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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 10

Globalization of the Indigenous spirit

Robert Nelson

Throughout the years of postmodern irony, relativism, parody, complicity and subversion, the western art market became hungrier than ever for authenticity. Artists emerging from academies were unable or unwilling to furnish cultural authenticity; because, at its best, their work was a handsome critique of distasteful ideologies. An art professing genuine enthusiasm, such as all pre-industrial cultures enjoyed, was apparently no longer feasible. Cultural sophistication now denied the art lover the innocence of art; and it was no longer even possible to enjoy the naïve aesthetic joy of the old masters, for they, too, were to be read through socio-political analyses ranging from the skeptical to the caustic, dwelling on the chauvinist scandals of patriarchy and their artistic reflection in paintings and sculptures. Among art lovers desperate to vest their affection in objects which hang on walls, there was only one striking solution: the art of Indigenous people who—unless belonging to urbanized communities—had no interest in postmodern manipulation of cultural history. This may explain a part of the remarkable international success enjoyed by the art of Indigenous people.

Indigenous art is quintessentially regional. Its character is identified with the local community in which it is produced. Perhaps in no community is this adherence to a locality so pronounced as in Australian Aboriginal painting, in which iconographic rights and meaning are tied to the land. In spite of this, Aboriginal art is now absorbed into a globalized art market, in which its aesthetic status—if not its original or intended meaning—is understood to be culturally transferable, available to an international audience where it is promoted with a simultaneous air of ancient spirituality and modernist formalism. Even when enjoying a critical reception in Frankfurt, Paris or Melbourne, it is evaluated through inscrutable mixtures of localized awareness of the Dreaming and the aesthetics of abstraction, with all the connotations of universality which would paradoxically negate the deeper attachment to country and theogony which explains the gestation of the work.

The entry of Aboriginal art in the globalized art scene (as in major international art fairs and exhibitions like the Documenta or the Venice Biennale and the marketing of auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s) is artistically and ideologically fraught.1 The global reception has undoubtedly had an impact on current visual production, which naturally mutates according to historical circumstances. The new international fortunes have benefits and drawbacks, from the symbolic to the economic.2

Although the ethnological and aesthetic appropriation of Indigenous artefacts in European culture is old and has been studied in the critical discourses of orientalism and western imperialism, the dilemmas confronting Aboriginal art in the global context are far from exhausted in the literature and in practice. The aesthetic virtues recognized by the international community are not necessarily those that belong with the spirit and intention of the artists. There is scope for recognition but also falsification. Questions abound as to what creates the aesthetic prestige in the urban international art-loving community. Indigenous artefacts (e.g. Oceanic, American or African) do not, of themselves, have immediate or automatic prestige. The large production of trinkets and attire available world-wide is associated with tourism and attracts little attention in a gallery environment. This is true, for example, of Aboriginal boomerangs. These are not normally understood to possess the same kind of cultural authenticity and formal grandeur contained in paintings based on the Dreaming or interpreting ritual markings pictorially extrapolated from their use in sacred ceremony.

The directions taken by Aboriginal art (coincidental or strategic) have been extraordinarily felicitous in reconciling Indigenous spirituality and European aesthetics. The translation of desert idioms and subject matter into paint on canvas—subsequently stretched and presented with all the conventions of contemporary art—is a signal development, as is the use of primary and secondary colours in acrylic.3 It has yielded contemporary art of the highest order; and to this extent, no explanations beyond the claim to quality need be considered. In the following chapter, the discussion of Aboriginal art is restricted to tribal Aboriginal art. The powerful artistic achievements of urban Indigenous artists, such as Gordon Hookey, Richard Bell or Destiny Deacon, is not devalued by not being included here. It demands a separate discussion, and one which is strongly related to the post-structural critique of western scientific and cultural assumptions. This discussion is concerned with the spiritual traditions of the Aboriginal people and the sacred status of their art.

Prior to the settlement of Europeans on the Australian continent in 1788, the native inhabitants had maintained cultural practices for many millennia. Some archaeologists suggest that the religious ceremonies and art can be dated to 40,000 BC or even earlier. The most ancient rock paintings in caves show a style similar to the manner in which bark paintings are executed today in Arnhem Land, the top coastal region of the Northern Territory. This is not to deny some evolution in the history of Aboriginal art; but the ritual basis which produced the figures and patterns umpteen millennia ago was undoubtedly very close to the ceremonial practices which Europeans encountered while colonizing the country.4

At least on an institutional level, the colonizing Europeans did not recognize any spiritual or cultural claim which the Indigenous peoples had in any of their art or rites. The country was described in quaint Latin as nobody’s land (terra nullius), a term which unhappily reflects the perception of Indigenous people as non-existent and without rights. European settlement was a catastrophe for the Aborigines. In some parts, such as the southerly island of Tasmania, the Aborigines were systematically slaughtered to the point of near extinction. Influenza and various forms of genocide also largely eliminated the native population around the fertile cooler South-East of the continent, the most rapidly developing parts in which still today much of the population (and consequently commercial and bureaucratic power) resides. This is the part which contains the two largest metropoles, Sydney and Melbourne, with tall office towers, opulent leafy suburbs and well-defined industrial belts. The great European motif of centralization spread far into the country, with the devastation of scrub-lands and forests for organized farming and a reticulation of roads connecting a hierarchy of towns and cities. The industrial development of the more fertile zones was extremely rapid, as was the expulsion of Aboriginal people from any terrain considered worthy of industrial exploitation.

