Academic journal article Oceania

Omie Art and Omie Artists[C]

Academic journal article Oceania

Omie Art and Omie Artists[C]

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I was overcome by emotion at my first sight, in an online exhibition catalog, of one of the stunningly beautiful bark cloth paintings produced by the women of the Omie Artists[C] cooperative (Omie Artists Inc. 2015). (1) I experienced a mixture of joy and pathos. The delight of seeing what had been at an earlier time a familiar cultural artefact in the context of fine art (Clifford 1988:224) was tempered by the knowledge that it grew out of a calculated performance of indigeneity on the part of people who had long struggled to find an entry into global markets (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009; Graham and Penny 2014). Although I had undertaken ethnographic research among them in the late colonial period and returned for a brief time in 1990, I had not been in contact with anyone from the community for about 10 years. (2)

My surprise at the emergence of this art movement was shared by those familiar with the Oceanic art world. Thomas (2013) speculated that the prospect of production for sale empowered Omie artists to adapt and experiment with traditional designs and representations of nature to create individual paintings which are each unique to the Omie and quite different from each other. Curators recognised an 'extraordinarily varied and animated language' in the iconography (ibid.) and declared the movement unique in presenting individual women artists in control of a major art form (Ryan 2009:34; Thomas 2009). But also, it is clear that the success of this indigenous art was at least partly due to being channelled into the circuits and loci of the production of value of some Australian Aboriginal art, such as the famous desert painting movements from Papunya and Balgo (Thomas 2013). The importance of these ready-made pathways is witnessed by the exhibition of the products of Omie Artists[C] by commercial galleries devoted to the sale of Australian Aboriginal art and the parallels consistently drawn between the two forms of art in art-writing, starting with the debut exhibition of Omie Artists[C] (Gregory 2006).

The primary goal of this article is to provide an ethnographic and historical context for the emergence of Omie Artists[C]. It is beyond my capability to account for the aesthetic which has such broad appeal, but by providing some information about Omie history as well as cultural practices of the past, the discussion of Omie art will be more solidly grounded. Of particular focus will be what appears to be a wholesale transfer of the weight of cultural continuity onto Omie women, a feature accounting for part of its acclaim (Ryan 2009; Thomas 2009). This dramatic transformation involves elements such as the rise of clans, both male and female chiefs, and how the abandonment of the male initiation ritual some 70 years ago has been interpreted for contemporary purposes. Quite detailed accounts of the history and ethnography of these people appear in the curators' comments, notes of exhibition catalogs, and online presentations that track the movement of Omie art from village to exclusive gallery and museum. These contextualisations and textualisations of the art must be seen as at least contributing to its market value and by examining them closely, some of the power relations linked to its recognition as having aesthetic value will become apparent. Thus, the provision of a historical and ethnographic context will 'relativize art-world practices' (Marcus and Myers 1995:33) by showing the activities through which an indigenous art form has been appropriated, and, as suggested by Thomas (2013), vitalised by the art world itself (Fig. 1).

My personal knowledge of the Omie documents their disappointment as the realisation of one after another possible avenues of income generation and economic development, such as cash crops and resource extraction, fell beyond their reach. The millenarian hopes pinned on my initial ethnographic research among them were also disappointed (Rohatynskyj 1997, 1998). …

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