Saturday, August 18, 2012

Aboriginal Art Appropriated by Non-Aboriginal Artists
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Is “appropriation” the forging of a new act of engagement? I have purposely used the word “forging” since it has an ambiguous meaning[1]. It could mean to copy with intent in order to pass as the original or it could mean to frame and fashion an image or action into a particular context.

I would contend that earlier definitions of “appropriation” within an art context limits its conceptual meaning. For example, the earlier definitions of “appropriation” were inappropriate since they were coined in terms of the exactness or likeness of image: that is, it was defined as “Xerox Art”[2] or “Quotation Art”[2] or art with “…no combinations, no transformations, no additions, no synthesis”[3]. Art that completely dismantles originality and so was dull, derivative, opportunistic and mechanical [2]. "Appropriation" in modernity centers on its transformational power to project an image or representation from its original conception into an entirely new conceptual domain.

“Appropriation” is not an art movement with a historical beginning and end[4]. It is in fact a logical process of representation and so it is not too dissimilar to inductive or deductive reasoning which rests on the premises or axioms that are assumed to be irrefutable[5]. Hence it cannot be defined by the context in which it is used[4]. That is, it cannot be defined in terms of the usual categories such as style, artistic identity and history. For example, ”appropriation” is evident in Impressionism as well as in Abstract Expressionism, thereby indicating that the form of the art cannot define the act.

Abstract Expressionism - Margo Lewers, Wreckage (1956).
Media: Oil on hardboard.
Size: 91.5 cm (width) x 121.9 cm (length).
Note: Her painting consisted of a series of angular or boomerang shapes (aboriginal motifs) sweeping the foreground of the picture, with variation to tones of browns and yellows, giving vibrancy with a much needed added dimension.

To try and understand “appropriation” in a concrete operational sense, let us turn to nature. Identical twins occur if the ovum, after fertilization, splits into two[6]. In a fertilized egg, each chromosomal pair is made up from halves from each parent. Consequently, the chance of children getting exactly the same set of chromosomes from their parents is rare[7]. Only identical twins – from a single fertilized egg – can have identical chromosomes[7].

Below you see two identical twins. It is clear that “only that which is alike differs”[8]. That is, we notice differences because of the similarity of these two sisters. On the other hand, “only differences are alike” [8]. This means that we think of their similarity as a product of a basic disparity. The first way is to view the world in iconoclastic terms, whereas the second is to define it in terms of similarity. Either way, the process of “appropriation” reinforces the existence of the original via its transformational restatement(s)[5].

“Only that which is alike differs”. We notice differences because the twins are similar.

Contemporary Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal Art is both aged and contemporary[9]. Just a few decades ago, “contemporary” aboriginal art would have been synonymous with the watercolors of the Aranda School in Central Australia[9].

The modernity of aboriginal art has embraced a range of new media – from canvas to acrylic paints to artist’s boards. Once there is convergence, then the boundaries that exist between aboriginal and European art becomes blurred, thereby making appropriation more inevitable. For example, Lin Onus was born in Melbourne[10]. His paintings draw their inspiration from the symbolic visual language of Arnhem Land, although the medium employed - acrylic on canvas - is a European medium and moreover, his realistic but naive style is reminiscent of the European painter - Henri Julien Rousseau.

Linus Onus, Fish and Lillies (1987).
Media: Acrylic on canvas.
Size: 90 cm (length) x 122 cm (width).

Henri Julien Rousseau, The Merry Jesters.

Australian - European Convergence With Aboriginal Art
Contemporary art forms in the 1980s started to converge with contemporary aboriginal art[11]. As a consequence to a non-aboriginal audience, the sub-liminal incorporation of “aboriginality” provided images in the act of engagement of a simplistic life style, over-layed with a seamless affinity for the environment. These ubiquitous qualities were no longer the exclusive domain of the indigenous people, but rather were appropriated by the so-called “white” aboriginals. The reaction to this “appropriation” was not too dissimilar to the paternalistic “white” reaction to Namatjira’s European water colors[12].

Imants Tillers, Antipodean Manifesto (1986).
Media: Oilstick, oil, synthetic polymer paint on canvas boards (Nos:9611-9726).
Size: 254 cm (length) x 190.5 cm (width).

In the 1980s artist Tim Johnson went to the Papunya settlement in the Central Australian Desert and was overwhelmed by the achievements of the aboriginal artists. By 1983 he had won the confidence of some of them and began to do joint works with them. Michael Nelson Tjakamarra initiated Johnson into areas of his “Dreaming”, thereby allowing Johnson to use particular custodian images of Tjakamurra[13].