Comparatively little is known of the art of the Southern Aboriginal populations; for at the time of the most energetic European conquest, the Aborigines—or Koories as they are known in the South—were not in the habit of painting or sculpting with durable materials; and little respect for the apparently ephemeral creations prevailed among the settlers, anxious to beat off any adversity and establish their economic security.5 In fact so little remains of Koori cultural practices that scholars of Aboriginal art normally focus their attention on the areas of Australia in which a continuous rapport with the Dreaming and its sacred culture are still conspicuous. These are the Kimberley Ranges in Western Australia, certain important parts of the huge Desert regions (mainly in the Northern Territory and South Australia), the North of Queensland and the Torres Straight Islands, as well as Arnhem Land, mentioned before. On the international scene, Aboriginal art and culture have a presence inversely proportional to the European presence in the populous cities.

Scholars have noted that some fascination with Aboriginal culture began early. The general European population of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly incurious and racist; but writers talking about the identity of Australians in the twentieth century frequently sought to appropriate some of the ancient magic of the Indigenous peoples.6 The sympathy for Aboriginal culture (and particularly art) has escalated exponentially in the last decades of the century, to the point that cultural commentators and artists in the European tradition sometimes admit to a sense of impotence before the awesome spiritual purpose of Aboriginal art. It is difficult to find any contemporary western equivalent for the formal invention and high aesthetic deliberateness of Aboriginal art.

Aboriginal art is rich in variety. An expert has no difficulty distinguishing between the regions mentioned above. Arnhem Land art is characterized by the celebrated X-ray style for depicting creatures, as well as flat paint for certain spirits known as Mimi. Cross-hatching (rarrk) is a common element of Arnhem Land depictions.7 Desert art is characterized by the absence of a profile view of figures; it tends to be topographical in conceiving a bird’s-eye view of sites in which episodes take place.8 Patterns built up with dots is as common in Desert art as cross-hatching is in Arnhem Land. But although art-lovers can show off their connoisseurship by distinguishing between the regions in this way, Aboriginal artists are not primarily motivated by stylistic interests. Many of the motifs which today are sometimes mistaken as stylistic design-tropes were used in painting the body for ceremonial purposes and have ritual significance, often of a secret nature.

Commentators seem to agree that the basis of all tribal Aboriginal art is religious.9 The Leitmotiv is a period of creation and forming of the land and its creatures, known by the English term ‘the Dreaming’. During the Dreaming, ancestral spirits roved across the land, interacting with the land and its inhabitants. The travels of the ancestral spirits are responsible for the natural appearance of the land, but also for the spiritual quality of certain localities. Sites are imbued with the character of the ancestral spirits or with the episodes which marked their transit at such sites. The land is pervaded by the magical presence of the ancestor spirits; it is part of a narrative cosmology which gives natural features a spiritual meaning.10

The presence of the ancestor spirits is not mythological, which is a misleading term. The word myth refers to stories which are no longer believed, dead religion, even if they may have been believed in the past. Aboriginal people profoundly identify with the reality of the Dreaming: it is the central and commanding religious truth and there is nothing mythological about it. Anthropologists still use the word ‘mythological’ with unwitting colonial condescension. Alas, it is inappropriate as applied to the beliefs of Indigenous people. The sense in which the Dreaming is religious and not merely mythological brings us to the heart of Aboriginal culture. The ancestor spirits are not abstractions, like Plato’s theos who is the intellectual embodiment and principle of all ideas at their most essential and supreme, almost a god of abstraction. The ancestor beings have a narrative identity and one does not contemplate them in the abstract, achieving spiritual enlightenment by the mere act of attempting to comprehend the purity of the highest spiritual condition. Aboriginal religion is not based on the extrapolation of spirit. It is based on the human and geographical memory of episodes, conveyed for thousands of generations by tribal elders and reflected in the logic of the land. The ancestor beings in some sense abide all around; they remain in the investment which their contact inherently yielded in a given location. Geography, in the Aboriginal cosmology, is a universe of vestiges. The spirits in some sense perpetually haunt the land but they do not manifest their presence in their entirety; they are immanent but lack the narrative actuality which they demonstrated during the Dreaming. Access to the reality of the Dreaming is the central theme of Aboriginal spirituality.

Hence the role of art and ritual. Ancient rituals are enacted in order to activate the ancestral beings. The purpose of ritual is to bring the reality of the Dreaming into consciousness, so that the ancestral spirits can move, as it were, from the immanence of physical geography to the wilful energy of autonomous divinity. To activate the divinities of the Dreaming requires an inspirational force in the participants who are specifically authorized figuratively to relay the Dreamings by traditional performances. Rituals re-enact certain episodes from the Dreaming and invoke the archetypical reality of events of high consequence in the Dreaming, ancient encounters between beings and terrain which left a physical legacy, inscribed in the land or within the shape of creatures. The rituals call upon the divine to re-enter the realm of contemporary experience and visit the ‘communicating’ members of the tribe with a poignant manifestation of spiritual power. In this way, Aborigines constantly maintain a contact with the ancestral spirits; they enjoy a personal franchise with a creative cosmology, in turn linking them to the physical realities of the land and its creatures.

