Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Breasts, Bodies, Art: Central Desert Women's Paintings and the Politics of the Aesthetic Encounter

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Breasts, Bodies, Art: Central Desert Women's Paintings and the Politics of the Aesthetic Encounter

Article excerpt

This paper is concerned with a culturally distinctive relationship between breasts and contemporary art from Central Desert Aboriginal women, specifically, recent works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre and Dorothy Napangardi.1 Contra to the dominant interpretation of these paintings as representations of 'country'-cartographic 'maps' of the landscape, narratives of Dreaming Ancestors, flora, fauna, species-my argument is that these works bespeak a particular breasted experience and expression, a cultural way of doing and being in the world; what I want to call a breasted ontology.

I want to suggest that this breasted ontology is literally manifest in the ways in which these paintings are produced and, in turn, are experienced by the viewer. That is, these works arguably engender a bodily relation between viewer and image which is not about spectatorship. This viewing relation is not a matter of a viewing subject who, kept at a distance, comprehends an object of ocular focus and vision; rather, this relation instead is one in which the viewer relinquishes her sense of separateness from the canvas, where a certain coming-into-being in relation to the painting occurs. One does not so much know these works cognitively as lose oneself in them. Through viewing these works, as it were, one becomes vulnerable to their sensibilities in so far as they incite an enmeshment, an enfolding, and encapturing even in their materiality.

These works are profoundly affective: haptic, kinaesthetic, tactile. They are, in Deleuze's sense, 'sensation' in so far as what is painted is lived-experienced as sensation-in the body of the viewer herself.2

I am not concerned with what these paintings mean but what they do. And what they do, to put it crudely, is to engender a way of being otherwise at risk. As I have explored elsewhere, these paintings have arisen in a context of the ongoing assailing effects of colonialism-dispossession, displacement, land rights, Native title.3 They can be seen as a certain writing back to what John von Sturmer argues is a historically enshrined institutional incapacity of Europeans to 'recognise' Aboriginal ways of being.4 If these works operate to produce ontological affectations, they do so in a climate where there has been a no uncertain failure to hear.

I want to juxtapose here a difference between hearing-that is, a cognitive processing of word, meaning, information-with a more bodily and affective experience, in order to illustrate a shift currently taking place in contemporary Central Desert painting. Over the last decade, a number of related changes have occurred in both more formal aspects of these works, and their presentation in art galleries and coffee table books. In terms of form, there is currently an increasing absence of so-called 'icon'-based figures in these works-a form reliant upon a Dreaming story and/or iconic de-codings-to a form which increasingly has no conceivable 'icons' at all. This equally has seen an absenting of Dreaming 'stories' altogether. No longer do Dreaming stories, the dominant contextual presentation of these works as they make their way from desert communities to the galleries of London, Paris, New York, accompany these works. A minimal use of titling, often in English-only, is becoming more common. Finally, there is a movement toward what might be called a greater formal abstraction in these paintings, at least in Western aesthetic terms.

These changes indicate an important shift in emphasis. The emphasis currently appears to be less on what is being signified-place, site, Ancestor-than on signification itself. Or to put that slightly differently, these works are performative in the sense we understand from Judith Butler-they bring into being what they purport to represent.5 Thus, it is their very materiality which needs careful and measured analysis, as in this framework there is no essence or identity behind or before these works to which they refer or defer. …

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