Tim Johnson and Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Yam Dreaming (1989 – 92).
Media: Acrylic on linen.
Size: 44 cm (length) x 32 cm (width).

Tim Johnson says of aboriginal art[14]: “…that what we are offered is a new language that achieves simultaneity with world culture with a new (to us) set of signs. So much aboriginal art encodes related views of landscape and details of lifestyles in quasi-figurative imagery. This point cannot be trivialized because it helps to explain language only made public in the 20th century”[14].

Working through the styles of the 1960s – 1980s aboriginal artworks, Johnson traces the history of Western art styles, which include Mannerist, Baroque and Classical in their work. He envisages Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri in terms of “…as high Renaissance Art”; that is, he sees him as the “Leonardo” figure within the Papunya movement[15].

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Butterfly Dreaming (1972).
Size: 35 cm (length) x 45 cm (width).
Tribe: Anmatjira Aranda.
Location: Napperby Station.
Custodian: Tjapaltjarri – Tjungurrayi.

Design Elements Pre-planned For The Painting Above.

Tim Johnson and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Reincarnation (1993).
Media: Acrylic on linen.
Size: 60 cm (length) x 40 cm (width).

Tim Johnson spent eight years involved on a casual basis with the Papunya painting movement [15] and this influence can be seen in his paintings such as, “Illusory City”. Crossing cultural boundaries and cultural convergence on a spiritual level is the inspiration, which characterizes Johnson’s work. The merging of imagery from various cultures can be seen with an Eastern landscape composed from the Central Desert dot technique, but structured to allow the ground to take shape as he includes a variety of figures and places from Tibet, China and the Australian desert. A rock guitarist is featured in the bottom right hand corner. Papunya paintings also float across its surface.

Tim Johnson, Illusory City (1985).
Media: Acrylic on canvas.
Size: 186 cm (length) x 154 cm (width).
Note: Painting Resides in Australia’s Parliament House, Canberra.

Johnson explains the structure of the language that he is constructing: “Images are dreams and exist independently of time – so we can paint the future. Abstraction frees meaning from the object (that depicts it). Form is separated from meaning to enable its reconstruction and the process, an emanation of theory, sees the enmeshing of object (paint on canvas) and idea (image where object represents meanings). These meanings are established by constructions of curved and straight lines, colors, etc. Scale is generally Buddhist. Eastern art styles are similar to Central Australian art styles. The illusory quality of the desert and the life there is retained in Buddhist art. The mudra becomes the fireplace . . . The whole thing is a metaphor for city living as it can be overloaded with signs and meanings”[16].

This intense desire for unity can also be seen in Tim Johnson’s 1986 painting, “Inland Sea”, which was exhibited in the “Inland: Corresponding Places – Exhibition” at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 1990[17].

Tim Johnson, Inland Sea (1996).
Mixed media on canvas.
Size: 38 cm (length) x 35.5 cm (width).

Johnson’s art occupies an important place in a controversial and interesting aspect of Australian art - that being, which exists between the black and white visual cultures. His appropriations are trying to integrate the complex questions of spirituality, place, time and power.

Imants Tillers also favored the new forms of figuration, particularly imagery appropriated from other visual cultures or media. The painted field ceased to be a picture or a surface, and became a site upon which previously unrelated images met. This was a shift from “perceptual” to “conceptual” engagement. The concept of a ‘White Aboriginal’ as a general metaphor for individual alienation is explored through Tillers’ immigrant background and the alternate subject matter and approaches that he introduced[18].

He was born in Sydney in 1950 of Latvian parents and he is acutely conscious of his displacement within a predominantly British society. Tillers’ constant quotation of reproductions of images offers an ironic and subtle treatment of the imagery of personal and social identity. In his painting - “The Nine Shots”- he combines the wandering lost pilot/poet/artist figure of German Neo-Expressionist, George Baselitz, with Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s “Five Dreamings”[19].

Imants Tillers, The Nine Shots (1985).
Media: Oil stick, synthetic and polymer paint on 91 canvas boards.
Size: 330 cm (length) x 266 cm (width).

Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Five Dreamings (1984).
Media: Acrylic on canvas.
Size: 122 cm (length) x 182 cm (width).

Imants Tillers Detailed view of "The Nine Shots".
Note: Imants Tillers appropriation of Tjakamarra’s image was correctly attributed by Tillers.

In an interview with Paul Foss in 1987 he discusses “The Nine Shots”. Tillers says of his work: “I realize that … I risk reading the picture rather than seeing the material practices invested in the work, something, which would require a very different kind of response. But again my purpose at this moment is to query the transposition of themes and visual techniques from one culture to another, particularly with regard to how such a transposition makes apparent a certain myth of Australian-ness. For instance, who’s shooting through, and with what? Is it the European tradition that is being riveted by the Aboriginal state of play, or is it that we Europeans are trying to bring into line an “art of white aborigines”? And are these any different? Added to which one might mention a possible depiction of the way that traditional aboriginal art forms are increasingly being embraced by European expressionist devices, colors, tools, whatever. Thus the sort of signifying practice I have in view before this work is one that endorses the re-colonization of localized cultural activities in this country (i.e. to appropriate without guilt). All this is true. But this was the first image where I directly quoted from an aboriginal painting. I saw it as a dangerous activity in a way, much more dangerous than quoting from Kiefer or Schnabel. So in a sense the aboriginal image is penetrating the figure. The connotations are of danger and dread”[20].

In the case of Tim Johnson and Imant Tillers, Nena Dimitrijevic’s reflection on “Appropriation” applies. She says[21]: “Appropriation is justifiable only when it serves to establish a new signifying system…only works [if] through the method of historical retrospection [it] opens up a dimension of critical interpretation of the present moment in history and in art, [and so] puts into operation the transformational force of art.”

Hence by using examples from these artworks I have attempted to show that “Appropriation” is not an art movement in itself with a historical beginning and end[4]. It is in fact a logical process of representation. Moreover, it should never be confused with mimicry - the latter is devoid of any transformational force and so should be rendered as a feeble reproduction of no consequence.

For a further discussion on the distinction between appropriation and mimicry, see my art essay - Is It Appropriation Or Mimicry?

[1] Oxford Dictionary.

[2] A. Martin in, “What is Appropriation?”, Ed. R. Butler, Page 284, IMA & Power Publications, Brisbane (1996).

[3] D. Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation”, Tension 2, Sept-Oct., Page 13 (1983).

[4] R. Butler in, “What is Appropriation?”, Ed. R. Butler, Page 16, IMA & Power Publications, Brisbane (1996).

[5] R. Butler in, “What is Appropriation?”, Ed. R. Butler, Page 15, IMA & Power Publications, Brisbane (1996).

[6] Ed. J.E.O. Clark, The Human Body, Page 296, Marshall Edition Limited, Hong Kong (1989).

[7] Ed. J.E.O. Clark, The Human Body, Page 314, Marshall Edition Limited, Hong Kong (1989).

[8] G. Deleuze, Plato and Simulacrum”, Oct 27, Winter, Page 52 (1983).{see ref. [5]}

[9] J. Isaacs, Aboriginality, Page 9, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane (1989).

[10] J. Isaacs, Aboriginality, Page 24-26, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane (1989).

[11] I. Tillers in, “What is Appropriation?” Ed. R. Butler, Page 139, IMA & Power Publications, Brisbane (1996).

[12] B. Murphy, Introduction, Australian Perspecta, Page 13 (1981) (see also [11]).

[13] B. Smith, T. Smith and C. Heathcote, "Australian Painting 1788 - 2000", Oxford University Press, South Melbourne (2001) Page 538.

[14] R. Butler, ed., T. Johnson in, "What is Appropriation?", IMA & Power Publications, Brisbane (1996) Pages 226 - 227.

[15] ibid. Page 231.

[16] B. Smith, T. Smith and C. Heathcote, "Australian Painting 1788 - 2000", Oxford University Press, South Melbourne (2001) Pages 540 - 541.

[17] Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, "Inland: Corresponding Places", Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (1990) Pages 17 & 34.

[18] B. Smith, T. Smith and C. Heathcote, "Australian Painting 1788 - 2000", Oxford University Press, South Melbourne (2001) Pages 512 - 522.

[19] ibid. Pages 528 - 529.

[20] P. Foss, ed., "Mammon or Millennial Eden?, Interview with Imants Tillers", Art & Text, March-May (Paddington) 1987, Pages 133 - 136.

[21] ibid. Page 126.


patrick walker said...

Yeah this Aboriginal Art is very famous and beautiful art in Australia. This dot painting looks innovative art form which beautiful created by the aboriginal people.

Sarah Karen said...

Is there more references? You have labelled up to [20] but only show a few :( any chance of getting the other sources?

Art Quill Studio said...

Hi Sarah,
All of the 21 references are now listed at the end of the blog art essay/article.