ART INDIGENOUS - EMILY
|How do we know what we see?
How can we know what others once saw? Viewing a retrospective of Emily
Kngawarreye (d. 1996) and an exhibition of nineteenth-century Australian
and American Landscapes brought Humphrey McQueen back to these
fundamentals in philosophy.
see or to know?
That puzzle is minor compared with how
did Emily come to know what she needed to make her paintings? Some
writers are resorting to the notion of innate genius. They compare her
with Picasso, that exemplar of protean creativity. He was a genius
because of the works he made. His genius could not imbue every one of
his efforts with greatness.
When Emily's works hang beside those of
other members of her community, it is easy enough to see why Western
critics judge her pieces to be superior. That evaluation was not so
clear-cut against the Judy Watsons that also went to the Venice
Biennale. That Emily was an excellent visualiser of stories we must take
on trust from her relations.
Genius is flung about by publicity
machines. Brett Whiteley was a genius, according to headlines and the
heirs to his estate. The carefree use of that accolade has led a
generation of critics to deny the value if not the existence of genius.
Geniuses are either as rare as Einstein and Bach, or they are as common
as that one human being in 125 000 whose IQ is over 140.
Applying the western concept of genius to
Emily might be more of an insult than a accolade. The recent 'Rembrandt:
A genius and his Impact' reminded us of how post-Renaissance culture in
the West tied genius to the individual. By contrast, Emily's way of
working retained its trust in the collective.
Similarly, we need to be cautious in
applying the word Art to indigenous imagery. Art with a capital-A is a
fairly recent invention in the West. Whatever we call the marks that
Aborigines made before contact with Europeans, those drawings were not
Art in our sense. To treat them as such is to colonise them afresh.
Appropriation goes deeper than our
subsuming their activities within our categories. At the core of our
confusion is their concern for story-telling versus our Modernist
fascination with painterliness. Abstraction has encouraged us to believe
that the medium is the message. Certain elements in Aboriginal
image-making, notably dots, fit in with this most contemporary of
To complicate matters, Aborigines were
introduced to painting for the art market by Europeans for whom
Abstraction was the highest form of the good, the true and the
beautiful. For as long as Aboriginal imagery is seen as pure
painterliness, Western critics and dealers can remain in charge of its
However, once the Aborigine's concern for
narrative is given pride of place, the outsiders are at a disadvantage
since not even the initiated can comprehend every nuance of totemic
legend. To restore white dominance, commentators fall back on the
Dreamtime as a mystery, indeed a mystification.
While Emily is being compared with
Picasso, everyone will discover in Emily traces of whichever Modernist
painters we know or love. For instance, I discerned ectoplasms like
those in the pre-1918 abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky whose paintings
had been inspired by Theosophy. That speculation will please those
Europeans whose spiritual bankruptcy has turned them into cultural
cannibals, eager to devour beliefs. These Westerners invoke the
reductionism of Jungian archetypes to paper over why any connection
between Kandinsky and Emily can never be more than a flight of our
The situation was different when Emily's
surfaces reminded me of the shimmering of a Lloyd Rees or the radiance
from the later Dick Larter. Although I too might be taming her
originality by fitting it in to scholarship that I possess, these links
have roots in reality. Long looking with a brush in hand taught the
white males to see something about Australian environments towards which
she had also worked her way.
Emphasis on Emily's late start is
misleading in the extreme. True, she did not work with oils until the
final decade of her life, but she had been painting since childhood.
Body decoration and silk-screening were two of the ways through which
her kin taught her to handle her materials. If we think about Emily
having 'a genius for' visualising stories then tat term is reconnected
to her practices.
Possible sources for her patterns include
the bead necklaces and ceremonial string-ware that she would have made,
as well as the feathers, yam roots and palm fronds with which she
worked. That she could complete the three-by-eight metre black-and-white
canvas, 'Big Yam Dreaming', in two days is believable once her intimacy
with the layout of those clusters is recalled. No matter how complicated
her lines became, the results give no suggestion of their maker's being
lost in the maze.
The shifts in Emily's work from scribbly
surfaces to elongated lines and then to all-over splotches were not
ruptures. Yam lines persist under patterns, providing a grid. She made
some of her vertical bars by overlapping a run of her smaller splotches.
One big picture is a series of panels, though on a single canvas.
