Aboriginal Art and Identity

By Taylor, Luke; Veth, Peter | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Art and Identity


Taylor, Luke, Veth, Peter, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Cultural expression is a major topic of research interest for AIATSIS and has been since its inception. Research of Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander visual arts are, in turn, a significant component of that work. This volume consolidates the work of several AIATSIS research grantees, staff and visitors who are working on projects that explore different aspects of Indigenous art production and how this production relates to the creation of personal and group identity. Some of the projects were presented at an AIATSIS seminar series held in the second semester of 2006 and organised by Luke Taylor and Peter Veth with the support of Patrick Sullivan.

Rock-art research has a long history of support through AIATSIS, particularly through its Rock Art Protection Program, which ran from 1986 to the mid-1990s. Rock-art research remains an important stream of funding through our grants program, and the cutting-edge research being completed in Australia is of world interest as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contribution to painting in this continent is gradually revealed.

Jo McDonald and Peter Veth present the new results of their direct dating of rock-paintings in the Calvert Ranges and Carnarvon Ranges in the Western Desert of Western Australia. They also draw upon their work in the Pilbara region, further west, to construct a model of regional continuities and distinctions in the art across the broader region. The dating informs detailed considerations of chronology that are necessary in order to make comparisons between contemporaneous styles. The Western Desert paintings are placed firmly in the late Holocene period, where considerations of distinctions between groups based on dialects spoken and connections based on shared religious and familial affiliations may be used to inform the analysis. Ultimately the authors wish to reveal how art is used to construct connections and distinctions between groups living and moving across this region and suggest that some of the networks of connection have existed for very long periods of time. Both individual and corporate identity are revealed by the art.

In their jointly written contribution, Sue O'Connor, Anthony Barham, and Donny Woolagoodja of the Mowanjum community in Derby investigate the issue of the repainting of Wandjina rock images in the Kimberley. This was an issue of controversy at the first Australian Rock Art Research Association Congress in Darwin in 1988, as researchers debated issues concerning the 1987 Ngarinyin Cultural Continuity Project, which involved repainting of rock images in the Gibb River region. They provide a detailed analysis of ethnographic accounts of repainting in the Kimberley and track the issue of repainting Wandjina through to contemporary representations on board, canvas and paper that are made for sale. Indeed, an image painted by Donny Woolagoodja and Peter England was used at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Their analysis reveals local perceptions of the continuity between these different events; in essence the new media provide opportunities for the veneration of these beings, an occasion for teaching younger people, and a political engagement with an Australian and world audience that asserts the value of the Kimberley perspective.

Graeme Ward and Mark Crocombe address a similar theme in tracing the evidence for paintings on bark in the Wadeye region of the Northern Territory. Here, too, there is a history of rock-painting and painting on portable items that was galvanised in the 1950s into paintings on bark for collectors. Bill Stanner also famously worked with the same artists in acquiring paintings on board that documented religious traditions of the Daly-Fitzmaurice region. The authors incorporate interview material from some of the more elderly Traditional Owners of this region and the written record associated with collections of Wadeye art to construct a new history for the development of contemporary art.

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