Art has a similar function to ritual. It invokes the ancestral beings by re-enacting divine episodes. Aboriginal art is not pre-eminently iconic. It tends to be about dynamic relationships between beings in a certain narrative context. It is not predicated on the Graeco-Roman (later Christian or even Buddhist) idea of setting up an image which receives veneration, as if acting by divine proxy. As in Aboriginal ritual, the art positively activates the ancestral beings; it brings them up, so to speak, from a kind of dormant background to a keen and direct clairvoyance. Though the subject matter is necessarily traditional and formulaic, its rehearsal must be inspirational in activating the divinities.

Part of the difference between Indigenous and western outlooks can be expressed in the appearance of Aboriginal art, which is usually (though not always) schematic. It serves the fundamental cosmology very little to show spirits in a naturalistic way; for the optical incumbencies of illusionism presuppose a series of distinctions between protagonists and their surrounding space. Illusionism is obsessed with how far into the middle-distance any given figure in the foreground may reach. It is consumed by the posture of people, the carriage of their head and spine, the movement of their hands and their facial expression. Western painting which has long cultivated the arts of illusionism is intensely analytical in processing visual information, following the analytical temper of scientific and philosophical inquiry. To a western spectator, the logical separation of figures from the planes of their spatial context is axiomatic. But in Aboriginal art, the dichotomy of ‘figure’ and ‘space’ seems less compelling. Of course, up to a point, there is necessarily a binary relationship between a figure and the surroundings; but the art is conceived around a mystical interaction between beings—and often beings and land—which occurred during the Dreaming through a non-dialectical transfusion of powers. The events of the Dreaming are not easy to conceive as so many dramas upon a stage, as when westernized spectators view actors strutting and negotiating their way on an ideal platform set up to face an audience. Aboriginal art is not about spectacle and has no theatrical correlates, least of all in tribal ceremony.

The western theatrical economy of spectator and performer assumes (a) a fictively determined stage which represents a certain place and (b) an autonomous actor, able to parade the scripted performance in an arbitrary number of square metres anywhere in the world. Like western painting, western theatre—and consequently film and television—contemplates the world through a universal window. The art of representation through this window is about conjuring illusions, suspending disbelief, evoking the drama by replicating a life-like series of actions in a credible space. Nothing could be further removed from the genius of Aboriginal art and ritual than this universal and transferable vantage point. Aboriginal art is not staged so that the spectator may see. There is a prior understanding among the initiated by which they can already see. The artistic gesture (typically involving dance, music and body-painting) is conceived by way of invocation. It is intended to activate the spirits, to bring their agency to a benign involvement with the participants. Art is a process of sharing in the being of the divinities rather than observing their form from outside.

From a western perspective, the artistic rehearsal of the Dreaming is also functional, associated with empirical survival-skills in a harsh country. It may not occur to a traditional Aborigine to separate the sacred aspect of the Dreaming from the practical or functional aspect; for the two are intermeshed. The Dreaming concerns the formation of the land; it narrates the history of places and identifies characteristic features, such as water-holes or edible plants, by the events which took place there or which even created a given feature. In a somewhat undifferentiated landscape, the task of learning the whereabouts and use of certain features is a prerequisite for survival. The knowledge of the dry regions is not necessarily complicated but it is unthinkably extensive, like the vastness of the land itself. An individual may intimately know about thousands of hectares, within which he or she will be able to recall the precise location of countless and diverse vital natural amenities. The intimacy of this knowledge is gained through the Dreaming. Nobody would keep an abstract list or encyclopaedia, not even in the mind, for the abstraction of such systems would place the information in a relatively meaningless and arbitrary structure. The stories of the ancestor spirits are a more sophisticated ‘retrieval system’ than lists and encyclopaedias, for they not only embody the practical information in a way which conveys the sacred history of the land but they install the knowledge in a peculiarly embodied, memorable and meaningful form.

The narratives are learned through the body in dance, song, music and in body-painting. The rehearsal of the stories through the body is absolutely sacramental. In holy ceremonies, the actions of the Dreaming are performed through corporal gestures, each one acting as a kind of landmark around which sacred information is meaningfully located in a kind of analogue pattern, an inevitable unfolding which denotes places, ancestor spirits and humans. Traditional information is assimilated by corporal re-enactments which ‘institutionalize’ the authority of the stories; and through the somatic rehearsal of the stories and the rhythmic processes of dance and song (which instal the vast material in memory), the communicating participant also intellectually refers the authority of the stories to the factual reality of the land. The land and its creatures remain the great repository of stories, the tangible memory of holy events which resulted in the life-giving forms of the country. It is incorrect to think of Aboriginal ceremonies as didactic—say by analogy to the catechism—for they are true sacraments, perhaps the most essential that ever were.

In its origins (and still in tribal practice), Aboriginal art is inseparable from the sacramental status of such ceremonies. There are—and probably always were—certain motifs which could be used by artists without a deeply sacred basis, such as the patterns placed on boomerangs or other implements, of no conspicuous link to an identifiable part of the Dreaming. But the Dreaming is very encompassing and it would be imprudent to dismiss holy connotations wherever the Aboriginal artist decides that an object deserves decoration. The distinction between the decorative arts (meaning applied ornament) and the fine arts (meaning autonomous figures) does not exist in Aboriginal consciousness, just as it did not exist throughout most of western cultural history. The application of Aboriginal ornaments without a narrative role is nevertheless a sign of a holy link between the object and the Dreaming. But even allowing for some margin of uncertainty, the great bulk of Aboriginal production is not only a reflection of the dreaming but a visual prompt for activating the spirits of the Dreaming, in a manner analogous to the activation of spirits in the ceremonies.