Indeed, it is unlikely that her stories could be contained by a strip of
canvas. Her painting on those frames suggests that we should see
individual works as contributions of a larger composition.
Any one intrigued by such issues will
benefit from Knowledges, What
Different Peoples Make of the World, the latest book by Peter
Worsley, one of the Anglo-Saxon world's leading social scientists.
Worsley spent several years in Australia as an anthropologist. He has
entitled the opening third of his survey 'Green Knowledge: The Living
Environment of an Australian Tribe', the people of Groote Eylandt.
Worsley provides a corrective to the witchcraft of David Suzuki
and the arrogance of institutionalised scientists. Worsley's decades of
field work made him recognise the complexities and layerings within
indigenous understanding without losing sight of its shortcomings. From
reading as deep as it is wide, he is alert to the pretensions and
paradoxes of Western research methods. One does not need to endorse
Michel Foucault's mistreatment of knowledge as little more than control
to appreciate how power-sharing and income distribution, and not a
rational taxonomy, excluded dentists from the Royal College of
Emily understood a lot more English than
she spoke. Most of the people who write about her intentions are unable
to speak a word of her tongue. Even those who become fluent in
Anmatyerre are not necessarily will informed about her views of the
world. Hence, few groups are more in need of Worsley's wisdom than
commentators on Aboriginal painting. He recounts the experience of a
French missionary who had become the Western world's expert on the
religion of the Dogon people of West Africa, publishing more than 170
learned papers on their cosmology and rituals. After sixteen years of
contact, the high priests of the Dogon decided to share their secrets.
The result was that the expert realised that he had remained a novice.
Everything he had written was wrong or inadequate. His scholarship had
put him at the level of a youth preparing for the first stages of
The humbling of that researcher was an
extreme instance of the problems of knowing how anyone else thinks, The
distances between the Dogon and Christianity are vast. However, the
difficulties that exist in interpreting our own forebears are not
inconsiderable, and become more so when Australians look at our North
American cousins. Those tasks now present themselves because the opening
of the extensions to the National Gallery in Canberra is being
celebrated with an exhibition which compares nineteenth-century
landscape paintings from the US and Australia.
No one knows nature in itself. As Goethe
remarked, the moment an artist selects a subject it ceases to belong to
nature and is absorbed into the painter's culture with its pictorial
conventions and ideological presuppositions.
How did the means through which the
American artists come to know their land differ from how Australians
For the arts of settlement to succeed,
the lands must be cleansed of indigenes, as shown in a shoot-out
illustrated by Frederick Remington. Knowledge of any landscape comes
through working it, that is, by the clearing of forests, farming, the
building of roads and dwellings. After that remaking, the environment
can be rediscovered as a wilderness. However, if the labours are
performed by others, whether slaves or share-croppers, the landscape
remains an object for contemplation.
Thus, native Americans and slaves, like
Aborigines and convicts, experienced the landscape from angles quite
distinct from those displayed in New
Worlds from Old. By excluding views from below and from outside, the
exhibition proposes a norm which is partial, to put it kindly.
Americans had had almost two hundred
years to get to know their eastern and southern lands before artists
started to investigate our peculiarities. A literary culture was in
place there before the first novel had been written here. This
difference in starting places for knowledge is apparent in depictions of
Aboriginal corroborees and Indian ceremonies. Joseph Lycett and John
Glover represented gatherings that they had witnessed: Thomas Cole
illustrated a scene from Finnemore Cooper's The
Last of the Mohicans (1826).
Most of the North American artists were
native born whereas few of the Australians were. Nonetheless, a cultural
cringe towards European standards and training infected North Americans
long after they had won independence. As well as the Classicism of a
Thomas Cole, the entire culture was infused with the
Biblical. Both those aspects were present in Australia but to a lesser
degree. In both societies, the point is that painters could know nature
only through their wider cultures.
Alongside the influence of religion on
the painter's eye, was the expansion of science, with geology and botany
leading on to evolutionary concepts. Nature appeared more dynamic than
static, and spreading over millions of years, not just a few thousand.
