Breasts, Bodies, Canvas

I found a wonderful blog about all things Aboriginal–Will Owen’s Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye. He’s been at it for some time, so there is a lot of material to review and well worth the time.

In a recent posting Owen reviews a new book by Jennifer Biddle, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert art as experience. From his review:

Although Biddle’s investigations rely on close examination of the works…she does not offer readings of them, or attempt to decode the symbols used in them. Her extensive analysis of paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, and Dorothy Napangardi likewise tells us nothing of the Dreamings of the yam, the thorny devil lizard , or Mina Mina. Instead, Biddle tells the reader early on that such translation of iconography is quite antithetical to her purpose, and suggests that the women themselves are now reacting to the practice of translation by refusing to give titles to their artworks or to provide more than the most rudimentary stories. She suggests that our eurocentric emphasis on reading–the interpretation of men’s paintings as maps with specific, knowable geographical locations embedded in them, for example–has blinded us to the true nature of these paintings. That nature is best located in the physical being, in the marks of their making that are a mimesis of the ancestral actions of the Dreaming.

Biddle wants us to turn our attention away from an intellectual analysis of the art towards an appreciation of its affect, by which she means a more visceral and pre-analytical response to the work. Such a reaction is one that is grounded in sensation, in the perception of the thickness of paint, in the visible but also palpable traces of the artist’s body in the object. This perception takes us not only to an appreciation of the artwork’s origin in body painting and scarring, but also to an appreciation of the physical connection between the artist’s brush and the canvas, or the touch of the painting stick on a women’s breast as kirda (owner) and kurdungurlu (manager, and in this sense painter) prepare for the ceremony.

Owen then goes on to say:

If we are capable of penetrating to this level of understanding through direct, sensual engagement with the artwork, then we are better positioned, even as outsiders, to appreciate the it from an indigenous perspective, to understand the power embodied in it.

There are so many ways to approach this work. Earlier on this blog I have posted a variety of viewpoints–from anthropologists, art historians, ethnographers and artists. I’m enough of a pluralist to be curious about all these points of view, but I buckle against any programmatic and proscribed determination about what the non-Aboriginal viewer can and can’t see, what we can and cannot understand. Excluding the “made for tourist” art that you see in Australia which has no intentionality beyond serving as a travel souvenir, these works have an intrinsic power. Access where and how you will.

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1 comment

  1. dee fairchild’s avatar

    mmm, powerful…to me this links to my own feeling that (fine) art is non verbal philosophy, and asking the artist to explain in words is simply the wrong question! the visual can connect with and catalyse parts of the brain that are drowning in lexical overlays. re-awakening that neolithic intuitive/intelligent response requires the viewer to practice paying deep attention, and spoon feeding per a story could pre-empt that…
    amazing image, love it ;)

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