The history of Aboriginal art is difficult to write without concentrating on the work of recent decades. The standard histories concentrate on the seventies, eighties and nineties for a number of reasons. First, production during the European take-over prior to these dates was encouraged very unevenly and was undoubtedly widely scorned among European settlers as any kind of artistic counterpart to the art of western galleries. Second, the production of artefacts in tribal societies was not structured around an idea of preservation and, with the exception of certain rock paintings which are in some sense ‘maintained’ by tradition, many works were often conceived as being ephemeral and dispensable, in spite of being labour-intensive. The basis of this ‘disposability’ may have been body-painting, which is appropriate for a given ceremony but has no aspirations to transcend the event in a permanent form. Third, such objects as may have survived would often have fallen into the hands of particularly uncaring people. But fourth—and perhaps the strongest reason: the production of Aboriginal work seems to have escalated exponentially since (a) the recognition of Aboriginal art among western collectors who are interested in it for aesthetic rather than anthropological qualities and (b) the encouragement by western educators, dealers and collectors, for Aborigines to produce art for an uninitiated secular audience, using durable, consistent and easily workable industrial materials, particularly, of course, synthetic polymer paints and canvas.

Aboriginal art today is extraordinarily prolific. An example is Balgo art, emanating from a number of communities on the north-eastern edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. Some 500 acrylic paintings on canvas are sent out with invoices each year. But the sheer quantity of production is perhaps the least impressive aspect. The more striking part is the prolific character of the imagination, revealed in copious inventions based on traditional motifs, patterns and, of course, subject matter. Although we know little about the pre-colonial art of the Aborigines (for who could count the number of body-paintings in a given year?) it is nevertheless difficult to imagine such a brilliant efflorescence as we have today.

Nearly all aspects of western contact with Aboriginal culture seem to have been corrosive, resulting in the annihilation of much of the Aboriginal patrimony, not to mention the people themselves. The one outstanding exception—and that only in recent times—is art. Contact with a western market, bureaucratic infrastructure and art materials appears not only to have achieved the conspicuous external promotion of the ancient traditions but also to have invigorated them internally. The even spread of a canvas enables the artist to express an episode from the Dreaming with great freedom, uninhibited by the constraints of scale, texture or curvature on rocks or bodies. In effect, the other-worldly narrative character of Aboriginal art seems to thrive upon the abstract ground of a blank western canvas. Even decorated sculpture—which ought to take its cue from the logic of ornamental markings of the features of the body—seems to enjoy the abstracted spaces of a white gallery in which ensembles of sculpted figures can move between a kind of plastic autonomy and a ceremonial interaction which re-enacts the marking of place somewhere else.

The success of Aboriginal art is a source of joy to the wider Australian community. It is a warm story of cultural jealousies breaking down on both sides of a social divide. On the one hand, western artists do not begrudge Aboriginal artists the high prestige and international public acclaim to which western artists (in spite of training at art school) have no access. On the other hand, Aboriginal artists show a willingness to proffer sacred material—or at the very least material with sacred connotations—to a secular audience, trusting, it seems, that the western connoisseurs receive the artistic precipitate of their patrimony without profaning it. Debates among tribal elders in the seventies concerning the sharing of the Dreaming with the uninitiated were generally resolved in favour of interchange; but certain sacred themes were deemed too holy and demanded secrecy. Of these, of course, non-indigneous scrutineers have no knowledge and it seems impious to inquire. The non-Aboriginal community is more than satisfied with the spiritual generosity of the Aboriginal community and artists. The history of westernization upon Australia has given Aborigines every reason to be unforgiving and rancorous. In spite of this, their work is without bitterness or acrimony.

The magic of Aboriginal art derives from a number of sources. First, there is a fine aesthetic quality in the often complicated configurations. They have a symmetry which, however, is almost never obvious but seems to proceed from an intuitive sense of order. The term ‘design’ is sometimes invoked but the work does not submit to a drafted order. Second, Aboriginal art has a sacred link with the Dreaming; for the motifs, as handsome as they may be, are by no means merely decorative: the motifs are meaningful and connect places cosmologically with creator spirits in episodes passed down for untold thousands of years. Third, recent Aboriginal art, while still acting as a repository of such prestigious traditions, is also a symbol of a new and highly productive franchise between an archaic sacramental consciousness and a dynamic globalized cultural market.11 The art is consequently a cheerful sign of novel cross-cultural vigour in which the ancient prospers through the paradoxical spiritual dependency of the industrial culture. Aboriginal art is a historical marvel, (a) maintaining a vast stock of knowledge for countless thousands of years of isolation in Australia, (b) surviving the sudden assault of western colonization and (c) growing in unprecedented volume and formal richness, with incomparable prestige in the western art scene in metropolitan Australia and beyond.

On another level, the success of Aboriginal art has been to allow itself to subscribe to the sacramental paradigm noted throughout the previous chapters. First, Aboriginal art presents itself with a powerful basis in an awesome sacred knowledge, totally essentialist, ritualistic and holy: it is not just sacred in its references but in its efficacy. Second, Aboriginal art graciously lets itself be presented in a secular context, in the first instance simply to communicate the dignity of the culture but thereafter to be relished as imaginative aesthetic wonders, without presupposing that the spectator has any awareness of the spiritual content. Third, the content abides, not because western spectators know what it is but simply that they know that it is there; it is inherent, though now inherently in the background. And finally Aboriginal art wins extra prestige for reconciling the sacred with the secular, for bringing what is specifically sacred in a small community to a universal platform in which its secularized spookiness may be assimilated from any spiritual or non-spiritual perspective.

There is nothing at all wrong with this sequence. In any event, it is a historical inevitability. The Aboriginal artist and the westernized spectator have a necessary and laudable desire to effect a cultural meeting, analogous to the reconciliation so long hoped for. They both make generous concessions. The Aboriginal artist gives up some of the exclusiveness of the tradition and allows the artistic manifestations of an essentially religious order to enter a secular and relativist forum. Meanwhile, the westernized spectator gives up expectations to see straight-forward perspectival or decorative pictures and accepts the visuality of a more or less alien tradition. But in all this, there are two concessions that cannot be made, no matter how tolerant or generously disposed is the mutual spiritual embassy. The first is that for all their scholarly diligence and good will, western spectators are unable to comprehend the deeper ritual significance of the Aboriginal artworks in their rapport with the Dreaming, for they lack tribal initiation, language and education, which includes a first-hand ‘corporal-narrative’ knowledge of geography. The second unwitting article of western inflexibility is the definition of art. When it enters the western gallery, the Aboriginal artwork is co-opted into an argument of abstraction, the abstraction of spirit from a ritualistic function to a hypothetical aesthetic universality, precisely free of the liturgical contingencies of the time and place and unique cultural circumstances which may have instigated it. The role of art has been decided in Europe for the last two and a half millennia. Aboriginal art, though hugely anterior, cannot change the structure; for it has already just qualified as ‘art’, with the colossal privileges of western spirituality installed in its new predication. Once Aboriginal artefacts are art, they obey—so to speak—the pattern of abstraction of spirit which, it seems, they are most constructed to avoid.12

Aboriginal art is deeply attached to a ritualistic function and, of course, it consequently makes little sense to detach Aboriginal art from the role of physically enacting or ‘embodying’ directly meaningful narratives with their specific poignancy in the Dreaming. No one would ever force the issue. No one is requiring Aboriginal art to submit to an alien paradigm. There is no compulsion; there is only ubiquitous esteem for cultural difference and indeed encouragement for the strongest statement of Indigenous spirituality. But the new structure in which Aboriginal art nevertheless graciously finds itself is overwritten with western authority. Artistic authority in the west is achieved by traducing the liturgical and establishing artistic autonomy for the secularized form of sacred origin. But the genius of western assimilation conceals its sovereign authority with subtle appropriations of the spiritual economy which it has replaced. The high prestige of Aboriginal art owes everything to its spiritual origins. Western artistic institutions do not demand the annulment of these origins; on the contrary, the tribal origins are recognized and celebrated as the basis of the artistic power of the works. It is just that the final credentials of Aboriginal art which warrant its promotion as high art entail the further stage of transcendence by means of aesthetic excellence and autonomous visuality.

Western culture is obsessively competitive. We like to rank everything. In art, we establish prizes (as for athletes) and, even if we do not, curatorial recognition and the market create a de facto hierarchy which everyone but the naïve knows about. Some artists ‘get to the top’ while others never approach such heights. We love cultural champions, people who have ‘broken through’ with innovation, that quality most hypostasized through the styles of modern art. These social motifs are alien to Aboriginal culture, in which the making of art—as with all ritual energies—has always been a matter of partnerships, collaboration and the selfless maintenance of age-old traditions. But Aboriginal art cannot enter western culture without enduring competition, the invidious taxonomy of struggle, which separates genius from plodder. High fliers are in no time identified and promoted. Names are attached to works with jealous scrupulosity and, of course, there is always talk of fakes. Aboriginal art is not difficult to copy or fudge or ‘rip-off’, as Australian vernacular puts it with appropriate violence. Paintings by the most illustrious artists are normally sold complete with certificates and photographic authentication showing the artist holding the painting in a desert location.

It may be that in Indigenous society, prior to the advent of the Europeans, certain members of a tribe were somehow distinguished as particularly competent with activating the spirits of the Dreamings in a visual form. But it is unlikely that this facility would have been understood as an artistic gift in the sense of visual talent which we recognize in western culture. A gift—that is, faculties developed in an individual—would be less important in tribal society than the privilege institutionally vested in a person of a certain status. The pre-eminence of the person would be associated with ancestral rights to the story, a form of proprietorship granted by specific patterns of patrilineal and matrilineal descent. One has the status of ‘master’, as it were, not on account of making art well but having the authority within the community to invoke the story. Cleverness in art does not confer authority; rather, the authority enables the art: it permits the expression of a story whose proprietorship is strictly guarded. Least of all would an artist gain authority by staging some kind of radical redefinition of traditional forms or breaking through the barriers of convention.

