Mixing of cultures is far from black and white
January 12, 2008
Quoted from the article:
PHILIP Batty, a one-time art teacher at the Aboriginal community of Papunya in the Western Desert, recently received an unexpected call from a former student.
The Pintubi woman told him she was in Melbourne and had become an artist. He was somewhat surprised, as she had not painted all that much when he knew her, but he congratulated her nonetheless.
“I said, ‘What are you painting?’ and she said, ‘Well, today I’m painting three $500 ones and tomorrow I’m doing one $1000 one’,” Dr Batty says with a laugh.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Even though he questions the validity of such production-line art, the booming market for indigenous work allowed the woman, a young widow, to leave the Western Desert and escape the cycle of poverty, violence and alcohol abuse.
But there is another, broader, point to his story. For Dr Batty, senior curator of Melbourne Museum’s central Australia indigenous cultures program, the anecdote illustrates the ramifications ” good, bad, and debatable ” of the cultural collision between white and black.
The history of world art is replete with such cultural confrontations, and it is precisely this theme that will be the focus of a major international conference that begins in Melbourne tomorrow.
Dr Batty will be presenting his paper, A Fine Romance: White Money, Black Art, at the conference on Thursday.
The fact that Melbourne is hosting the 32nd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art is no small feat. Held every four years, and considered the “Olympics” of art history, the congress has never been staged south of the equator.
The conference, Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence, will bring together more than 600 art historians from 47 countries, including leading museum directors such as Neil McGregor, from the British Museum, the Australian-born Michael Brand, from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Ronald de Leeuw, from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Dr Brand and Professor de Leeuw will be among the speakers at Monday’s free Melbourne Town Hall discussion, Art, Migration and Indigeneity: What happens when cultures meet?”This is a major event for Melbourne and for Australia,” says Dr Gerard Vaughan, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, who was on the advisory committee for the conference.
“And I think it is one of the best topics for a long time.”
For organiser Jaynie Anderson, the Herald Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne, the event has been eight years in the making. The six-day program includes sessions on the repatriation of art objects, art collecting and dealing across cultures, and even new media across cultures, from Johannes Gutenberg (the goldsmith credited with inventing moveable type printing) to Google.
But it is a 19th century drawing by Aboriginal artist Tommy McCrae that Professor Anderson has chosen as the symbol for the conference’s pivotal theme. McCrae’s drawings and sketchbooks are fascinating historical records of a time of great cultural change. None are more potent and witty than McCrae’s depiction of the Wathaurong tribe performing a corroboree as a ship sails by in the distance.
Among the row of lean, black dancers is tall white man, also dressed in ceremonial garb, yet wearing a top hat. The man is none other than the famed Irish larrikin and convict William Buckley, known as the “wild white man”, who was embraced by the Wathaurong people and lived with them for 32 years after escaping the authorities.
“McCrae is the author of the first Australian works of art that represent crossing cultures,” Professor Anderson says.
“In a number of drawings, McRae depicts Buckley as a figure of convergence, the first white man to learn indigenous languages, whereas most European artists depicted Buckley after he had emerged from his years with indigenous people.”
The production of Aboriginal art has changed dramatically since McCrae sketched that scene in 1890. Before the colonisation of Australia, indigenous “art” was a sacred ceremonial activity. But the interactions between white and black have lead to the ceremonial becoming a highly saleable commodity.
Last May, Aboriginal art went for more than $1 million at auction, when the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work, Earth’s Creation, sold for $1,056,000 (including commissions) at Lawson-Menzies in Sydney. Two months later, that record was surpassed when the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong sold for $2.4 million at Sotheby’s in Melbourne.
But Dr Batty will speak of a darker side to the boom. He tells a sad tale about Kngwarreye in the latter part of her life. A colleague of Dr Batty’s was watching Kngwarreye paint a work for a client, who was hovering impatiently.
“Emily, by then in her 80s, continued to work on the canvas, quickly covering the surface. Emily stopped for a moment, looked up at the client and asked him, ‘this finished now?’.”
In the end, says Dr Batty, Kngwarreye’s work became “simply a mirror image of European desires”.