Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Rhythm and the Performative Power of the Index: Lessons from Kathleen Petyarre's Paintings

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Rhythm and the Performative Power of the Index: Lessons from Kathleen Petyarre's Paintings

Article excerpt

Is it possible to find an ethical and generative way to speak about the 'work' of Indigenous art? In a paper titled 'Three Notes on Western Cultural Politics and Aboriginal Representation', John Welchman acknowledges the 'problematic of reading, interpreting, or otherwise knowing... Indigenous painting through and within Western institutions'. ' However he also recognises that 'silence' is not a solution. Regardless of what prohibitions exist to protect sacred knowledge from the gaze of Western eyes, Indigenous work is circulating; it is being read, misread, interpreted, misinterpreted and otherwise known. How can a non-Indigenous person 'speak' about Indigenous art without reducing it to the diagram, collapsing it into Western modes of knowing, or intruding into the domain of restricted cultural information?

In October 2003, Noosa Regional Gallery contemporaneously exhibited my paintings alongside the Indigenous Australian exhibition 'Urban Blackness'. The press release advertising the exhibition described my paintings as 'an encounter between technology, optical art and colour field painting whilst under the influence of Indigenous Australian art'. My intention was not to appropriate or collapse Indigenous Australian art into Western paradigms of practice. Rather I was concerned with both acknowledging the immense debt my painting owes to Indigenous art and articulating how Indigenous cultural practices have the potential to transform what is thought about the nature of the work of art.2 The problematic that I faced in putting that show together rehearsed the same dilemma I now face in writing this paper. How do I acknowledge my indebtedness to the profound power of Indigenous art?

Given the lessons of the Indigenous cultural practices, I propose that the work of art is performative and not merely representational. According to such a proposition, art can no longer be conceived of as 'just an image', but must be recognised as operating as a force in the world. In this formulation, it is not a question of figuring Indigenous Australian art through and within Western institutions, but rather of acknowledging its particular contribution to theorising a performative understanding of the image in contemporary culture. Through attention to the operation of rhythm in Kathleen Petyarre's paintings, I propose to reconfigure contemporary understandings of performativity. In this formulation I will argue that in the dynamic productivity of the performative act, the world intrudes into practice, and in a double movement, practice casts its effects back towards the world. In this way I suggest that just as life gets into images, so imaging also produces reality. This mutual reflection is the work of art.


Contemporary Western accounts of Indigenous Australian art currently take little or no account of the power of Indigenous art. Since the first Indigenous paintings began circulating in the Western art market, understandings of the paintings have been framed by the diagram, a system of representational and significatory interpretation.

From the beginning, Geoff Bardon believed that the diagram was a necessary aid to reading and understanding the paintings. He suggested that:

Since the paintings used signs and symbols to tell the story, or Dreaming, the abstract arrangement had to be deciphered with some kind of diagram to be understandable to any potential buyer (onlooker) of the painting.3

In a world where Western paradigms dominate the field of cultural production and frame what and how 'we' see and what 'we' believe about Indigenous cultural production, the diagram tends to reduce paintings to the symbolic, the illustrative and the narrative. In other words, interpretation is premised on Western representational and significatory modes of explanation. Visual elements represent. Motifs stand in for and paintings are figured as visual iconic metaphors for Dreaming narratives. …

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