Against the grain of the traditional social order, western culture induces a canon of distinction. It has little understanding of the Indigenously holy; it only knows that holiness ought to be there and that will suffice. Meanwhile, what it wants from tribal culture is what it sought from modernism: innovation, novelty, radical solutions, an air of abstraction and the aesthetic for its own sake, bolstered, paradoxically, by the condiment of cryptic knowledge (as in modernism), that unapproachable awesome cachet of the tribally sacred. This scheme of priorities is tactfully suppressed but in its historical trajectory is structurally irrepressible. It may also explain certain aspects of the spectacular Aboriginal Renaissance which seem distinctively imaginative, outgoing, monumental, gesturally spontaneous and artistically bold. Part of the reason for the great fame of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye is probably related to the hidden scheme of priorities which has informed western progress from antiquity.13

Kngwarreye’s paintings are by no means the only work which could serve as an example of the artistic freedoms of recent Aboriginal art, especially by women. We could look equally at the work of other women from Utopia, such as Minnie Pwerle, Kathleen Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre or Lorna Fencer Naparrula.14 The work of such women displays a rhapsodic quality, with the traditional Aboriginal tropes—such as sequences of dots or stripes—apparently loosened from a strict totemic or narrative role. In tribal society, there had always been a distinction between the visual work of men and that of women. It belonged to the gender of patriarchal authority to represent the great stories of the Dreaming while women (depending on the regional context) tended to confine themselves to domestic themes or so-called women’s designs (awelye or yawulyu) applied to the limbs and breasts in ceremonies. An almost archetypical gender difference emerges: in subject matter, the work of men embodies powerful links with ancestral divinity and, in style, is circumscribed by a kind of discipline, not always formally rigorous but always functioning with a sense of definition of place and episode. The subject matter of women, on the other hand, does concern the divine but via less heroic manifestations of the sacred or via another ceremony (in which body-painting is integral). Women’s art involves another layer of artistic intercession; it is ‘once removed’ from direct involvement with the Dreaming; it is once removed from the authoritative activation of the divine and dwells more on the communal participation in liturgies. In style, it is relatively unconstrained, free-flowing and visually musical.

Kngwarreye began painting canvases late in life (in her mid seventies) though she would have participated in body-paintings for many decades prior to her recourse to western art materials and the convention of the regular two-dimensional canvas. When approaching the rigid geometry of the rectangle, Aboriginal artists seldom respect the supreme co-ordinates of top/bottom, left/right, but lay the canvas on the ground and either turn it around as they work or move their position at the edge in order to treat the canvas ‘democratically’, without an abstract attachment of any edge to an imagined horizon. But in Kngwarreye’s works, the lack of specific orientation is further accentuated by the free spread of dots or lines, often aligning themselves with a certain directional energy but not one which privileges a given orientation.

In her early works, Kngwarreye filled her canvases with a gentle hail-storm of dabs, taking the traditional Aboriginal dot-motif to a more monumental patch, a quantum which does not so readily submit to the logic of a pattern. And indeed the pattern among the differently coloured patches is often gained and lost as you look. The painting is animated by your perceptual intelligence oscillating between a sense of the structured and the random. The effect is aesthetically enchanting. But the experience is more than merely aesthetic in a formalist sense. The distribution of dabs equally oscillates on an iconographic or cultural level, for in one instant you recognize a sonorous pattern of an abstract or universal nature and, in the next instant, the traces of an almost heraldic ornamental regime, setting out tracks of traditional formulae in an inspired routine of marking the body or retracing ancient stories through their danced-corporal inscription on the body. The combination of the two is scintillating, as the force of ancestral body-designs retains an awesome magic in the background, while the sweet pitter-patter of dabs yields rhapsodically to a sense of cultural permeability.

In Kngwarreye’s later paintings, forceful marks are laid out on canvas in a strongly binary argument of strokes, forming a highly directional ensemble which seem both vigorous and intimate at the same time. These works transpose on a grand gestural scale the body markings of tribal ritual, extrapolated with a great sense of urgency from the tender site of the body to the austere rectangle in which the gestures paradoxically resonate with the artistic heroism of western abstract painting.15 It is as if the aspiration of western artists to arrogate to their work a sanguine ‘primitive’ unpremeditated spiritual transcendence has finally been fulfilled, with the difference that the gestural prowess in Kngwarreye is genuinely tribal rather than intellectually artificial. So there is multiple magic in Kngwarreye’s art. The work can be proffered in the western art scene as a kind of abstraction—which in a sense it is, for it exorbitantly extrapolates from ornamental traditions—but it equally retains an intimate link with a symbolic order, the very quality lost in the secularization which explains the progress of modern art in its march toward abstraction. Finally, the controlled manic energy of Kngwarreye’s paintings, heaving the intricate body-ornament into a monumental form, on an abstract rectangular ground with totemic frontality, is a sign of the infiltration of western ambitions in the traditional mind. Prior to the opportunities of western resources, the ‘exorbitance’ of Kngwarreye’s extrapolations would not have been possible. One way or another, Kngwarreye fits in with the paradigm of the highest western artistic prestige. She monumentalizes upon the canvas an inspirational transcendence of traditional forms and meanings, gathering potent symbols, and apparently freeing them from their ancestral limitations through a grand aesthetic simplicity. And even though, from a western point of view, a precise spiritual meaning is deferred in favour of a general aesthetic response, a definite spiritual root remains in the art to testify to a supreme religious authority, unquestioned, unfathomable, and only contactable through the intuitive sympathy which the art excites. In one sense, it is easy to consider that women like Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Minnie Pwerle or Lorna Fencer are the ultimate modern artists.

The sacramental status of Aboriginal art generally is underwritten by other historical factors which are less positive though of crucial importance to the post-colonial world. The belated esteem for Aboriginal art seems to compensate for two centuries of oppression, not just of Aboriginal people in Australia but Indigenous people wherever they (and their ancestral cultures) have been extirpated by western powers around the globe. The whole of the Euro-American world knows and understands the plight of Aborigines in Australia which, in any case, is analogous to the plight of other Indigenous peoples. There are few secrets in the Antipodes, for the paradigm of the colonization does not originate in Australia but in Europe; and it is to the grand old world of rapacious empires that all ethnographic scandals must be referred. It is difficult for westernized people not to consider the past with a sense of guilt, even though their ancestors may not have been involved in killings, neglect or ruthless exploitation. You either belong to the industrial culture or not; and if you do, you have inherited the benefit of the violent displacement or destruction of Indigenous cultures.

Undoubtedly there is a certain melancholy which suffuses the perception of Aboriginal art, a knowledge of the eternal loss of the living presence of whole nations. Australians sometimes experience this on a daily basis, as they are haunted by the vestiges of place names. In Melbourne, for example, there are perhaps only 12,000 Koories: they were ‘relocated’ last century. Melbourne is widely held to be the most European of the Australian metropoles; but its suburbs and localities nevertheless enshrine the traces of tribal memory. Thus, among a preponderance of names such as Kew and Canterbury, one also encounters names such as Banyule, Dandenong, Darebin, Derrimut, Kananook, Karingal, Kooyong, Langwarrin, Maribyrnong, Moorabin, Mordialloc, Murrumbeena, South Yarra, Wantirna, Warrandyte and Werribee. There is no correlation of these names to class. The Aboriginal names seem to have been retained as if by chance. It is difficult to find out the history of such places or even the meanings of the names.16 Australian townspeople are often unable to perceive contemporary Aborigines as more than the urban dispossessed, as if degraded reliqua of an unimaginably ancient nomadic culture, sacrificed to our own during the southern deforestation.

The motif of sacrifice (ethnocide) is now ever-present in the conscience of the art world. If ever it recedes from contemporary awareness, there are urban Aboriginal artists who remind the art-loving public of the cultural effacement wrought by European settlement, not to ‘rub in’ the disgrace but to explore the underlying paradigms of intolerance which once seemed to excuse the banishment of Aborigines from their own land. Artists such as Richard Bell have satirically monumentalized the racism of the uneducated, while Gordon Bennett has tackled the sophisticated methods of systematic western image-making and epistemology, locating the historical maltreatment and slaughter of Aborigines in an obsessive network of linear control and definition. In Bennett’s paintings, stereotypically stylized dark figures are fixed within grids and scientific co-ordinates; their plight is apparently orchestrated by the famously objective tools of classification and order, for these intellectual and visual systems easily lend themselves to chauvinistic applications and probably have certain assumptions of cultural supremacy embedded in their very value-free appearance. The genius of drawing up maps consistent with geometric principles is compared to drawing up perspectives conforming with optical principles; and these are compared to drawing up spaces according to universal geometric modernist principles. They are all implicated in a form of intellectual totalitarianism, aggressively establishing an imaginative regime which makes the nomadic Aborigine anomalous, disempowered, obsolete.

The appreciation of Aboriginal art by westernized people is undoubtedly genuine and warm. But there is always a dimension of atonement. To partake and even deeply to sympathize on an aesthetic level is to receive remission for ancestral European sins which have never been expiated. Our enjoyment of Aboriginal art, no matter how profound, is probably never complete without the superintendence of the Judeo-Christian spiritual economy, that trade in spiritual debits and credits that still makes us scrupulously neurotic and which causes us to make sacrifices or to hatch sacramental abstractions of them to vouch for our well-being.17

European rituals subsume the appreciation of Aboriginal art and it is illogical for non-Aborigines to study Aboriginal art without simultaneously studying their motives within western culture, the western assumptions which they bring to the encounter and the benefits of doing so within the economy of western culture. If this process leaves little scope for innocently viewing the autonomy of the Aboriginal symbolic order, it is tragic; but the story of the engagement of the Indigenous with the western is inherently tragic, and its artistic interpretative reflection can hardly be expected to avoid that sense of tragedy, least of all when it hopes for cathartic relief.

Aesthetic experience is not exactly sly but it conscripts all contrary motifs to flatter the comprehension and magnanimity of the spectator. The aesthetic ‘moment’ in the psyche is fundamentally generous and wilfully imputes wonder to whatever it focuses upon; it does not try to be devious but it nevertheless constitutes a personal cosmology which is capable of reconciling all illogical combinations of ideas provided that the individual identity of the aesthete is reinforced. Nowhere is this seen with greater sharpness than in the marvellous esteem for Aboriginal art. It has high credibility in its formal originality derived from immediate contact with a spiritual order; but it gains extra artistic prestige and currency by transcending that order. Aboriginal art comes from a backdrop of austere and grave elders, law, ritual punishments and so on; it is deeply invested with priestly ancestral authority; but in the whitefella economy this backdrop is only enjoyed as a western mystery, sublimely archaic and formidably inaccessible. The greatest impact is made by artists whose work parallels the aesthetic transcendence of time and place (the absolute opposite of Aboriginal tradition) which forged abstraction in the western modernist tradition. Among non-Aborigines, Aboriginal art is most keenly felt as a religious experience when it is locked inside a Judeo-Christian economy of guilt and expiation; it most poignantly registers as a spiritual phenomenon when it works in the conscience in ways that have questionable links with the Dreaming. The interest in Aboriginal art is best understood among non-Aborigines by appreciating the place that its reception has in western spirituality.

But if western spectators enjoy it and Aboriginal artists are gratified by the interest of their patrons, there is little to complain about. Aboriginal art deserves all its praises. Furthermore, there is already a system long established from ancient times in Europe for coping with all cultural contradictions in art: it is the sacramental order, unabashedly flexible enough to make harmonious spiritual sense of any secular attrition anywhere in the globe.


