Way Outback: Evolving Traditions

I've been back in the U.S. for a few weeks and I'm settled into my summer studio in Montana. I find myself excitedly describing the time I spent in Ernabella to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. In the discussions I am frequently asked, "Do Anangu have a clay tradition?" The simple answer is no, but what Anangu lack in duration they make up for with originality. Their art evolves to reflect their cultural growth and in response to art market demand for aboriginal art.

Aboriginal life is steeped in a cultural history that stretches back for millennia. Objects of an artistic nature have long been produced but these objects don't always fit smoothly into western concepts of art. Tools, weapons and clothing were produced for daily use, or ritual function, but they were never meant to be consumed as art by non-aboriginal people. "Art for art's sake" and certainly art as a consumer product was not part of the equation. From the "art for art's sake" perspective the Ernabella tradition started in the late 1940's when the art center was founded. Since the art center's formation Ernabella artist's have produced everything from woven rugs, to paintings, to batik fabrics. Ernabella artists are able to adapt their style based on market demand while producing art that honors their greater cultural context.

When I returned to Ernabella I was amazed at how much the drawing style had evolved from last year. When I asked why people were not drawing realistic landscapes anymore I was told that the new pattern based style sells better. It looks more "authentic" because it fits the western stereotype of what indigenous art should look like. For example compare the two pots pictured below by Derrick Thompson, one of Ernabella's most promising ceramic artists. The first platter made in 2012 is a realistic depiction of Kangaroo in a bush scene. The second jar from 2013 has an overall pattern that features an image of the wanapi, or snake (spirit), a prominent figure in Anangu stories. This change from realism to stylized pattern represents a major shift in aesthetic but not a decrease in cultural relevance. While the wanapi image has amassed cultural power through its role in Anangu story telling the Kangaroo is more important as a food source. It would be hard to say which style is more "aboriginal".

The recent Anangu shift in aesthetic is not a case of a culture selling out to make money. When an individual, or group, "sells out" there is often a decrease in quality and reduction in content. In this case you could argue that the opposite is happening. Quality and content are increasing as a reaction to the demands of a competitive art market. These pieces by Derek are just one example of the flexibility that Anangu show in their approach to art making. After seeing the variety of styles that Ernabella artists work within I have the feeling they are just hitting the tip of a creative iceberg. The mixture of a relatively short art making tradition with a longstanding cultural tradition is the perfect fuel for pushing an art movement forward.

I hope to make it back to Ernabella next year to work for a longer period. I'm excited to be a small part of the growth that is possible when a group of artists learn a new form of self expression.

The images below show the newer style of Anangu pottery. The sgraffito drawing style is similar to other creative forms (painting, etc) but the combination of color, pattern and form is unique to this body of work.

1 comment: