Academic journal article Oceania

'We Don't Do Dots-Ours Is Lines'-Asserting a Barkindji Style

Academic journal article Oceania

'We Don't Do Dots-Ours Is Lines'-Asserting a Barkindji Style

Article excerpt

The Aboriginal artists from Wilcannia and Broken Hill with whom I work consider their 'art style' and 'art designs' in localised (if not always clearly specified) ways and terms encapsulated by the phrase 'ours is lines'. It is to the localised assertions of the particularity and importance of art style and content as an explicit and spoken sign of a unique identity that my work attends--a particularity embraced by many who identify as Barkindji (1) and who either live and/or were born in Wilcannia. This paper is based on intensive work with five key artist informants and to a lesser extent with 30 other Barkindji artists from Wilcannia and nearby Broken Hill. Less intensive associations with the wider communities of Wilcannia and Broken Hill were part of daily life during the sixteen months I lived in Wilcannia during 2002--2004. In recognising the difficulty of extrapolating key informants' views as being representative of the entire Barkindji peoples I emphasise that my work demonstrates, I believe, the influence that particular individuals have in communicating and co-ordinating a local commonality of ideas (Schwartz 1978; Morphy 2008). I demonstrate how making and discussing art shapes ideas of what Barkindji culture is seen and thought to be and, importantly, what it is not for Barkindji people who are from, and remain, strongly connected to Wilcannia.

In the late 1980s some Aboriginal children from Wilcannia (2) in far western New South Wales were taken on a visit to the Australian Museum in Sydney. One of these children, Murray Butcher, a Barkindji Aboriginal man now in his early thirties recalls:

   It was at that time when I seen them art works, there was a big
   movement for the Central Australian art, for the dot painting, an'
   we were all school age stuff an' I thought, 'what about our art?'
   Cos I knew dots wasn't ours, an' all that was written
   in books an' that was about Central Australia art or Top End art or
   stuff like that--nuthin' about the art around our region.

I am not suggesting that Murray's recall or perhaps re-visioning of this event spawned a Barkindji style. As Kleinert has shown Barkindji peoples have maintained something of a continuous production of, most notably, incised and decorated wooden weapons (1994).

However, Murray's memory is potent and suggests a level of cognisance of the inattention accorded Aboriginal people from the south east in more general terms. Moreover, it shows an appreciation that certain kinds of Aboriginality were being viewed and indeed promoted in some quarters (in particular art worlds and tourism) as a valuable form of difference. It bears mention that around this time Australia was making ready for its bi-centennial celebrations where the idea of 'traditional' Aboriginal art figured strongly. The regional art of which Murray speaks alludes, in part, to the representational systems which Morphy describes as indigenous to much of the south east of Australia (Morphy 2001:339). These include the figurative and graphic incised, stencilled and painted rock sites of the area. In these systems 'the geometric element is predominant, with diamond patterns and curvilinear forms interspersed with oblongs, squares and oval features ... [T]he art of the southeast shares in common with the art of the centre the repeated outlining of the form of the central features' (Morphy 2001:339). Kleinert also refers to the distinctive design elements of south east NSW which were initially a feature of the elaborately carved and incised weapons, displaying 'cross-hatching, herring-bone, chevrons, zigzags, diamonds, and rhomboids--used in conjunction with an equally rich array of figurative imagery' (2000:241) (See Image 1.).


Cooper states that '[two] hundred years ago the Aborigines who inhabited the southeastern region of Australia channelled considerable creative force into the production of striking linear designs (1994:91). …

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