1     Belting (2003, 62–73). A now well-known example of the challenges to the institutional vocabulary and frameworks of art history posed by Aboriginal art arose in relation to the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre,” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; see 67–68. See also the catalogue of the major exhibition presented at Torino’s Palazzo Bricherasio in 2001 (Green 2001, 21–33).

2     Myers (2002) is an intricate, localized study of the cultural, art-historical and other issues arising from the international ‘transformation’ of the acrylic paintings produced by the Pintupi people since the 1970s.

3     See the authoritative text by McCulloch (2001), as well as the monumental collaborative text by McCulloch et al. (2006), one third of which is devoted to Aboriginal art.

4     See Chaloupka (1993). During a period of forty years, Chaloupka has documented over 3,000 rock art sites in the Arnhem Land plateau, endeavoring to trace and construct a chronological order of styles.

5     G. Harradine and K. Kruger, eds., This is Koorie Art (Melbourne, 2000), is the catalogue from an unprecedented exhibition that showcased items from the unique collection of over 5,000 Koorie historical objects, artefacts, and contemporary works by Koorie artists and craftspeople preserved by Melbourne’s Koorie Heritage Trust Inc.

6     See McLean (1998).

7     On training young bark painters today in the correct use of techniques inherited from rock art, including the crosshatching, see Garge (2004, 107–111). This volume is the catalogue of a far-reaching exhibition of the work and practice of Kuninjku artists from Aboriginal communities west of Maningrida in the Northern Territory, from the nineteenth century onwards.

8     Corbally Stourton (1996). This is a vibrantly illustrated history of the Papunya Tula or Western Desert art movement.

9     See Wally Caruana’s (1990) thesis that Aboriginal art “is inherently connected to the religious domain”, p. 7.

10    See Hume (2002).

11    For a deeper view of the Aboriginal art market, see Healy (2006).

12    Unless we see Aboriginal art as knowing appropriating or co-opting western conventions.

13    See Isaacs et al. (1998), an exhibition catalogue which represents the artist’s work and its reception from a variety of art-historical and more personal perspectives.

14    See, for example, Nicholls and North (2001).

15    “While Abstract Expressionism explains the existence of an aesthetic which allows for the appreciation of Kngwarreye’s painting in a principally non-Indigenous market, it fails to account for the way in which her particular form of abstract painting emerged from the hand and mind of an elderly woman in a desert community in Australia” (Sayers 2001, 206). Sayers’s inclusive survey of traditions in Australian Art considers dynamics of interaction between the work of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, linking these especially through the theme of the landscape.

16    See Hercus et al. (2002): the research presented in this collection of papers does not relate specifically to the south-eastern Australia, but demonstrates what little can be recovered about the historical networks of Indigenous placenames for other parts of the continent.

17    See Smith (2000, 10–21), who refers to “the national account, the economy of debt-creation and requital, which weaves the textures of Australian life. This density of the past in the present is as vivid for Australians as the memory of the Industrial Revolution is for the English. It is an intensely reflexive counterpoising of action, inaction, guilt and payback, yet subject to a complex forgetting. Historian Henry Reynolds has called it ‘this whispering in our hearts’” (11).


Belting, H. 2003. “Global Art and Minorities: A New Geography of Art History”. In Art History After Modernism, translated by Saltzwedel, C.; Cohen, M. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 62–73.

Caruana, W. 1990. Aboriginal Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Chaloupka, G. 1993. Journey in Time. The World’s Longest Continuing Art Tradition: The 50,000-year Story of the Australian Aboriginal Rock Art of Arnhem Land. Sydney: Reed Books.

Corbally Stourton, P. 1996. Songlines and Dreamings. Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Painting: The First Quarter-century of Papunya Tula, edited by Corbally Stourton, N. London: Lund Humphries Publishers.

Garge, M. 2004. “Growing Up in a Painted Landscape”. In Crossing Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art, edited by Perkins, H. Sydney: THNH. 107–111.

Green, C. 2001. “The Global Significance of Western Desert Painting”. In Aborigena, edited by Bonito Oliva, A. Milan: Electa. 21–33.

Harradine G.; Kruger, K. eds. 2000. This is Koorie Art. Melbourne: Koori Heritage Trust.

Healy, J. 2006. “A Fragile Thing: Marketing of Remote Area Aboriginal Art”. Doctoral dissertation. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.

Hercus, L.; Hodges, F.; Simpson, J. eds. 2002. The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia. Canberra: Pandanus Books, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University in association with Pacific Linguistics.

Hume, L. 2002. Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness, and Aborignial Australians. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Isaacs J.; Holt, D.; Holt, J.; Ryan, J.; Smith, T. 1998. Emily Kngwarreye: Paintings. Sydney: Craftsman House.

McCulloch, A.; McCulloch, S.; McCulloch Child, E. 2006. The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.

McCulloch, S. 2001. Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

McLean, I. 1998. White Aborigines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, F. R. 2002. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Objects/Histories Critical Perspectives on Art, Material Culture, and Representation. London: Duke University Press.

Nicholls, C.; North, I. 2001. Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place. Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press.

Sayers, A. 2001. Australian Art. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, T. 2000. “Australia’s Anxiety”. In History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett. Birmingham: Ikon Gallery. 10–21. [Exhibition catalogue.]

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Globalization of the Indigenous spirit’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 10.110.15.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson