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Embroidery, India

Moving aesthetics: translocal and transnational spiritualities in Australian Aboriginal art

Fiona Magowan

This dimension of the CIM project explores the embodiment of aesthetic and spiritual values, meanings and interpretations as they are variously delineated and contested in the categories ‘ancestral’ and ‘Christian Aboriginal art’. The theoretical foundation of this component is particularly concerned with the ways in which Australian Aboriginal artists move within and between different communities to consider how translocal and transnational networks, mission histories and noumenal beliefs of artists have influenced changing expressions of artistic creativity in different regional contexts. Recognising that creativity in Aboriginal Australia cross-cuts visual, aural and tactile sensory domains, the research seeks to encompass the visual with other aspects of performativity. In particular, it examines Indigenous perceptions and negotiations of creativity, aesthetic value and Christian/ancestral spirituality as practices of religious evocation of faith and emotion through Australian Aboriginal Catholic and Protestant images: it analyses how transit and transition influence aesthetic and religious narratives as artists move between urban and remote settings and between religious and art world contexts; it considers processes of creative improvisation as the makers of the art works reflect upon their roles as participants in transnational artistic and religious events; and it evaluates the recontextualisation of art as a processual dynamic in interculturalism and transnational co-operation. Based upon ethnographic research in South Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, a comparative analysis of diffuse ontological bases of spirituality reveals highly complex ways in which aesthetic values are negotiated, articulated and evaluated, as Aboriginal artists variously produce contemporary religious and aesthetic identities through ancestral and Christian arts for local markets and national/international exhibitions.

The foundations of this research are based on the premise that art is a process of ‘making special’ (Dissayanake 1988, 1992) and thus, it eschews notions of elitism derived from modernist paradigms in order to foreground an imaginatively embodied system of sensory relations that shape aesthetic practices and underpin intercultural and intergenerational agendas. While Aboriginal art is one of the most widely published domains of scholarship relating to Australia, and its religious insights have influenced theoretical perspectives of aesthetic revisionism internationally (see Layton 1981, Morphy 1991, 2007, 2008, Morphy and Perkins 2006, Anderson, Sutton et al. 1998, Munn , Ingold 2001, Myers 2002), little has been written on either Christian Aboriginal artistic expressions or the political dimensions which circumscribe denominational frameworks of production. Missions, ministers and national church agendas have not only been formative in shaping the histories of Australian Aboriginal engagements with the nation, along with the institutionalization of power and politics, but they have produced a lasting legacy of Christian aesthetic influence in Aboriginal communities.

As this research spans contemporary and Christian artistic practices of men and women from urban and remote communities, so it recognises the intersections, overlaps and divergences in these differentiated settings and their gendered cultural dimensions (see fig. 1 and fig. 2).  By uncovering the historical, ancestral and theological specificities of artists’ incentives for creative expression, I argue that aesthetic sensitivity in Aboriginal artistic practices is emergent, relational and evolves through a politics of expressivity which blurs the boundaries of art-market concepts and domains of production. This underpinning philosophy provides a distinctiveness not only the ancestral foundations of much Aboriginal artistic work but also to its Christian reformulation. For example, while the Aboriginal Catholic church in Sydney welcomes the adaptation of re-imagined Aboriginal purification rituals and their associated material objects within a Christian context, this kind of appropriation is not popular among members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Church Congress in the Northern Territory. The reasons for this are multifarious and bring historical disjnctures of doctrinal positions on belief and theological debates on aesthetic practices to light (see Rainbow Spirit elder 2007).

Meyer (2010) has also elaborated divergent theologies that have historically underpinned doctrinal and denominational differences. She analyses how Protestant theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher rejected the concept of aestheticism (and hence Catholicism) due to its tendency to highlight religious feelings of worship for the image rather than for the omnipotence of the creator, thereby endorsing the power of the church rather than that of God (see Meyer 2010: 748). Although Catholicism may have attempted to capture a sense of ineffable presence iconographically, Protestantism did not escape the problem of representing intangible modalities of presence especially in Pentecostalism which repositioned it within the aesthetic body (ibid). As this research shows, the creation of images, and how they are perceived by Aboriginal people, owes less to doctrinal differences in mission-teaching as is does to the politics of church leadership; the motivation for Christian art production; the outlets for these works; and their reception in an intercultural space of Aboriginal-focused Christian circulation. While denominational differences in artistic practice and interpretation may influence ecumenical relations and shape expressions of faith, these effects are secondary to the ways in which Aboriginal art, in general, has become a significant and powerful mediator of identity politics in the Australian nation. This is as true for suburban-based artists as it is for those in the remote areas of the Northern Territory. As changing systems of governance demand engagement from all Indigenous people, so Aboriginal artists demonstrate that aesthetic sensitivity is not merely a way of being human, of relating to kin and clan, or of remembering the dead and memorialising loss. Rather, art and its aesthetic expression has become a powerful mediator of morality and spiritual governance. It speaks for those whose voices are subdued by dominant cultural and state agendas and it envisions the possibilities of aesthetic actions that have yet to be empowered.

Thus, Aboriginal art is much more than its economic commodification in a burgeoning art market. Rather, aesthetic and spiritual insights are understood as its raison d’être and are central to the development of a new generation of artists. In north east Arnhem Land, the process of artistic training has become one of institutionalised learning as clan leaders (djirrikay) pass on their knowledge of aesthetic forms and techniques in the classroom as opposed to the ritual ground. The implications of this shift have enormous socio-political ramifications. While children may still learn their artistic designs from fathers as part of ritual preparations, these aesthetic practices are paralleled by sketch books, art marketing lessons and classroom environments. Nonetheless, this contextual incongruence has not dampened the creative flair of Aboriginal youth who not only quickly learn the appropriate aesthetic mode of representation but also the entrepreneurial skills to sell their handiwork. Aesthetic sensitivites in Aboriginal art are in constant motion as they are continually being mediated between artworld and Christian contexts, among youth and clan leaders and as a spiritual dynamic of interculturalism.



Dissayanake, Ellen 1988 What is art for? Seattle: University of Washington Press

Dissayanake, Ellen 1992 Homo aestheticus: where art comes from and why. New York: The Free Press

Ingold, Timothy. 2000. The Perception of the Environment. essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London : Routledge.

Layton, Robert. 1981. The Anthropology of Art. Granada Publishing.

Anderson, Chris, Peter Sutton, and Philip Jones. 1988. Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. New York : G. Braziller in association with Asia Society Galleries.

Meyer, Birgit. 2010. Aesthetics of Persuasion: Global Christianity

and Pentecostalism’s Sensational Forms, South Atlantic Quarterly, 109:4, Fall.

Morphy, Howard. 1991. Ancestral Connections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morphy, H 2007, Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories, Berg Publishers, Oxford UK.

Morphy, H 2008, 'The Light of Wangarr', in Elizabeth Edwards & Kaushik Bhaumik (ed.), Visual Sense: A Cultural Reader, Berg Publishers, New York, pp. 59-61.

Morphy, H & Perkins, M 2006, 'The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice', in H. