of art is A. K. Ramanujan. In his essay, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” Ramanujan discusses the differences that exist between European and Indian approaches to reality. Several of his comments suggest parallels between Indian and aboriginal points of view:

Contrary to the notion that Indians are ‘spiritual’, they are really ‘material minded.’ They are materialists, believers in substance: there is a continuity, a constant flow of substance from context to object, from non-self to self (if you prefer)–in eating, breathing, sex, sensation, perception, thought, art, or religious experience…in Indian medical texts, the body is a meeting-place, a conjunction of elements; they have a physiology, but no anatomy.

Ramanujan also references another of Green’s key influencers, psychoanlayst Alan Roland (and author of In search of the self in India and Japan: toward a cross-cultural psychology.) Roland suggests that “Indians carry their family-context wherever they go, feel continuous with their family.” He posits that Indians develop a “‘radar’ conscience that orients them to others, makes them say things that are appropriate to person and context.”

Ramanujan et al see the advantage of an approach that is not trapped by an objectivity that makes distinctions between the self and the non-self, from interior and exterior. As a linguist, Ramanujan borrows from grammarian formulations to describe these differences as context-free and context-sensitive. “I think cultures…have overall tendencies (for whatever complex reasons)–tendencies to idealise, and think in terms of, either the context-free or the context-sensitive kinds of rules. Actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor in guiding the behaviour. In cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation.”

That distinction plays out in forms of artistic expression. The western opposition of nature and culture is a culture-bound construct, and it does not make sense in an Indian context. “There is another alternative to a culture vs. nature view…culture is enclosed in nature, nature is reworked in culture, so that we cannot tell the difference. We have a nature-culture continuum…” Ramanujan sees examples of these container-contained relations in culture/nature as well as god/world, king/kingdom, devotee/god, mother/child.

This reframing is powerful in relation to viewing aboriginal art as well. The distinctions that Ramanujan brings to the Indian outlook have many parallels in other non-western cultures, and shifting our view to accommodate those distinctions opens up a whole new set of concerns, opportunities, insights.

I traveled to the center of Australia with the hope that I could step deeper into understanding why I have such a powerful attraction to aboriginal art. For 15 years I have been studying these works, often only in reproduction, and my attachment has only deepened with time. While in Alice Springs, I must have looked at several thousand paintings. Sitting with some of the aboriginal artists, I was convinced that they are feeling and seeing the world in a way that is completely different than me. Their boundaries are different: It feels as if they carry the land inside them. Not the image of the land, the land.

I was struggling with the language to describe this significant difference when I fell onto an extraordinary book–Metonymy in Contemporary Art, by Denise Green. Green is an artist, an Australian, and a cerebral thinker who has articulated some of my own questions about the aboriginal world view as it relates to the context of art making.

Here is how she describes her own work:

Denise Green introduces the concept of metomymic thinking, as developed by the late poet and linguist, A. K. Ramanujan, one that is often different from what is present in Western art critical writing. In Ramanujan’s formulation of metonymic thinking, the human and natural worlds are intrinsically related to one another as are the transcendent and mundane worlds. Metonymic thinking in contemporary art implies that one must take into account the inner world of the artist. When artists create metonymically there is a fusion between an inner state of mind and outer material world.

In her book, Green takes on the likes of Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Both have argued against subjectivity in painting, and Green asserts that the hegemony of their viewpoints in western art criticism has inhibited a deeper understanding of painting. She wants to open up the possibility of viewing contemporary art from a more “global and pluralistic perspective.”

There is much to explore here, and I’m still assembling these ideas into a meaningful relationship for my own understanding. But Green’s book has been a huge step forward in penetrating issues that have been floating around in my consciousness for several years.

I have a lot more to explore on this topic. So more later.

Note: To see some images from my own collection of aboriginal art, go to my Slow Painters blog. They are tagged under the category, “Aboriginal Artists.”