Tag Archives: Art

Aboriginal Art and the Archive

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

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Brook Andrew, 52 Portrait, 2013, installation view Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Museums are my guilty pleasure. When we go on holiday, I am sure I drive my wife crazy wanting to spend all-day-every-day in museums. I say they are a guilty pleasure, because I completely recognise that museums embody all of the problematic features of western modernity. Critically mining the museum/archive is a pretty popular strategy among a current crop of young, urban based Indigenous artists in Australia (Brook Andrew, Christian Thompson, Danie Mellor et al). This is ostensibly the topic of Emily Cloney’s article in the recent edition of Artlink.

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Christian Thompson working in the archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.

All three are highly sophisticated artists, and I have a great respect for their work. But in the past few months, I have been giving a lot of thought to whether the space of the archive really offers the transgressive potential that these artists are looking for. My thinking here is obviously filtered through Foucault and Bennett – so you must excuse the monolithic epistemic power I attribute to the museum. But I wonder if a different way to think of it might be through Hal Foster’s essay on the contemporary arist-as-archivist. Consider Foster’s assertion:

Certainly the figure of the artist-as-archivist follows that of the artist- as-curator, and some archival artists continue to play on the category of the collection. Yet they are not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity: that the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public sphere is generally assumed, not triumphally proclaimed or melancholically pondered, and some of these artists suggest other kinds of ordering—within the museum and without. In this respect the orientation of archival art is often more “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive … Sometimes strained in effect, archival art is rarely cynical in intent (another welcome change); on the contrary, these artists often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants (here there is nothing passive about the word “archival”)

Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall, 2004), 4.

Foster is clearly celebrating a different kind of contemporary artist-as-archivist here, but I wonder if we can’t read him against the grain. Being “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive” certainly runs counter to the kinds of critique envisaged by people like Andrew, Thompson or Mellor. To me, it sounds more applicable to the work of Aboriginal painters in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or the Central Desert, whose works consist of a vast repository of deeply felt experiences, registered in a palimpsest of historical meaning.

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Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2012

The type of archive found in remote Aboriginal art differs in one key respect from Foucault’s definition; where Foucault sees the archive as composed of statements existing solely in an exterior space, without dependence on a subjective interior consciousness, the archive of Aboriginal paintings maintains a defiant indexicality to the landscape. All of which makes me wonder, whether in fact, Aboriginal art is always going to be in fundamental tension with the western archive, museum and curatorial endeavor. What kind of archive could possibly be appropriate to mediate the sharing of the archives without absorbing them into an external “law of what can be said?”  I am not sure of the answer to this question, nor do I suspect there is a single answer. Perhaps I will just end where I began, with Foucault:

In this sense, the diagnosis does not establish the fact of our identity by the play of distinctions. It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), Part III, Ch.4.

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George Nuku: Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

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George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

Keeping with the theme of materiality, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing George Nuku’s installation Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light 2013, created for the exhibition Paradise Lost? at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It is a really interesting work, made up of old-display cabinets from the Museum of Anthropology – precisely the kind of cabinets used to objectify and display Indigenous cultures. Before my comments, I would like to quote Nuku’s artist statement in its entirety, because I think it reveals a lot:

Don’t worry, it will be traditional by this afternoon.

This artwork’s shape and elements are dictated by its site, availability of materials, and time; these are some of the factors that determine a given tradition. I say that it is a traditional practice to be innovative. The composition of Waharoa speaks to the ancestors and forces of nature that are present in this Great Hall. The plexiglass as a material speaks to light and the water that surrounds us; they are the source of life itself. The abalone shell and the white feathers speak directly to the wood that surrounds us – the union of earth, sea and air. The red and black paint, and the cord binding everything together, represent time/space and male/female aspects respectively.

The Waharoa communicates to the people that the past is in front of us and the future we remember.

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George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

Waharoa is a fascinating work, and I was particularly pleased to be able to see Nuku speak about his practice. I was not at all surprised to hear him speak very passionately about his materials: particularly his use of styrofoam – which he described as “like carving clouds.” Reading his statement for Waharoa, however, one thing that struck me was how much Nuku had adopted the parlance of minimalism (site-specificity, the activation of space etc). The question I kept returning to was whether these (deeply personal) works were antithetical to the aims of minimalism, or whether, in fact, they achieved a more perfect embodiment of these aims than any of the minimalists were ever able to achieve?

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George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

I have a feeling, that the key to answering this question requires investigating the nature of self- and object-hood inherent in these works. Nuku intimated this in his speech at UBC, Nuku saying, “I carve poles, but the poles also carve me into what I am now. My work is me.” It is important to note that Waharoa is also a kind of self-portrait, replicating the designs of Nuku’s own tattoos. In Maori culture, tattoos (or tā moko) are more than just surface designs; they reveal much about a person’s identity, lineage and connection to place. In other words, they do not just cover the surface of the body (like western make-up), but reveal something essential from within. Rather than just offering site-specificity through transparency, I wonder if Nuku isn’t getting at something more profound: critiquing the impossibility of the minimalist project through the assertion of peculiarly Maori sense of self-hood, objecthood and space. This is clearly what is at stake in his invocation of connectivity between the art object and its surrounding space; the union of earth, sea and air.  While Nuku’s invocation of innovation sounds decidedly modernist, rather than partaking in the universalism of late Modernism, Warharoa offers exactly what the title suggests: a glimpse at a radically different way of seeing the world. In its transparency, Waharoa does not proffer a single, overarching world-view, but many shifting, disparate and mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world.

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George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

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Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

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Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui installation image at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by author).

In recent months, my thoughts have increasingly turned to the use of found materials in the work of Indigenous artists. In part, these investigations have been motivated by an attempt to think through the nature of objecthood in Aboriginal art. Although not strictly an “Indigenous artist,” one artist that I have been testing some of these ideas against is the Ghanian born sculptor El Anatsui. I have found it extremely difficult to articulate why I find Anatsui’s work so compelling. When you describe his work – “he uses old liquor bottle tops and turns them into flowing tapestry like sculptures” – they sound a bit twee. But when you stand before these works, it is impossible not to be moved by their poetry and grace. On the one hand, Anatsui is a master of teasing out the former associations of his recycled materials. Here is the description of a 1998 work titled Motley Crowd:

For Motley Crowd … Anatsui used house posts he took from deserted homes in Nsukka region. Historically, when a house built in a vernacular style, primarily of earth and wood, became dilapidated the hardwood posts were reused to build a new house. Some posts supported generations of homes, making them ripe metaphors for endurance and connections to those who came before.

(Exhibition Label, from the exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, Brooklyn Museum, February 8 – August 18).

 

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El Anatsui, Motley Crowd, 1998/modified 2010

 

It is clear that Anatsui is mining these kind of relationships across his oeuvre, but what happens after these materials are turned into works of art? Like most Aboriginal art, critical commentaries seem to fall a bit short here. Certainly, we can all see that Anatsui is making something of great beauty, but there is clearly something else at play here.

 

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Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui installation image at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by author).

