Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Culture Production Rembarrnga Way: Innovation and Tradition in Lena Yarinkura's and Bob Burruwal's Metal Sculptures

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Culture Production Rembarrnga Way: Innovation and Tradition in Lena Yarinkura's and Bob Burruwal's Metal Sculptures

Article excerpt

Abstract: Contemporary Indigenous artists are challenged to produce art for sale and at the same time to protect their cultural heritage. Here I investigate how Rembarrnga sculptors extend already established sculptural practices and the role innovation plays within these developments, and I analyse how Rembarrnga artists imprint their cultural and social values on sculptures made in an essentially Western medium, that of metal-casting.

The metal sculptures made by Lena Yarinkura and her husband Bob Burruwal, two prolific Rembarrnga artists from north-central Arnhem Land, can be seen as an extension of their earlier sculptural work. In the development of metal sculptures, the artists shifted their artistic practice in two ways: they transformed sculptural forms from an earlier ceremonial context and from earlier functional fibre objects. Using Fred Myers's concept of culture production, I investigate Rembarrnga ways of culture-making.


Myers (2005:6) rightly remarked that 'we should have always recognised that even supposedly "traditionally-oriented" people didn't just "have" a culture'; neither should we have recognised culture as bounded or static (also Thomas 1995:53). It is more constructive to think of culture as a 'set of interpretative practices and resources' (Myers 2005:6) that make the world intelligible. Human beings are active agents interpreting and reinterpreting what they experience in the world. They give meaning to signs, and meaning is situated and continually established through semiological and political processes at the time of use (Giddens 1979). The set of practices and the interpretation of signs are learned from those who have authority to define the signifieds. For example, Rembarrnga children and adolescents learn through watching senior artists in the process of art-making or during ceremonial activities when connections between layers of meaning are revealed. (1)

If we understand developments in Rembarrnga sculpture production in this context, we might also follow Myers's (2005:10) observation that different 'regimes of value are constantly brought into new relationships' in an 'interpretative struggle'. The struggle between notions of 'traditional' and 'innovation' lies at the heart of the issue discussed here.

Tradition understood as knowledge about and continuation of practices from the past, often a time before colonisation, has at times been a mixed blessing for Indigenous peoples. They have been punished, killed or dispossessed because of it, but they have also successfully used ideas about tradition in their political struggle for land rights and identity. In their work in Papua New Guinea, Oceanists Otto and Pedersen have commented on changes in the indigenous perception of notions of tradition. What they call 'invented traditions', or 'traditionalist traditions', has its origins after Western penetration and can be seen as an element of indigenous peoples' reaction to colonisation (Otto and Pedersen 2005:29ff.). The Indigenous Australian understanding of tradition has also undergone changes since White settlement. In the early days of contact, cultural practices like ceremonies or ritual knowledge were still objectified as exchangeable prestige goods. By establishing the right relationships, certain rights in ritual knowledge and performances could be obtained. More recently these practices gained the status of heritage and were no longer easily exchanged with other groups, and more commonly function as markers of identity, status and legitimacy within Indigenous societies and in their relations with the non-Indigenous world. It is precisely because most Indigenous Australian art is based on ritual knowledge and heritage that Indigenous peoples were able to employ their art effectively in the political struggle to demonstrate Aboriginal land rights. (2) When used as a political tool, their art proved to be a medium comparable to written text in literate societies. …

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