Port Keats Painting: Revolution and Continuity

Article excerpt

Abstract: The role of the poet and collector of "mythologies', Roland Robinson, in prompting the production of commercial bark-painting at Port Keats (Wadeye), appears to have been accepted uncritically--though not usually acknowledged by collectors and curators. Here we attempt to trace the history of painting in the Daly-Fitzmaurice region to contextualise Robinson's contribution, and to evaluate it from both the perspective of available literature and of accounts of contemporary painters and Traditional Owners in the Port Keats area. It is possible that the intervention that Robinson might have considered revolutionary was more likely a continuation of previously well-established cultural practice, the commercial development of which was both an Indigenous 'adjustment" to changing socio-cultural circumstances, and a quiet statement of maintenance of identity by strong individuals adapting and attempting to continue their cultural traditions.

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'The custom of painting on sheets of bark ... is very old', wrote Groger-Wurm (1973:201), and was widely practised throughout Australia. Caruana (1989:10), writing as editor of the scholarly Windows on the Dreaming, noted that the earliest known examples of paintings on bark dated from the early nineteenth century, were made inside shelters or specifically for use in rituals, and were abandoned or destroyed after use. The Sydney International Exhibition of 1879-80 was the venue of the first recorded public exhibitions of bark-paintings, and research collections in public institutions date from those made in the Port Essington area in the 1870s (Taylor 1996:16-17; Tacon and Davies 2004). Large collections have been made by expeditions such as the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, by individual researchers (including Baldwin Spencer, Karel Kupka (1) and Groger-Wurm) for various organisations and by many individual collectors.

Port Keats bark-paintings in collections and exhibitions

The Daly-Fitzmaurice Rivers region seldom has been central to discussions of Indigenous Australian painting. Apart from the pioneering work of Stanner (1960), the rock-markings of the area only recently have been a subject of research (Crocombe et al. 2002; Ward et al. 2004); there is almost nothing on body-painting, and the only references to markings in sand appear to be those that relate to the taunting of the Mounted Police by the fugitive Nemarluk. (2) Mention contemporary Aboriginal painting and most will think of the bright Central Desert work, the topographical representations of eastern Kimberley, and the intricately painted barks of Arnhem Land.

This is reflected in the relative lack of research and analysis of Port Keats works in publications about Indigenous Australian painting--typically, if Port Keats is mentioned, it might be a note at the end. In an early example, the catalogue compiled by Tony Tuckson (n.d.) of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for Australian Aboriginal Art, a nation-wide exhibition, covered most of the country and included illustrations of most exhibits; a single item from Port Keats was noted but there is no photograph. Subsequently, Port Keats paintings became better known as the result of exhibitions in State capitals and collections made by Australian institutions and overseas buyers; examples can be seen in the various published descriptions of exhibitions (3), sales catalogues (e.g. Hogarth 1993; Sotheby's 1998), accounts of collections and other surveys (4), illustrated stories (Robinson 1956, 1966; Marshall 1978; Cowan 1994), and scholarly surveys and other accounts. (5)

There is much of intrinsic interest in the contemporary bark-painting of the region, its influence in other media, its putative relationships to adjacent regions, and its recent history.

Port Keats painters and paintings

Many Port Keats men took up painting on bark in the 1950s and 1960s. …