 

I was lucky enough to make it to the Brooklyn Museum to see the final weekend of the exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. One thing that struck me in the exhibition, which is made up predominantly of recent works (2010-2011), is that Anatsui’s work is getting better and better. Compared to older works in the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art or MoMA, he seems to be finding subtle new ways to engage with his materiality. The end result is that the works seem much less forced, less bombastic and much more inventive. For me, these recent works are not just engaged a straightforward criticism of colonialism (the effects of alcohol, poverty, etc), but rather, are suggesting something radically new. In their delicate lightness, Anatsui’s recent works seem to be less about the material itself (bottle-caps), than they are about asserting their own individual presence. In other words, is it possible that these works are becoming less about transformation (turning bottle-caps into art; reframing African modernity in poetic terms), and more about the ineffable reality of presentness? These works leave behind any simplistic reading as “alternative modernities” for something that is much more assured in its transcendent contemporaneity.  Since leaving the exhibition, Anatsui’s works have rarely been far from my mind. I wish I could have returned to the exhibition several times, because his works raise so many questions, which are almost impossible to ask when standing before their dazzling radiance.

 

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Mandatory tourist shot outside the Brooklyn Museum. (Photo by the author’s dad).

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Book Review: Paul O’Neill: The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s)

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The Curator as Fall Guy

Review of Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 2012)

It seems that no one in the art world is just one thing anymore. We are all some hybrid variation of the hyphenated multiplex artist-curator-critic-theorist-activist-historian-model-actor. While it might seem easy to account for this as the triumph of inter-disciplinarity over the modernist doctrine of specialization, the rise of hyphenated identifiers has been matched by the equally ubiquitous multiplication of new forms of specialised critical discourse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emergence since the late 1980s of curatorship as an independent field of critical inquiry. Since 1987, postgraduate curatorial training programs have proliferated at tertiary institutions across the world, and the field of “curatorial discourse” has emerged as an accepted (albeit vaguely defined) field.

The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) by curator, artist and writer Paul O’Neill is an attempt to provide a historical account of the emergence of this new discourse, while defining the parameters of the field. Rigorously researched, at times it feels like an act of curatorship in itself; as detailed arguments and counter-arguments pile up it is sometimes hard to discern the author’s own critical voice beneath his dense survey of critical opinions. This is most notable in the book’s second chapter, where O’Neill’s conclusion seems to offer a markedly softer assessment of “Biennial Culture” than that offered in the preceding 30 pages. Nevertheless, O’Neill sketches a convincing history of the emergence of curatorial discourse as a gradual process, beginning with the avant-garde of the 1920s, gaining momentum in the 1960s, before reaching a level of global prominence in the era of the Biennial in the 1990s. Central to this narrative is a shift in agency that occurs as artists begin to challenge the autonomy of the art object, recentering art around the event of the exhibition. For O’Neill, this relinquishing of authorial control by artists was met by the rise of the curator: “curatorship emerged as a creative, semiautonomous, and individually authored form of mediation.”[1] This is highly problematic for O’Neill, who blames curatorial discourse for “establishing, or at least bolstering, a coherent sense of agency in contemporary art production.”[2] O’Neill is particularly strident in his criticism of the authorial role of curators institutionalising meaning within the frame of the exhibition.

At this point it becomes apparent that O’Neill’s account is far more than a simple description of the emergence of curatorial discourse, functioning equally as a strategic manual for institutional resistance. As an artist-curator himself, there is something almost teleological in the way in which he positions the emergence of curatorial discourse. For if, as O’Neill concludes, all curatorial processes should be collaborative, dialogic, and open-ended, there is an unmistakable sense in The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) that he sees this as an inevitable process of internal artistic development, shaking its institutional frames and dispersing its agency.  Leaving aside the orthodoxy that collaborative processes are necessarily more challenging, democratic or open (a point that Claire Bishop takes up with some force in her recent book Artificial Hells[3]), O’Neill’s enthusiasm for the blurred boundaries of collaborative artistic-curatorial ventures raises several objections.

Firstly, despite the repeated description of curators as the authors of meaning with exhibitions functioning as texts, exhibitions do not work in the same way as written texts. Curating is not the same as writing, mostly because artworks (or any object for that matter) very rarely act like words, even when they are used like readymades to the service of a rigidly proscribed curatorial regimen. This is because exhibitions always involve a dialogic tension between the artistic and the curatorial. The problem for O’Neill, is that in attempting to position “curating as another medium of artistic production”[4] he manoeuvres himself into a corner in which it is almost impossible for him to productively define the difference between these two forms of agency. Occupying both positions (as in the artist-curator) does not necessarily mean that the two discourses become united (that is, that the curatorial becomes artistic or the artistic becomes curatorial). The discourse of architecture does not simply evaporate in a home is designed by a builder. While I wholeheartedly agree with O’Neill’s conclusion that we need to move beyond “the level of an oversimplified antagonism, in which the practices of artists and curators are kept separate from one another,”[5] this should not be at the expense of critically understanding the particular ways in which different modes of thought contribute towards the construction of artistic and exhibitionary meanings.

Reading O’Neill against the grain, we might instead see the artistic and the curatorial as two distinct modes of agency present in every exhibition of artworks. The first of these (which for convenience we might term “the artistic”) resides within the artistic form (which is expressly not limited to objecthood). The latter (which we might term “the curatorial”) controls the mediation of these forms in space and time (again, this is not limited to physical spaces, and can include virtual spaces). Regardless of whether they are wielded by an artist, curator, artist-curator or collaboratively, these two modes are always in balanced tension. Some instances, the balance of agency will be weighted in favour of the artistic, while in other instances it will swing towards the curatorial, but both will always be present in some respect within an art exhibition. The key question in both artistic and curatorial discourse might then become negotiating this push and pull of these separate (but necessarily connected) discourses: a complex balancing act to ensure the openness of creative processes. Ultimately, this is the aim of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s): to enable “dialogical spaces of negotiation between curators, artists, and their publics.” This does not mean that we all must become artists, but that by critically addressing different modes of thought there are new possibilities. In beginning to map out the shape and form of curatorial discourse, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) takes an important step towards kindling these possibilities.

 


[1] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 2012), 4.

[2] Ibid. 2.

[3] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

[4] O’Neill, op. cit. 129.

[5] Ibid. 129.

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Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West [1862]

The following catalogue entry was first published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.42-43

Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West 1862, oil on milled board, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of Dr Samuel Arthur Ewing 1938.

It is easy to pinpoint the location of the scene depicted in Nicholas Chevalier’s Buffalo Range from the West [1862]. It is a vista near the town of Nug Nug, approximately 250 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Nestled between the Buffalo River and the sloping range, it is a beautiful spot, and one can easily imagine the scene, on a still, quiet morning, as the sun slowly rises behind the peaks, bathing the horizon in a luminous haze. It is somewhat harder to ascertain when the artist might have visited Nug Nug in order to experience such an impressive view.

Nicholas Chevalier arrived in Australia in 1854, after studying painting in Lausanne, Munich, London and Rome. In Melbourne, he fell quickly into the company of artists such as Eugene von Guérard, Edward LaTrobe Bateman and S.T. Gill. Alongside von Guérard, Chevalier joined the 1858 expedition to the Dandenong Ranges and Baw Baw Plateau led by Alfred Howitt. Despite the artists’ enthusiasm to find picturesque views, the expedition was delayed when the pair arrived in fashionable, but inappropriate footwear for such a rugged journey. By the 1860s, however, Chevalier was a more seasoned traveller, joining Georg von Neumayer on two explorations in Western Victoria. Unfortunately, neither Howitt nor von Neumayer’s expeditions went anywhere near the Buffalo Ranges, so the source of Chevalier’s inspiration remains unclear. It is even possible that it came from a sketch by another artist, such as von Guérard.

