Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Drawings about Djang: Drawings on Paper by Jimmy Bireyula, 1983

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Drawings about Djang: Drawings on Paper by Jimmy Bireyula, 1983

Article excerpt

Abstract: Interest in the drawings made by Aboriginal' people and collected by anthropologists as a feature of their research of graphic representation is increasing. Of particular concern is the status of these collections as intercultural artefacts commissioned by the anthropologist and produced by the Aboriginal artists in order to teach about their cultural life. At issue is the appropriate manner of characterising the relation of this new activity in respect to older, and more local, cultural tropes. This study addresses a set of drawings made by jimmy Bireyula, a Kuninjku language speaker, for the author in 1983. The works are intercultural in terms of the context of their production and the new uses of the materials supplied by the anthropologist and yet also develop established aesthetic and representational forms that are distinct to Kuninjku understanding of the powers of the Ancestral (2) realm.

This paper addresses a set of 84 ink pen and coloured pencil drawings on paper produced by Jimmy Bireyula, a Kuninjku language speaker, at Marrkolidjban outstation in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory in June/July 1983. The focus is upon the intercultural context of their production, although the analysis questions the extent to which the forms of the resulting works address intercultural circumstance.

The drawings were produced as a feature of the author's doctoral research on the art of this region (Taylor 1996). (3) The field research primarily investigated bark painting techniques used by Kuninjku artists and, as a related study, Jimmy Bireyula was commissioned to make drawings in the final months of an extended visit. Bireyula was an infrequent bark painter although he had been extremely helpful during the research. He had explained the importance of many sites in the region and a number of ceremonies in which the connections between participants and clan lands were a central theme. In the drawings he chose to reiterate in visual form many of these stories about the creator beings called Djang and the country made by them. Jimmy Bireyula had divined the purpose of the research and wanted to recap the cultural importance of many important stories before I completed the analysis.

Drawings by Aboriginal artists in Australia are increasingly being recognised as key visual forms and many anthropologists collected drawings as a feature of broader research of visual art. Olive Pink, Norman Tindale, Charles Mountford, Ron and Catherine Berndt, Mervyn Meggitt and Nancy Munn, as well as a number of more contemporary researchers, collected drawings during their research with Aboriginal people. Drawing with pencil or coloured inks on paper developed as a contemporary art medium in some Aboriginal locales.

For an earlier colonial period, Sayers (1994) provides an extended analysis of Aboriginal drawings produced in contact situations across Australia. He identifies a fascination in the nineteenth century with the hybrid status of these objects, a status derived from arguments regarding the potential for Aboriginal assimilation into Western cultural modes. For some locales the drawings that now exist are a link to an earlier period of visual culture among peoples now massively impacted by settlement. Sayers (1994) notes his theoretical resistance to the notion of examining monolithic questions of 'white influence' on the production of Aboriginal drawings. Rather, for Sayers, the analysis of the drawings focuses upon the individual identity and agency of the Aboriginal artists and how they made a space to develop their unique artistic visions within the colonial setting. The label 'contact art' may obscure the subtlety of individual vision even as it highlights inventiveness.

In keeping with this more detailed historical interest in the creative way that individual Aboriginal artists approach drawing, two important analyses of drawings collected by anthropologists, and related exhibitions featuring the original drawings, have recently been developed. …

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