Becoming Art: Exploring cross-cultural categories
Howard Morphy 2008
University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, xv+234pp, ISBN 978 192141 0123
Howard Morphy's 30-year expertise in the field of Yolngu art and his extensive writings on this topic are, once again, married beautifully in his latest book. In Becoming Art he interrogates the changing socio-cultural context for the production and interpretation of Yolngu art. Morphy's interdisciplinary approach using art history, art theory and anthropology to develop a cross-cultural art theory is outstanding. This is especially impressive since Morphy succeeds in writing about this complex and multilayered topic in such a clear and approachable manner, making it interesting and accessible to all audiences. His deep insights into Yolngu culture and art, and the manifold examples he provides of the ways Yolngu see and comment on the engagement of their art with global audiences, are exceptional. Morphy successfully raises the reader's awareness of Yolngu voices within art discourse.
Morphy sets out to investigate why the art world has taken so long to recognise Yolngu art as worthy to be exhibited in art museums and galleries. To do so, he divides the book into three sections. First, Morphy provides us with 'A short history of Yolngu art' in which he demonstrates the dynamism of the Yolngu artistic system in its engagement with outsiders. Morphy's diachronic perspective reveals that, over time, Yolngu art has been used in different contexts and for different purposes, both by Yolngu themselves and by the art market (Chapters 2 to 4). In Section 2, 'Engaging with art history', Morphy uses an art-history methodology to investigate aesthetic effect within Yolngu painting (Chapter 5). Although not new, a highlight is the summary of his writing on the Yolngu use of brilliance to present ancestral power, because he complements this with a periodic and stylistic analysis of Yolngu art to show how these visual effects have produced new bodies of work. In Chapter 6 he provides a comparison between different artistic systems--those of Yolngu (from Arnhem Land in northern Australia) and Abelam (from the Sepik River region in Papua New Guinea). He uses the comparison to propose a more cross-cultural approach within art history that could help to develop greater sensitivity to different ontological concepts of art (also 'Conclusion'). Morphy not only draws on Anthony Forge's analysis of Abelam art, but lets us take part in his experience of having two Yolngu artists involved in an investigation and discussion of Abelam art. This documentation of a cross-cultural exploration of art by Yolngu is unique, revealing not only the differences and similarities between two artistic systems, but also demonstrating that 'the puzzles of anthropology of art are not solely a Western concern' (p.137).
In Chapter 7 he exemplifies aspects of an art theory of north-eastern Arnhem Land Yolngu and north-western Arnhem Land Kuninjku. …