But perhaps this is to miss the point of Chevalier’s Buffalo Ranges from the West.  Amongst critics then as now, Chevalier’s work has tended suffer in comparison to von Guérard’s, being seen as decorative, and lacking in visual tension. But Chevalier’s intentions are markedly different to those of his close companion. Von Guérard sought to capture the picturesque whole of the landscape by close attention to its minute details. In contrast, Chevalier’s paintings are not interested in either natural detail or the picturesque. In Buffalo Ranges the view is deliberately distorted; the vista is greatly foreshortened and is coupled with the delicate play of dawn light in order to present a much more imposing than accurate visage. In 1821, William Hazlitt described the picturesque as a yearning for “ideal deformity, not ideal beauty.” In Buffalo Ranges from the West, Chevalier is not trying to present something particular, but something universally beautiful. Rather than looking for tension or naturalism, we should just enjoy the warm, reflected glow of Chevalier’s vision, and allow it to transport us, not to Nug Nug, but to the arcadia of the cosmopolitan artist’s imagination.   

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William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 [1887]

The following catalogue entry was originally published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.38-39

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William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 1887, oil on canvas, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973

After an arduous flight from London, the ailing Sir Russell Grimwade was carried off the plane at Melbourne airport. Despite his deteriorating health, he had undertaken the voyage in order to acquire William Strutt’s Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 [1887]. A systematic and discerning collector of Australiana, the painting would be the jewel in his collection. Within three months, Grimwade had died, making it the definitive culmination of his collecting passions.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, Bushrangers was based upon accounts of a brazen robbery that occurred near St. Kilda Road in Elwood while Strutt was resident in Victoria. The story had been thoroughly covered in the press, stoked with sensationalist vigour by the Argus. Three decades later, when Strutt came to immortalise the scene, the exploits of the Kelly gang lent it a contemporary currency. At the First Colonial Convention in London in 1887, questions of colonial law and order predominated, and Strutt’s painting spoke directly to the Imperial neuroses that young colonies were being torn between bourgeois respectability and the lure of vice. In Strutt’s tableau, the stricken female figure – an easy stand-in for Queen Victoria – seeks comfort in the arms of her ineffectual consort, while remaining at the tantalising mercy of a handsome rogue. As the rule of God and law are strewn aside, the moral of the story is simple: vigilance was necessary to keep the young colonies on the righteous path.

At the time that Grimwade acquired Strutt’s painting, the figure of the bushranger was making a final, heroic resurgence in the Australian national narrative, via the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. As Grimwade’s final great acquisition, Strutt’s Bushrangers could not have been further from the radical nationalist ideal of swagmen, larrikins and bushrangers that these artist’s embodied. His was a genteel brand of nationalism that celebrated the pioneering efforts of explorers, pastoralists and industrialists, men like his father Frederick Sheppard Grimwade. These were the kind of men pictured on the right of Strutt’s composition, and as sexy as the vagabond figure of the bushranger might be, it was on this side that Sir Russell Grimwade saw himself, and the tide of Australian history.

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Objects of Power and the Power of Objects

Nksis NkondiCarnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Nksis Nkondi
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Passing through a long, elegant gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, its walls lined with masterpieces of nineteenth century European Impressionism, you come to a small dimly lit chamber. Peering out from within the darkness, your gaze is fixed by a pair of ivory white eyes. They draw you into the gloomy recess, where you are confronted by a fearsome figure; his right arm held above him ready to attack, his wide-mouthed scowl revealing two chipped and jagged teeth. You recoil briefly before realizing that all is safe: the brute is trapped within a Perspex case, and on further inspection you find that he is weighed down with a messy assortment of slings and arrows that pierce his body, a mélange of rusted nails sticking out in every direction. [Fig.1].

The figure is a nkisi (plural minkisi) of the type known as nkondi (plural minkondi) from the Congo basin in west central Africa. Nkisi is a general term referring to spirits and the objects that house them. Nkondi refers more specifically to the category of objects once referred to as nail fetishes but now more diplomatically called power figures.[1] Although the precise practices varied over time and place, nkisi nkondi were generally produced by nganga (ritual specialists), who would work in conjunction with a supplicant or a separate artisan. The carved figure (usually humanoid, but occasionally taking the form of an animal such as a dog or panther) would act as a container, which would be animated and empowered by the insertion of a parcel of medicine (bilongo). In the case of the Carnegie Museum nkisi, this parcel would have been sealed into the now empty cavity on the figure’s belly. Once animated by the nganga, supplicants would drive nails and other objects into the nkisi in order to enrage the spirit into action for the purposes of vengeance, protection, healing, or dispute resolution. In other instances, minkondi could be used to sanction an oath; if the oath were broken, the spirit would be released to hunt down the party that breached the agreement.[2] Reflecting this function, nkisi nkondi are often depicted in the pose of hunters, and the word nkondi is derived from the word konda meaning “to hunt.”[3] The Carnegie Museum nkisi is a fine illustration of this, and it is likely that its raised hand would have originally held a knife or spear.[4]

The nkisi in the Carnegie Museum is a striking object, but one of a kind that can be found in museums across America and Europe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago all house impressive examples of minkondi. But is it appropriate to exhibit these objects in the context of a western art museum? On the one hand, they appear incommensurate with the western concept of art: they are functional objects whose efficacy was measured in ritual/magical terms and not aesthetic criteria; they were never intended as objects of autonomous aesthetic contemplation; moreover, they were often produced communally, bearing the scars of their shared use. Is it an act of interpretive violence to include these objects in a museum, where they are largely stripped of their context and become admired for their aesthetic impact or formal effect? Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to both their ubiquity in western museums and the conceptual challenges they pose, nkisi nkondi are frequently cited by those trying to grapple with the most basic questions of the anthropology of art.[5] Is art a universal category? Is it possible, practical, or even ethical to consider aesthetics cross-culturally? What kind of theoretical category could possibly embrace minkondi alongside a portrait by Gainsborough, an Islamic girih mosaic or a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol?

These types of questions gained a degree of urgency in the wake of post-colonialism, when the hierarchies of western vision came under scrutiny across all disciplines of the humanities.[6] As western conceptual artists sought to push the boundaries of what constituted art (a performance? a text? a urinal?), art historians and anthropologists drew attention to the fact that, not only was the category of “primitive art” a western creation designed to enforce hierarchical cultural distinctions, but the entire notion of aesthetic autonomy was a western epistemological eccentricity.[7] While such critiques were often overshadowed by the vehemence of their righteous indignation (and their tendency to homogenize western cultural attitudes), their basic premise was a valuable one: categorical distinctions such as “primitive art” and “fine art” were created and perpetuated by a social context designed to exalt western cultural achievements, while denigrating the art of non-western cultures as conceptually or formally inferior, positioning it on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, while denying its coevality by placing the supposedly non-modern “primitive” in a less developed temporal frame.[8]  This paper considers minkondi within the context of these debates. In particular, it focuses on two contrasting theories of art, developed by Howard Morphy and Alfred Gell in an attempt to create a methodological framework for the interpretation and appreciation of art objects.

