On the Realism of Aboriginal Art

By Jorgensen, Darren | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2007 | Go to article overview

On the Realism of Aboriginal Art


Jorgensen, Darren, Journal of Australian Studies


Realism and Aboriginal art are both terms that have been subject to much contestation. In the field of painting they each describe a bewildering array of practices. To think about the realism of Aboriginal art, then, will not be a way of arriving at any definitive ideas about what such a thing might look like. Instead, such a thinking wants to unravel the multiplicities within which both realism and Aboriginal art are embedded. It is with a view to anticipating the complications of their juncture that this essay sets out to map the possibilities that the concept of realism holds for theoretical understandings of Aboriginal art, more specifically in the field of painting. The reasons for mapping these possibilities are two-fold. First, I want to go some way toward untangling that array of meanings that have been caught up in the criticism and sale of Aboriginal art--racially constituted meanings such as authenticity and spirituality. (1) I want to do this in order to begin to think outside these meanings, so as to establish a space for Aboriginal art in the history of twentieth-century painting. This is the second reason for thinking about Aboriginal art in a highly conceptual way, so as to place these artists in a conversation with established, western art history. This is not with a wish to return to the canon of western art but to explore how great painting has not only been accomplished in Europe and the US, to begin to point out how, in this author's opinion at least, painting from remote Australian communities is just as interesting as anything that has been valued by established art history. Realism is a convenient platform from which to unthink the Aboriginality of Aboriginal art, because realism lies contrary to the classicism that has defined the standards by which painting has been judged in western art history--a classicism that defers to an eternal or transcendental order. It is also such an order that constitutes essential understandings of race, and thus Aboriginality. Realism, as it is understood here, instead exhibits the circumstances of its own production; its place in the historical or working world.

It is convenient to begin with a comparison between Soviet Socialist Realism and the Papunya Tula movement, in order to illustrate the dynamics of just one relation between historical versions of realism and Aboriginal art. Of the many permutations of realism in the twentieth century, Soviet Socialist Realism may well be the most documented: the reasons for its figurations playing themselves out in the political history of the Soviet Union itself. The history of Papunya Tula is also well recorded, the story of its origins inspiring many other art movements from remote communities around Australia. Both movements are but nodes on the plethora of visual forms developed as realism or Aboriginal art. Yet they are also significant in the histories of these forms, the first thought to have formally brought the Russian avant-gardes to an end, while Papunya Tula is often historicised as the beginning of contemporary Aboriginal art. (2) Papunya Tula pioneered the classical form of this art, in intricate abstractions on board and canvas. It is this abstraction that would appear to prohibit a comparison with the figurations of Soviet Socialist Realism. After all, abstraction and figuration lie as contrary poles on the paradigmatic spectrum of modernist criticism; the second, as the resemblance of the visual appearance of a thing, being dissembled by the first. Typically, Soviet Socialist Realism pictures the actions of post-revolutionary workers tilling soil and feeding furnaces, as well as portraits of Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin at work, generally in some kind of scene with the people of the country. These paintings, then, defer to the greater social order within which they are embedded, their figurations enacting a certain idealisation of their own conditions of production. Papunya Tula tends instead toward intricate designs that move the eye across the canvas, rather than to invite it to rest upon the human form.

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