Aboriginal, Indigenous Art Criticism

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I have come to the conclusion that there are five broad groups of Indigenous art to appreciate. Those artworks created to archive knowledge, those made for teaching, those to trade, those created for professional aesthetic pleasure, and the paintings and objects made for ceremony.

As many know, in the egalitarian societies of Australia’s First Peoples, artworks are often created under peer review when it comes to archiving knowledge. People with similar standing in Initiation will make comment, direct, encourage the artist and frequently share in a piece’s creation themselves. It is critical to get ‘The Story’ right. The best critics are the artists and Cultural Custodians themselves of course and it is not done that the content be shared with outsiders. Understandibly it is inappropriate then and even unacceptable, for a non-initiate to criticise such work.

Paintings created to teach are often beautiful, intriguing artworks in their own right. I’ve watched the wonderful desert artist, Eubena Nampitjin, for example, sitting gracefully, talking in her language, Wangkujunga, describing in paint the Canning Stock Route, Marlu (Kangaroo) and waterholes story ; children sitting around her in rapt attention. Seeing the end result – a voluptuous pigment application where the eye follows the kangaroo’s track; one’s gaze travelling atop sand-dunes, finding the animal below, drinking at a water-hole. Eubena’s voice in our ears, the onlooker almost held by the hand so that, later, it is all the easier to navigate across this country.

Artworks made for trade I believe are fair game to criticise. Here we can throw all the volumes ever written on art criticism at the piece. What is the artist saying to us? Sharing, thinking, feeling? What am I thinking and feeling when looking at the work? Am I being drawn into the artists world and what is the subject, the story? Is there balance and beauty, can I read the narrative – what do I think? What technique is used, and which materials? What was the process and what do I need to find out to understand the artwork more? Or is the hand awkward, the idea dashed off and the piece made for a quick meal?

Artists painting for professional aesthetic pleasure often result in works, to my eye, of visual beauty and enhanced spiritual and emotional connection. Like so many painters painting for the urgency, dedication and joy of in the act – Emily Kame Kngwarre, Makinti Napanangka, to name two recognised artists – a freedom of expression through practice and love results. Boundaries melt away, structure and composition remain but definition becomes a conversation between the artist and the viewer. The image reflects knowledge, experience and pleasure. The aesthetic seems to work on a different plane.

Objects and paintings made for ceremony is a rich, diverse, active world of creation and pragmatism. Dance, song and music combine with force with the artwork and subject . Our galaxy and earth is called forth and sacred objects re-appear. Or are newly created, such as Morning Star Poles made across North Northern Australia, Pukumani Poles from the Tiwi Islands, Ilma (Dancing Rods and Headresses) from the Kimberley; sand and body paintings throughout central Australia. Cultural initiation ceremonies – vital stages of responsibility taught whilst growing up – through to mortuary ceremonies; all have their artistry. There is an exhibition of mortuary objects on view at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until June 2017, curated by Carly Lane, that you might like to visit.

I believe there is looking at the artwork itself, and then looking knowing the ‘top’ story, or open narration, to the image. Perhaps then the inside story where information for those interested and with the opportunity to learn, is understood. Or, further down, underneath, the secret sacred layer that only those ‘in the know’ will acknowledge and keep to themselves, making this part of criticism tricky to impossible. Here one might ‘feel’ an inner core, it being more than the sum of it’s components; like the ‘shimmering’ of life in the ‘Creation Snake’ of George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri’s ‘Karpadi’ the snake Karpadi visible but it’s lore – well, I don’t know.

My lived experience tells me that the first thing in Indigenous Art Criticism is to stand in the artists’ Country and feel it’s tempo. Then consider the five groupings when looking at an artwork. Add time; ‘change down gears’. Viewers may find themselves reflected back in the art. The artwork will say everything it is in turn, in time.

I realise it is not always possible to go out and meet the artists, feel the land, so the thing to do if you are interested in, say, purchasing an artwork, is to talk to the person selling the piece. Ask questions such as “what is the reason, or reasons, for this work? What is it saying?”. Does the dealer know the artist and how does it compare to the artists’ oeuvre? What materials are used, the techniques and process? What year was the work made and what documentation and provenance is available?

Visit museums and galleries, go to floor talks and speak with curators. Look at as much artwork as you can. Quite often you will find pieces that will only see the light of public day at auction. It is worth keeping an eye on these sales so as to enjoy beautiful paintings and rare objects, say, up close before they disappear again.

Spend time looking at an artwork. Does it speak to you? If so, it is probably a good piece, worthy of continuing on your journey with.

Text: Helen Read 2016

This article first appeared on www.palya.com.au/updates 13th November 2016.
Helen Read is an artist and former nurse-pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Walungurru (Kintore), Kiwirrkurra, Gibson Desert, Central Australia.

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