Nkisi NkondiMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Minkondi present several grounds for disputing the hegemony of the western category of art. Far from being the relics of a primeval past, most minkondi housed in American and European museums are intrinsically linked to the forces of modernity. Like the Carnegie Museum example, most of these were created between 1875 and 1825; the period when the ethnographic “scramble” for African art began in earnest.[9] As Enid Schildkrout and Curtis Keim note, cultural objects from the Congo had been making their way to Europe since the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, but it was in the late nineteenth century as scientific and ethnographic theories of evolution created a new interest in “primitive” cultures that such objects began to be systematically acquired in significant volume.[10] Spurred by the emergence of orthogenetic theories of evolution, ethnographers clambered to collect these supposed relics of authentic primitive cultures for the information they could shed on the development of humanity. However, far from proving these spurious teleological theories of cultural development, minkondi point to more complex processes of cultural transaction and exchange. For although Zdenka Volavkova finds historical record of the creation and use of minkondi dating back to 1676,[11] and Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen suggest that the practice could have been current a century earlier,[12] Kasja Ekholm Friedman shows that there is significant reason to believe that the usage of these objects developed as a modern response to the changing social and cultural circumstances created by colonialism.[13]

While Friedman recognizes that the practice of nkisi nkondi was undoubtedly present before colonization, she argues that it played a relatively minor role alongside practices of ancestor worship and other religious observances. The flourishing of minkisi cults of the late nineteenth century was due to a combination of factors, including the spread of new diseases, the destruction of traditional authority structures in which Earth Gods and Kings were expected to intercede between subjects and the spirit realm, and the arrival of Christian theology which encouraged individual communication with God. Thus, according to Friedman, the rise in fetishism should be seen as “a product of dissolution and crisis.” [14] While critics of “primitivism” often put questions of representation on a temporal structure, Friedman’s conclusion suggests that fetish objects are a modern phenomenon and a response to the conditions of (an albeit alternative) modernity. As Jean and John Comaroff affirm, practices such as witchcraft and fetishism are integral to the experience of the contemporary world. They should not be seen as a return to pre-modern, irrational forms, but as part of a dynamic modernity constructed through the processes of globalization.[15] In such a context, minkondi can be seen as a hybrid cultural form, forged through exchange and coalescence.

If, in this sense, minkondi test the limits of our Eurocentric conception of modernity, they pose a similar challenge to the western category of art. It is not that minkondi are incommensurate with western art objects, but rather, it is their similarities that draw attention to the antinomies within such categorical distinctions. As Wyatt MacGaffey wryly observes, “Magic has been regarded as a bizarre phenomenon, the artness of art has not.”[16] Noting the rampant commodity fetishism inherent in the art market, along with the hushed reverence and quasi-religious status accorded artworks as the “embodiments of spiritual value,” MacGaffey concludes that, “the Kongo attitude towards fetishes is not all that different from the gallery-goer’s attitude to art.”[17] It is, perhaps, possible to take this argument even further, as Rachel Moore does in her study of modern cinema, in which she argues that the dual concepts of magic and the primitive were invoked by modern film-makers in order to overcome the disavowal of sensuous resonance that had made the connection between sign and signifier seem arbitrary and conventional in modern language. For Moore, modern cinema works precisely as a fetish, reconnecting sign practice with the physical act of expressive transaction.[18] It is noteworthy that this concept of magic corresponds almost precisely to the definition of art offered in R.G. Collingwood’s famous treatise The Principles of Art published in 1938.[19]

Unlike Collingwood, however, MacGaffey does not advocate a universal category of art, and ultimately resigns himself to the limits of cultural translation and exchange.[20] Rather, MacGaffey’s intention is to move beyond what he sees as a spurious distinction between function and aesthetic autonomy, towards a definition of art as a form of social agency. In doing, he draws upon the theoretical armature of Alfred Gell, who argues that the anthropology of art should be the theoretical study of “social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency.”[21] According to Gell:

Nothing is decidable in advance about the nature of [the art] object, because the theory is premised on the idea that the nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix to which it is embedded. It has no ‘intrinsic’ nature, independent of the relational context.[22]

NYC-MMA-Mangaaka-NkisiNKondi

Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This line of thinking could easily be confused with the pure relativism of an institutional theory of art as theorized by Arthur Danto, in which art is defined as whatever is treated as art by the institutionally recognized art world.[23] Gell is quick to refute such a claim,[24] proposing instead that it was possible to consider art as a special form of technology, defined by the role it plays in advancing social relationships constructed through agency: “I view art as a system of action intended to change the world, rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”[25] For Gell, the art object is a mediating object in human actions: “the anthropology of art, to reiterate, is just anthropology itself, except that it deals with those situations in which there is an ‘index of agency’ which is normally some kind of artifact.”[26] These create “art like situations” – which, he argues can normally be recognized intuitively – in which the material index permits the abduction of specifically social agency.

Gell’s theory provides a useful starting point to move beyond western assumptions about art and aesthetics. His desire to sidestep the symbolic and aesthetic elements of art is driven by the recognition that such analysis can only ever start from a position informed by western assumptions.[27] As Robert Layton notes, Gell does not deny that works of art often contain an aesthetic dimension, but is conscious that the “aesthetic attitude” is a specific historic product of western epistemology.[28] However, as Layton and other critics have been quick to point out, by focusing on social action over signification Gell ignores the ways in which aesthetic and semantic elements contribute to the efficacy of this social action.[29]

This criticism is been leveled with particular force by Howard Morphy for whom these elements are central to the definition of art. For Morphy, “art objects are ones with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes (but in most cases both), that are used for presentational purposes.”[30] In simple terms, the difference between Gell and Morphy’s theories might be seen as a matter of focus: whereas Gell’s interest is in assessing what art does, (ie. what makes an art-like situation) for Morphy, it is the how question that is paramount. [31] The anthropology of art, he argues, “must engage with the study of form at the micro level, seeing in the production of art objects a form of agency that arises from bodies of knowledge.”[32] To ignore these elements, equates to a failure to account for the role of human agency in artistic production and the precise ways in which art operates as a mode of action.

