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A Conversation in Colour: Aboriginal Art and the Accumulation of Influence

The influence of Australian Aboriginal art is a thread that runs right through the mismatched patchwork of contemporary creativity. As the inspirations of our guest editors, Craig & Karl, lead us to their native Australia, Arthur Hauss traces the debt our culture owes to works from the subcontinent.

WORDS - Arthur Hauss

In 2017 you’re either woke, in the process of waking, or you’ve been caught napping. Every question of inspiration is bracketed by another question of appropriation. It’s tedious but also necessary, as only by working through this most complex and confounding of moral mazes can we come out the other side with a clear understanding of the difference. And there is, unequivocally, a difference. 

It’s one thing, for example, to allow aspects or accents of the traditions and practices of other cultures to impact upon our daily lives – indeed, the homogeneousness of a world without that commingling hardly bears thinking about. It’s another thing entirely, however, to get dressed up in full Native American sacred dress for the sake of novelty and get drunk at a desert festival somewhere in the United States. 

What this means for life in general is well trodden: cuisine, clothing and even language, or certainly English at any rate, as we know them are all by-products of influence and of absorption by cultural osmosis. What it might mean for art, however, is less clear cut.

Point to a medium or even single work of art as entirely static in its definition and I will encourage you to push your face closer to its surface, to observe the ripples that never stop moving and the tensions that never cease to pull at one another. A work of art is never truly a complete whole, but an ever-shifting globule of distinct parts made indistinct by their coming together.

It’s a question of accumulation and appreciation rather than appropriation. Joseph Beuys’ sculptural works, for example, can hardly be accused of cultural thievery but are heavily indebted to the post-colonial concept of the fetish object. They are items crafted out of objects as everyday as felt or lumps of fat, and imbued with symbolism and meaning beyond their obvious aesthetic make-up. Indeed, Benjamin Buchloh, in Claudia Mesch and Viola Michely’s Joseph Beuys: The Reader, is noted to have said that “Beuys doesn’t produce fetishes, he practices them.” Like all artists worth their salt, Beuys knew that the concept of originality was a conglomerate and that inspiration is inherited rather than divine – the product of history rather than of serendipity.

Pablo Picasso was at least half right when he said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And though the second part is certainly up for debate – legal action and mixed public reaction to the artist Richard Prince and his repurposing of other people’s Instagram posts into his own work are but one proof of that – there’s very little doubt that borrowing can be a thing of a great beauty. With that in mind, it’s really no surprise that contemporary Western art, perhaps owing at least in part to globalisation over the last century, has become a patchwork of sorts with fewer immediately recognisable characteristics of its own. It’s also no surprise that artists would look, in such tumultuous and convoluted times as these, toward indigenous artists and their art as a source of inspiration. And while to view the artistic tropes of other cultures through an exoticised lens is, at very best, politically naïve, to see fresh possibilities in different attitudes and modes of expression is undoubtedly positive and a much needed tonic for the imagination.

To focus on but one influence, the effect of Australian Aboriginal art on the evolution of Western creativity is one that cannot be underestimated. In ways both subtle and strikingly obvious, its impact is impossible to ignore conceptually and its fingerprints are now indelible in practice. And, like anything that has become ingrained so thoroughly in a culture, this manifests both subliminally and superliminally both in those whose work has been indirectly changed and in artists who would, if asked, make clear its profound impact upon them and their practice.

Craig and Karl's self-portraits.

Kalparti by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri.

Minnie Pwerle aboriginal australia art
Awelye Atnwengerrp, by Minnie Pwerle.

What is particularly interesting, however, is the distinction between Australian Aboriginal art as we know it today and its more historically customary forms. According to The Smithsonian, the “boldly patterned Aboriginal acrylic painting” to which we have become accustomed and which we might reasonably think of as a catch-all representation of the tradition, has only existed for 46 years: “In July 1971,” it is explained in a 2010 article on the museum’s website, “an art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon distributed some brushes, paints and other materials to a group of Aboriginal men in the forlorn resettlement community of Papunya, 160 miles from the nearest town.” From these inauspicious origins, something new was able to flourish: “Together they painted a mural on a whitewashed schoolhouse wall, and then they created individual works in a former military hangar that Bardon called the Great Painting Room. In 1972, with his assistance, 11 of the men formed a cooperative called Papunya Tula Artists. By 1974 the group had grown to 40.”

In this sense, contemporary Australian Aboriginal art is itself a product of cultural exchange. Before the vivid murals and acrylic luminescences that are commonplace today, the style was typified by the parameters of the Australian lived experience: paintings both on and created from natural materials. When graphic designers like Craig & Karl make these connections as practitioners in a contemporary field, drawing lines between their own patterns, their use of minimalistic modes for maximum impact, and the work of someone like Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri or Minnie Pwerle, they do so in the spirit of that art’s own evolution. It isn't borrowing after all, but rather an ongoing back-and-forth – a dialogue. And, like all good conversations, it goes both ways: despite being born only three years before the Viennese painter’s death, the effervescent loops and swirls of Aboriginal artist Minnie Pwerle have something powerfully Klimtish about them.

Tjurrpinyi, by Doris Bush Nungarrayi.

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, by Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Ron Cogswell (licence).

To compare older Australian paintings to the work of the geographically distant Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, for example, is to be presented with a striking proof of their influence. To study the shapes which make up the now iconic face of Klee’s Senecio, at the natural forms of Flower Myth, the colourations of Cat and Bird, or the naturalistic and self-explanatory Landscape with Yellow Birds is to look upon those same tropes. Conceptually, too, to enjoy (and how could one not enjoy) a work of art by Paul Klee is to be immersed in the world of an artist obsessed with the undiluted power of colour.

An amalgamation himself, influenced as he was by Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism and essentially any other kind of art that he came across in his travels, whether intended or otherwise Klee’s output is bonded with Australian Aboriginal art by a shared understanding: a deep belief in the power of representation, defined yet not dominated by a use of colour to “mean” rather than to show. A comparable urge connects his figures and the 4000-year-old Wandjina pictographs (below), to present what is human in a spiritual and existential sense, rather than how humanity presents its self physically. 

To suggest that all contemporary art is indebted to Australian Aboriginal art is a push, as it to suggest that anyone who boldly uses colour in their work today owes any success to Geoffrey Bardon and the Papunya community is an overstatement. However, it is not such a reach to note that those ripples which have been collectively created have, subtly over time, altered the flow of 20th- and 21st-century art – from graphic designers like Craig & Karl to the psychedelic hues of Yayoi Kusama – and played their part in deciding the course it is currently on.

Senecio, by Paul Klee. 

Aboriginal pictographs known as Wandjina in the Wunnumurra Gorge, Barnett River, Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: Graeme Churchard (licence).

Our In Colour series explores the elusive and surprising phenomenon of colour in cities, with artists Craig and Karl as guest editors. The pair are working on a secret commission to transform one of White City's unloved spaces.

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