Aboriginal Art: Sacred and Profane

By White, Anthony | Art Journal, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Art: Sacred and Profane


White, Anthony, Art Journal


Aboriginal Art: Sacred and Profane Anthony White

Susan McCulloch. Contemporary Aboriginal Art:A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture.

Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. 240 pp., 135 color ills., 6 bow. $39.

Statistics may often lie, but in the case of Australia's Aboriginal people and their art, the numbers tell quite a story. One recent estimate has it that the sales of Aboriginal art from Australia-more than So million U.S. dollars per year-outstrips that of nonindigenous Australian artists by three to one. As Melbourne-based art writer Susan McCulloch points out in her preface to Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture, this is an extraordinary statistic given that Aborigines constitute less than 2 percent of the country's population (jo). Even more extraordinary, however, are the health statistics of Aborigines, which continue to remain at Third World levels: for example, their incidence of kidney disease is seventeen times that of nonAboriginal Australians.1

These appalling health conditions are but one consequence of the violent dispossession that Aborigines have suffered during two centuries of European colonization. Against the background of this troubling history, the recent upsurge in the production and marketing of Aboriginal culture as art might seem yet another instance of colonial exploitation. However, as McCulloch points out, this visually stunning work in a variety of media has the potential to inform the world about Australian indigenous societies, maintain the vibrancy of Aboriginal culture, and bring direct economic benefits to Aborigines. In an effort to more fully realize this potential, the author sets out to provide a historical and social background to Aboriginal art along with detailed information on how to view and purchase it. Partly as a result of its sweeping scope, however, McCulloch's book raises as many questions as it answers, and often leaves the reader wanting. Nevertheless, it is a handsome volume that serves as a user-friendly first stop for the novice Aboriginal art enthusiast.

McCulloch has divided the considerable body of Aboriginal art into four chapters, each of which concentrates on a specific geographic area. This division into distinct groupings is important because, as she stresses, the mythology which forms the basis of this work "is not one simple belief system, but many systems specific to the hundreds of different tribal groupings occurring throughout the continent" (22). The widely different narratives, characters and locations that form the content of Aboriginal art are matched by an equally great diversity of styles, materials, and working techniques that often reflect the place of origin. On the one hand, the paintings composed of shimmering, highly colored fields of small dots-which dominated exhibitions of Aboriginal art in the 98os-largely emerge from the central desert areas of Australia. On the other, artists from the Kimberley region in the northwest use dots sparingly to outline broad areas of ochre color. Such regional variations in the art are made abundantly dear by the very layout of this book.

Equally, by locating the art within its respective geographic area, McCulloch emphasizes that this work emerges from Aborigines' deeply felt connection to the land. In art objects, dance performances, and bodily adornment, all of which are occasions for mythic narratives, Australia's indigenous people maintain and communicate their historic belonging to physical place. Given that specific works by Aboriginal people such as the famous Bark Petition, Yirrkala of 1963 have been used as evidence in legal ownership claims to specific Australian territories, McCulloch's insistence of the relationship between art and land has a political implication in the ongoing struggle over indigenous land rights. Unfortunately, she does not give enough detail on precisely how this connection between a people and their land is expressed through art, preferring to gloss that relation with phrases such as "a spiritual link with their country" (23).

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