This is not to say that Morphy discounts the role of art as a mode of social action, but rather, that understanding the nature of this agency requires some account of the role of symbolic meaning and aesthetic effect. Morphy is equally aware of the assumptions that underpin western categories of art and aesthetics. Unlike Gell, however, he is not prepared to side-step them completely in his discussion of art. This creates an inevitable tension. On the one hand, Morphy argues that art must be considered within the cultural context of its creation: “the set of objects that fall within the category of art objects have to be determined in each particular case in the context of the society concerned.”[33] On the other, he notes the necessarily biased cultural position of the ethnographer: “The anthropological category is an analytic one and will not necessarily conform to any category explicitly recognized by a particular society.”[34] In some ways, Morphy tries to have it both ways: under the judgment of Congo society, nkondi may well not be considered art works at all, but under Morphy’s analytical category (“objects with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes that are used for presentational purposes) they most certainly would be. It is, as Morphy admits, a fuzzy category containing “a series of overlapping polythetic sets,” but one that he maintains is useful in differentiating art objects from other objects, “even if the boundaries of the category are fuzzy around the edges.”[35]

It is to the aid of this differentiation that Morphy maintains his attachment to the symbolic elements of art, in order to create a useful category for cross-cultural analysis. One of the problems with Gell’s theory of art is its broad inclusivity, which can be stretched to include almost any object in which the material index can be used for the abduction of agency. Gell encourages this by offering the examples of guns and land mines as objects that extend agency. Layton chides the author:

Gell cites land mines as agents of the evil intent in the minds of Pol Pot’s soldiers. Pol Pot’s soldiers used them as extensions of their own agency. This is a misleading parallel. Art objects do not have the same kind of agency as mantraps or poisoned arrows. If Pol Pot’s soldiers had spent their time burying pictures of the Mona Lisa, or even pictures of Pol Pot, there would not be so many Cambodians whose lives today have been ruined by shattered limbs.[36]

Brooklyn Museum Nkisi

Nkisi Nkondi
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Certainly, Gell’s theory seems excessively broad, and yet, even with Morphy’s caveats, the question of theorizing the agency of matter – or more specifically, the intersection of human and material agency – remains a vexing problem for both Moprhy and Gell. Indeed, it is worth noting the affinities between Gell and Morphy’s theorizing of art and Nicole Boivan’s more general attempt to negotiate the relationship between the material and cognitive worlds. While Boivan is far less interested in the kind of categorical distinctions that occupy Gell and Morphy, her conclusions on the interconnection of the material and mental worlds end up looking remarkably similar.[37]

Like Morphy, Boivan sees material objects as being both integral to social relations, but also closely related to the ideational aspects of society, where it enters back into culture. For Morphy, this is one of the defining features of art: “art does not simply reflect culture (ie. act as a structural analogue for society) it is integral to the processes of its reproduction and transformation over time.”[38] In response to Gell’s suggestion that the art object is a mediating one, Morphy argues that:

Mediation is always a component of material cultural object but the mediating role is fundamental to art objects. They mediate between domains of existence, they mediate between artist and audience, and they mediate between an object that they are an index of and the person interacting with the object.[39]

This leads to one of Morphy’s key misinterpretations of Gell’s text.  While Gell argues that culture has no existence outside of social systems, Morphy is incorrect to assume that this means there is a direct relationship between object and index, or that “Gell’s objects are often simply social parrots.”[40] For Gell, the concept of agency is relational: for any agent there is a patient, and conversely, for any patient there is an agent. The work of art (index) is a patient with respect to the artist who made it, but is a patient with respect to the spectator who is moved by it.[41] Morphy’s criticism presumes that this is a direct relationship, and hence, he argues that Gell’s theory cannot extend to a theory of representation or semiosis.[42] This ignores the fact that the agency of the artist is necessarily abducted from the index (artwork), and hence the index is indispensible in this transaction. For Gell, abduction of agency cuts across the concept of meaning, for what the viewer abducts is never a ‘meaning’ but a system of actions. As a result, there is never a direct relationship between representation and meaning. If there is no space between the signifier and the signified, then there can be no abduction. We might compare this to Robert Sharf’s concept of irony, in which the art object is distinguished by the density of the relationship between signifier and signified.[43] For Gell, this indecipherability is precisely because we construe art objects as a system of signs that do not correspond to signifier and signified and which rely on the migration of agency.[44] It is this indeterminacy that MacGaffey picks up on in his analysis of nkisi nkondi. As MacGaffey notes, the minkisi is an:

Index of cumulative agency, a visible knot tying together an invisible skein of spatio-temporal relations of which the participants in the ritual are well aware … Minkisi are always ensembles of materials signifying, by there names, their appearance or their associations, the powers attributed to the whole.[45]

Nkisi NkondiMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nkisi Nkondi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

According to MacGaffey, the effect of the nkisi nkondi is a result of the complex interplay between concealment and accumulation of meaning: “containment gives the impression that something may be hidden inside, and accumulation adds obscurity to make the secret evident.”[46] Essential to this “cognitive stickiness” however, is the art object itself, and MacGaffey notes that the sense of interiority and mystery were often heightened by impressive workmanship. Finely created minkisi were intended to arouse astonishment (ngiukulu), and it was widely held that sculptures admired for their art made more effective minkisi.[47] MacGaffey uses this to illustrate Gell’s theory of enchantment, through which works of formal complexity or technical virtuosity exert a power of fascination upon the viewer because the viewer is trapped in the indecipherability of the index.[48] However, to return to Morphy’s “how” question, Gell’s theory falls short of identifying the particular properties of objects that trigger these feelings of enchantment.[49] In one of the least satisfying sections of Art and Agency, while discussing complex patterns, Gell hints at the possibility that complex patterns might act something like a picture of agent-patient relationships.[50]

In an abstract picture one patch of colour seems to be ‘pushing against’ another patch of colour, even though there are no objects in the external world with which we can identify these patches of colour. The causal interaction we perceive is internal to the index itself … the parts of the index exert causal influence over one another and testify to the agency of the index as a whole.[51]

In doing so, Gell offers the possibility that aesthetics work something like a structural analogue to agent-patient relations. By extension, this argument could be used to claim that the most charged objects of social agency are necessarily the most aesthetically charged, as they present a visual embodiment of this relationship. Such a conclusion would, however, vindicate Morphy’s call for the study of form at a micro level, and run counter to Gell’s central claim that art can be understood as a force of social agency entirely independently of aesthetic criteria.

This difficulty reveals an intractable tension in Gell’s work between culture as process, and cultures as bounded groups.[52] These are necessarily overlapping categories to which art is both a social agent and binding force, as well as essential mode of self-representation. As Marsha Meskimmon posits: “I would argue that art is a vital form of articulation, that visualization and materialization are active and forceful modes in the production of the real, and that they can transcend the limits of current understanding by pushing the boundaries of imagination.”[53] If, for Morphy, close formal reading reveals the agency that arises from a body of knowledge, the indeterminacy of art also allows for subtle expressions of cultural change, where hybridity and transaction allows for new forms of cultural expression. Having established nkisi nkondi as the representative objects of an alternative modernity, perhaps the next question that must be asked is whether and in which ways their forms have been altered in the traffic in culture, and how they might be able to speak cross-culturally of our shared experience of globalization.

Such questions reveal the indivisibility of the social and the cultural, and the arbitrariness of drawing distinctions between the aesthetic and social action of art. As Bart Vandenabeele notes, artworks “are human artifacts that cannot be understood at all separate from human values, intentions, interests, or habits. That is why they are not unchangeable: they are being constantly changed by and adapted to the human ways of life or communities that are equally temporary, historical and continually transforming.”[54] Likewise, as Gell notes, art objects are not solipsistic, but rather, they are collaborative, involving audiences and other artists: “art objects are not self-sufficient, but human agency is exercised within the material world.” His words echo Collingwood’s declaration that “the artist stands in collaborative relations with an entire community.”[55] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker stress the importance of collaboration in the creation of minkondi and their integration into the practices of everyday life in the Congo.[56] However, this interconnection between art and life is not unique to the Congo, it should be seen as a vital component to understanding the category of art.

Nkisi NkondiDallas Museum of Art

Nkisi Nkondi
Dallas Museum of Art

James Clifford argues, that part of the problem with western interpretation of power figures derives from a deep anxiety towards fetishes:

A good collector (as opposed to the obsessive, the miser) is tasteful and reflective. Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner. The collection itself – its taxonomic, aesthetic structure – is valued, and any private fixation on single objects is negatively marked as fetishism.[57]

According to Clifford, all identities are based around accumulation, but only western identity is obsessed with the collection of possessions. This, he argues, is a peculiarly western strategy for the development of a possessive self. At the same time, it reveals the underlying iconoclasm the W.T.J Mitchell argues motivates the profound discontinuity between image and reality (signifier and signified) that propels the western drive for aesthetic autonomy.[58]

If the nkisi nkondi reveal magic to be an evolving element of modernity, a process for building community, and a site for resistance, perhaps they also offer an opportunity to strip back the ethnocentrism of our own understanding of the world and highlight the peculiarities of our western vision. If the social context of nkisi nkondi remains in many ways inscrutable to us, perhaps it is precisely through their artness that they might communicate across time and space. Communication is never perfect, particularly in the case of art. And yet, as Collingwood argues, understanding can only ever be imperfect, but a partial and imperfect understanding is not the same as a failure to understand.[59] As Vandenbeele notes:

For successful (artistic) communication, it is not a necessary requirement that words, images, sounds, and concepts have exact meanings shared by all participants … incommensurability between languages and concepts could be interpreted in a positive way, that is, the communication process is kept in motion by what the participants do not share.[60]

These are the kind of cross-cultural “conversations” that Anthony Appiah suggests lead to imaginative engagement with the Other, an engagement, that in Collingwood’s words becomes “progressively stronger as conversation proceeds, and based on the fact that neither party seems to the other to be talking nonsense.”[61] It is through encounters like these that identity is extended: a perfect illustration being the profound influence of non-western arts, first through “primitivism” and later in the challenges of post-colonialism. The exposure to works like the nkisi nkondi first changed western art, and then our understandings of what constituted the category of art. That we continue to ask these questions, and that their answers remain illusive — just as they do to erudite scholars like Morphy and Gell — suggests that the question “what is art?” may itself be charged with a certain cognitive stickiness whose very indecipherability lends this conversation such power.


[1] Wyatt MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 228-229.

[2] See for instance, Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52, Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88 and Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo (Stockholm: Folkens museum-ethnographiska, 1991), 121.

[3] Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo, 121.

[4]  “Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure), Carnegie Museum of Art website, accessed 10 April 2012: [ http://www.cmoa.org/searchcollections/details.aspx?item=1019277 ]

[5] See for instance, Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59-62, Cesare Poppy, “Wonders taken for Signs” in Presence: The Inherence of the Prototype with Images and Other Objects, eds. Robert Maniura and Rupert Shepherd, (London: Ashgate, 2006), 235, Bart Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 38:4 (Winter, 2004), 1-2, Robert Farris Thompson, “Kongo Power Figure,” in Perspectives: Angles on African Art (New York: The Centre for African Art, 1987), 180-181, MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-234, and Wyatt MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 39 (Spring 2001), 137-150.

[6] See for instance, James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), Sally Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998) and Susan Hiller ed. The Myth of Primtivism: Perspectives on Art (London: Routledge, 1991).

[7] Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” in The Anthropology of Art: A Reader, eds. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 7-8.

[8] Johanne Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[9] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 21-25.

[10] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” 21-25.

[11] Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52.

[12] Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88. It is worth noting that MacGaffey and Janzen draw on the same historical source as Volavkova in making this claim (Olfred Dapper’s 1670 account of his travels in Africa), but come to different conclusions as to the historical veracity of some of the claims made in Dapper’s text.

[13] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization (Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press, 2008), 29-85. See also Dunja Hersak, “There are many Kongo Worlds: Particularities of Magico-Religious Beliefs among the Vili and Yombe of Congo-Brazzaville, Africa: Journal of International African Institute, 71 (4: 2001): 614-640.

[14] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization, 29-85.

[15] Jean Comaroff, Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Post-Colonial Africa, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993).

[16] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 221

[17] MacGaffey, ‘Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 139.

[18] Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[19] R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938).

[20] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-233.

[21] Gell, quoted in MacGaffey

[22] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[23] Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61 (19, October 1964): 571-584.

[24] Gell, Art and Agency, 5.

[25] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[26] Gell, Art and Agency, 66

[27] Gell, Art and Agency, 9-10.

[28] Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute 9 (2003): 449.

[29] See for example, Howard Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” Journal of Material Culture 14 (1): 5-27, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” Oceania 80 (2, July 2010): 129-142, and Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 447-464.

[30] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[31] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 6.

[32] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 17.

[33] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[34] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13.

[35] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12, 15.

[36] Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 452.

[37] Nicole Boivan, Material Cultures, Material Minds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). It is worth noting that Boivan discusses both Gell and Morphy’s work at some length in her book.

[38] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13-14.

[39] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[40] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[41] Gell, Art and Agency, 22, see also MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[42] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 10.

[43] Robert Sharf, “The Buddha’s Fingerbones at Famensi and the Art of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism,” The Art Bulletin 93 (1: March 2011), 38-57.

[44] Gell, Art and Agency, 20-23.

[45] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145-146.

[46] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145

[47] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[48] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[49] Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[50] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[51] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[52] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 22.

[53] Marsha Meskinnon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London: Routledge, 2011), 6.

[54] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,”7.

[55] Collingwood, Principles of Art, 324.

[56] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1987).

[57] Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 219.

[58] W.T.J. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986),

[59] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

[60] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” 2.

[61] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

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Jukurrtjanu Mularrarringu (From the Dreaming): Meaning and Movement in the Art of Nora Wompi

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Nora Wompi at Fortyfivedownstairs presented by Suzanne O’Connell Gallery from April 27 till May 8, 2010

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2007, acrylic on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria.

With their thick, viscous skeins of impasto paint, the paintings of Nora Wompi seem to melt onto the eye. Layers of overlapping colours blur, making forms difficult to define; the desert landscape shimmers into being, like a mirage upon the horizon. Despite abandoning her searing palette of reds, orange and pinks Wompi’s work has lost none of its blazing desert intensity. Meandering tracks of paint roll rhythmically across the canvas, creating a dynamic, anamorphic topography. The movement of the artist’s hand is clearly visible in the thick brushstrokes, which run across the canvas like trails in the wilderness. The encrusted dots of early works have given way to broad swathes of shifting colour. Where the early works had a gravelly sense of place that evoked the material presence of the landscape, Wompi’s recent works present a peripatetic, nomadic understanding of space.

In the past five years, Wompi’s paintings have increased in both scale and confidence. Her development has not been a process of metamorphosis, so much as a form of artistic excavation, stripping away the crust to reveal the metaphysical essence of the landscape. Her latest works are less concerned with the visible features of the landscape than with its underlying spiritual meanings. They are paintings of experience, not cynical or world-weary, but acutely aware of the truth of the matter, of what is permanent and what fades away.