No work was more influential than Der Kosmos (1845-62) by
Alexander von Humbolt who, until's Darwin's apotheosis, had been
regarded as the modern Aristotle. Humbolt did field work in South
America, lands visited by Captains Cook and Phillip, by Charles Darwin
as well as by Eugene von Geurard and Louis Buvelot, the two of the most
influential immigrant painters of the colonial era. Perhaps more could
be learned about Australian painting from a comparison with the arts of
Brazil than with those of the United States?
Worlds from Old is disquietening
because it repeats the identification of Australia with the nineteenth
century and with nature. When the exhibition opens in North America, its
rationale will reinforce the Crocodile
Dundee version of our society as a wilderness for tourists.
In reviewing 1988,
a novel by Brisbane author Andrew McGahan, a New York critic began:
In praising McGahan for achieving the
seemingly impossible, the critic offered a less caricatured view of
Australia. Nonetheless, his run of cliches is as predictable as the
likelihood of a platypus boinging past our windows is entrancing.
Australians need to unpick such accounts
of the typical if we are to understand our own past and its paintings.
Nature was not always a consolation. Contrary to prime minister Howard's
speech at the launch, art does sometimes shout, as in Roberts's 'A break
away!' or Streeton's '"Fire's On!"'. The shout is in the
exclamation marks of the title. That he should hope otherwise is
inevitable from a man in whose office hangs a landscape of France by
Winston Churchill, a work purchased by Robert Menzies.
Painters included broken trees as marks
of mourning. The vastness of sky could express the insignificance of
human endeavour. Those
attitudes dominated the literature created here last century. 'Weird
melancholy' was how the bush was characterised by Marcus Clarke, author
of His Natural Life, a novel
as bleak as any Russian. Nihilism haunts the stories of Henry Lawson as
surely as it does Chekhov's. 'The cry of the crow' was heard through our
poetry. That women knew that the horrors did not stop at the garden gate
is clear from the brutalities that Barbara Baynton laid out in Squeaker's
Mate and in the despair conveyed by Henry Handel Richardson in Ultima
How knowledges are formed around power
appears through the biases determining the selection of images for New
Worlds from Old. The first of these preferences relates to media.
With the exception of a few works on paper, the landscapes are all oil
paintings. Crafts such as quilting are excluded.
That choice reinforces a gender bias made
more offensive because the show opened on International Women's Day.
Only one canvas in the hundred is by a woman, the Melbourne painter,
Clara Southern. Had this collection been assembled thirty years ago,
before the second wave of feminism had commenced, would the imbalance
have been greater? On this occasion, the failure is so huge that the
case for quotas seems overwhelming.
The argument that women view the world
differently from men is not dependent on innateness or hormones. As with
the slaves, the convicts and the indigenes, women come to their
knowledges through the ways they changed nature by their labours. Hence,
they were more likely to start from the domestic garden than the rolling
pasture, be more attracted to detail than to panorama. Those
suppositions deserved to be tested. That investigation also questions
the naturalness assumed by any landscape tradition created around the
heroics of conquest.
The exclusion of women from New Worlds
from Old raises questions about how knowledge proceeds through the
realms of scholarship. Two explanations merit consideration. First,
although feminist scholars are nowhere more active than in analysing the
visual, their fixation on reading images of the body has left the
outdoors to the boys. Academic specialisation thereby imposed its means
for regulating research onto a movement that had began with the hope of
subverting hierarchies of knowledge.
Secondly, the ignoring of women's art is a reaction against the successes that women have won since the late 1960s. That a backlash is rampant is obvious from the onslaught on political correctness. To mention the near absence of women painters from New Worlds from Old will provoke that allegation, as if swearwords were any kind of argument.
Meanwhile, the new courtyard at the
National Gallery is an installation by Fiona Hall. Very high cement
walls surround 200-year old tree ferns planted among concrete fountains
and pebbled pathways. That hardness means that the space is not feminine
according to any of the usual applications of that term. If that
sensibility is present at all, it
is in such personal touches as Hall's emblazoning the names of her
friends onto the seats and in the gate. Weird melancholy is an
appropriate description for its barrenness.
Peter Worsley, Knowledges,
What different peoples make of the world, Profile, London, 1997.
The Emily Kngawarreye is at the
Queensland Art Gallery until ?? May and then goes to the Art Gallery of
New South Wales from 15 May to 19 July and the National Gallery of
Victoria, from 8 September to 22 November.
Worlds from Old is in Canberra
until 17 May when it goes to the National Gallery of Victoria.