Nora Wompi, Kinjun 1995, acrylic on paper, National Gallery of Victoria.

Exploring this intangible essence has required Wompi to develop a unique abstract visual language. The clearly identifiable iconography of desert painting – with its recognisable symbols for waterholes, campsites and rockholes – has slowly been replaced with a more fluid, gestural style. The specificity of particular places, stories and sites has given way to grand, totalised renderings of her country around Kunnawarritji. These are ‘big pictures’ that require a ‘big picture’ approach. The spiritual essence that they seek to capture cannot be described using a predetermined lexicon of signs, but requires the development of an artistic language based on emotion and intuition.

It is important to note that for Wompi, this visual language is not something simply imagined or ‘made up’. Although intangible, the essence of landscape that Wompi’s paintings address is very real. It is a spirituality revealed through a close connection and understanding of her ancestral country. It is only through a long and intimate association with the landscape that these mysteries are revealed. This revelation is described in her native Kukatja tongue as jukurrtjanu mularrarringu – the truth that comes from the Dreaming. It is from the Dreaming that everything of value or significance derives.

Born around 1935 at Lilbaru near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, Wompi belongs to a fading generation of senior Indigenous people who grew up in the desert, learning the solemn codes of the nomadic lifestyle. Consistent with this nomadic outlook, her biography is defined by significant movements: walking with her mother to Bililuna Station and then onto Balgo Mission; relocating to Fitzroy Crossing with her second husband Cowboy Dick; returning to Kunnawarritji with her sisters at the dawn of the homelands movement. Although aged in her seventies, Wompi maintains a highly transitory lifestyle, moving regularly between Kunnawarritji, Balgo, Kiwirrkurra and Punmu in order to visit relatives and attend to familial obligations.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2012, acrylic on canvas.

In the nomadic concept of country, places are not understood in isolation, but rather through their intersections and connections. In Indigenous cosmology, this reveals itself through the songlines that run across the country, uniting all places. These paths reflect the ancestral mythology of the Dreaming, when spirit beings traveled across the landscape creating its sacred sites and leaving their residue in the landscape. According to Indigenous beliefs, this sacred essence remains in the landscape, and is discernible to those whose kinship or custodial ties allow them to access it.

It is this pervasive presence that Wompi explores in her paintings. In their sinuous pathways, we see an organic lattice of places, each connected, rolling into each other like tali or sandhills. Each gestural mark upon the canvas is like a footprint, revealing its creator’s presence. Like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence – a nostalgic echo of past travels, both personal and ancestral. Judith Ryan has characterized this as a “haptic quality … calling sites and spiritual associations through touch.” This touch connects Wompi’s knowledge and custodianship of the land to that of her ancestors; her movement on the canvas becomes a mythopoetic recollection of all the spiritual travels that underpin her country. At the same time, it overlays her own journey – both physical and artistic – onto these paths, creating a palimpsest that connects the past and present.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2010, acrylic on canvas.

In doing so, Wompi’s paintings create a matrix that unites all time and place. They paint the history of her landscape, as it is transcribed by ancient songlines and transgressed by more recent paths, such as the Canning Stock Route, which, during Wompi’s lifetime, brought European settlers into the world of the Kukatja. These settlers could not see the landscape, access its sacred powers or read its songlines. But perhaps this is the very point of Wompi’s paintings. As their lines of colour spill outwards to the edge of the painting, it is almost as though they are trying to break free of the canvas, to pour out from Kunnawarritji to the world. As they reach the edge, they ask us to see the majesty outside the canvas – to realize that this mystical essence is part of the great continuum of existence. This is a unique gift; an intercultural exchange that offers both an expansive lesson in Indigenous cosmology and a critique of our own visual nescience. Painted lovingly and passionately by a powerful, individualistic woman, they project a unique understanding of the world. In their beauty and grace, they offer a guidebook that invites us to feel the indelible essence of this sacred land.

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Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, Western Australia, from June 1, till July 4, 2010

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

Far to the west of the remote Indigenous community of Yuendumu, in the distant reaches of the Tanami Desert, lies one of the most important ceremonial sites for the women of the Warlpiri. Mina Mina is a sacred landscape made up of two large clay-pans guarded by a feathery sentinel of desert oaks, where, in the Jukurrpa (Dreamtime) a series of karlangu (digging sticks) emerged from the ground. Taking up these sticks, a large group of ancestral women began a heroic journey north to Jayinki and then eastward through Alcoota country. Marching in joyous exultation, their paths shaped the landscape, permeating it with the spirit of their songs. According to the Warlpiri, the spindly desert oaks at Mina Mina are an embodiment of these first digging sticks and of the ancestral women who brandished them.

The story of Mina Mina is of profound spiritual sustenance to the Warlpiri. It helps explain the genesis of the landscape, and circumscribes their relationship to it. Despite being over 300 kilometres from Yuendumu, it remains an important site of ceremonial and custodial obligations. Not surprisingly, it has also been one of the great sources of artistic inspiration for Warlpiri women. At the hands of Yuendumu’s great chroniclers it has revealed itself in a myriad of ways: some artists have chosen to focus on the desert oaks (Kurrkara), others the hair-string skirts (Majarrdi) worn during ceremony, others still have focused on the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) or vine (Ngalyipi) first collected by the ancestral travelers. Combined, these stories create a stunning vision of place, united by the indelible spiritual identification that is felt by the Warlpiri, and in particular those of the Napangardi/Japangardi and Napanangka/Japanangka sub-sections for whom this place resonates with personal significance.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In contrast to the other early epicentres of desert painting, such as Papunya and Lajamanu, the painting movement at Yuendumu did not coalesce around senior men, but began in 1983 through the efforts of a group of senior Warlpiri women. Encouraged by the anthropologist Françoise Dussart, the women helped forge the dynamic ‘Yuendumu style’, which, as Judith Ryan has noted, was “characterised by vibrant colour, large brush-strokes and an almost messy, gestural freedom.”[1] In 1985, the artists formed Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, through which they have refined the style, adding a level of accomplishment and elegance, while retaining the intensity of colour and spontaneity of design that defined the early movement. Subsequent generations of Yuendumu women have gained international acclaim as artists, including Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Bessie Nakamarra Sims and Betsy Napangardi Lewis. Despite generational change and aesthetic transformation, the presence of Mina Mina in Warlpiri art has remained an iconic constant.

It is this legacy that is taken up in the paintings of Kelly Napanangka Michaels and Alma Nangala Robertson. Born in the late 1960s, Michaels (b.1965) and Robertson (b.1969) heard the Jukurrpa stories from their elders, and saw them painted with passion and dedication by their artistic forebears. Now they pass these stories onto their children and grandchildren, retelling them in a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. The influence of their elders runs through their work; the dominant iconographies of Warlpiri painting are clearly present, as is the characteristic Yuendumu palette of pink, mauve, purple and blue. However, this is not a slavish form of imitation. In the paintings of Michaels and Robertson, influence exists as an aesthetic undercurrent that bubbles to the surface like the spiritual residue of the ancestors that informs the landscape. The influence of their artistic precursors becomes a song that infuses the canvas, filling it with the authority of cultural continuity and uniting it with the performative actions of song and ceremony that connect the Warlpiri to the Jukurrpa.

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

In Michaels’ depictions of Mina Mina, two key elements of the story dominate: the ceremonial dancing skirts (Majarrdi) and the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) collected by the women on their journey. Majarrdi and Jinti-parnta are painted with a jutting angular intensity, which makes them appear to quiver across the canvas. Using extremes of contrasting colours (including a distinctive use of black and white outlines), Michaels creates a fluttering tension between foreground and background that makes the Majarrdi appear to float above the canvas as though suspended by invisible dancers. This creates an ethereal sense of spiritual presence, while the thickly painted ground of the canvas anchors them to the temporal materiality of the landscape. Like her artistic precursors, Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Robertson’s focus is the sacred Ngalyipi vine and the desert oaks (Kurrkara). Her paintings are swirling evocations of the landscape that shuttle between the narrative of travel and the fixed nature of place. Meandering lines sink into the landscape, evoking the residue of ancestral travels that simmer below the surface. Mina Mina pulsates in a spiral of colour that alludes to the constant spiritual undercurrents of ancestral travels, which shape and inform this place.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In drawing attention to this continuity of ancestral presence, both Michaels and Robertson testify to the continuing power of the Dreaming – a power that runs through all things, and unites all time and place. In their paintings, culture, aesthetics, history and place unite in a joyful continuum of colour and song. The Jukurrpa of Mina Mina is carried forward; its transformative power is expressed in an artistic evolution that pays homage to the past, while presenting a new vision for the future. On these fresh tongues, the exultant songs of the ancestral women are given new breath, proclaiming the creative power of Mina Mina for future generations.


[1] Judith Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert from the National Gallery of Victoria exhib. cat. (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1989), 69.
 

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Carved out of Life: The Art of Emu Egg Carving

The following essay was first published as a preview for the exhibition Carved out of Life curated by Clinton Nain and held at at Craft Victoria from 18 June till 24 July 2010. The essay was published in Art Guide Australia, July/August 2010.

Installation image of carved Emu eggs by Lucy Williams.

Two years ago, the contemporary Indigenous artist Clinton Nain acquired his first emu egg. It was by Esther Kirby – a family friend of Nain’s, and the daughter of renowned Wiradjuri ‘boss carver’ Sam Kirby. The object resonated with the young artist, its muted patina of green and grey whispering softly as though each incised layer revealed a hidden world. And yet, as he delved into this verdant haze, Nain could find little clarity or illumination: carved emu eggs have rarely appeared in critical literature or major exhibitions. In frustration, he decided to curate his own survey, Carved out of Life: the Art of Emu Egg Carving at Craft Victoria, in a valiant attempt to “highlight the importance and significance of a neglected medium.”

To most Australians, carved emu eggs are items of kitsch, synonymous with craft markets and tourist outlets. Amongst southern Indigenous peoples, however, they are objects of considerable communal identification. Brenda Croft has noted, that by the mid-20th Century, carved emu eggs were a popular decorative item in Indigenous homes, serving to “affirm and Indigenous identity within the domestic environment.” [i] For Nain, however, their significance is more profound: “Denied traditional forms of cultural expression, Indigenous communities adopted the emu egg as a medium to tell stories, explain totems and reveal knowledge of land, place and identity … strengthening and retaining links to the past.”

With the rise of post-colonial theory, this kind of claim has been a common refrain in Indigenous art criticism. Colonial modes of art production are reclaimed as acts of artistic subterfuge through which forbidden pre-colonial knowledge is preserved beneath the cover of western aesthetics.  The problem with this kind of revisionism is that it creates a static and uniform criterion of value, in which Indigenous artworks can only be ‘significant’ or ‘important’ insomuch as they contain some hidden cultural cache; some link to the past; some authentic ‘Aboriginality.’ This is not to suggest that carved emu eggs might not be rich in such ‘traditional’ cultural content, but rather, that such an emphasis obscures a more complex cultural history that might offer a greater insight into this enigmatic medium.

Carved emu egg by Jonaski Takuma, 1895 – 1905, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

The practice of carving emu eggs arose in the mid-19th Century. It was not originally considered an Aboriginal medium, in fact, one of the most successful early carvers was a Japanese craftsman named Jonaski Takuma who set up shop in Sydney’s Strand Arcade in 1893. The aesthetic of the first carved emu eggs belonged firmly to the ornate decorative style of the late Victorian era. Their content, on the other hand, was resolutely nationalist, reflecting the idealised bush ethos pioneered by The Bulletin, Henry Lawson and the Heidelberg painters. In the post-War years, this aesthetic and ideology was superseded by a more modernist vision of Australian design and identity. Coupled with new government restrictions on the harvesting of emu eggs, the practice of carving emu eggs became increasingly rare amongst non-Indigenous artisans.

It was around this same time that the carving of emu eggs began its remarkable ascendancy amongst Indigenous communities. This coincidence is illuminating, for just as non-Indigenous Australians were dismantling the vision of bush nationalism embodied in carved emu eggs, it was appropriated by Indigenous artists for an entirely different ideological purpose. Like the Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting, emu egg carving was an introduced medium that demonstrated skill, craftsmanship and expertise, while its content professed a uniquely Aboriginal affinity with the landscape. The medium itself neatly balanced a dichotomy of assimilation and self-assertion: carved onto an objet whose acquisition required the knowledge of the hunter-gatherer, it suggested an inherent physical link to Indigenous heritage, while the realist images etched upon it implied a reconciliation with western aesthetic values.

Prior to the 1970s, there was little discernible difference in either content or style, between carved emu eggs produced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. In some instances, artists of both cultures worked side by side. However, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum, many Indigenous artists began to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Carvers like Bluey Roberts, Badger Bates and Adrian ‘Ringo’ Morten began to replace realist imagery with an array of neo-traditional Aboriginal designs, drawing upon elements of rock art, desert painting and the traditional markings of their southern Indigenous tribes. Others, like Esther Kirby or Western Australian artist Barry Belotti, retained the realism of their predecessors, but used it to critique colonial incursion. Writhing from the surface, Kirby’s depictions of Indigenous faces wear a mask of suffocating anguish, as though silenced by the confines of an imposed visual language.

Esther Kirby, Carved Emu Egg, 2010.

Clinton Nain is absolutely correct in arguing that carved emu eggs deserve greater critical attention. For the past century, southern Indigenous people have been exploring the medium, changing its style and content to reflect their changing historical, social and political situation. Critically evaluating these developments offers a unique opportunity to explore the complex cultural history of southern Indigenous people, their continued negotiation with modernity, and the historical forces that have constructed contemporary Indigenous identity. They reveal how seemingly fixed notions of identity, place or culture are remodelled, reappropriated and reused for changing political, ideological or personal reasons. It is precisely these indicators that show how artists negotiate the forces of history and shed light upon the world in which we live. Just as Indigenous and non-Indigenous craftsmen once worked side by side, perhaps in these tiny globes we might see a vision of the world that we share, as much as the differences that we inscribe upon it.


[i] Brenda Croft, ‘The Gift of Seeing with Fingers’, Tactility: Two Centuries of Indigenous Objects, Textiles and Fibre, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Australia, 2003.

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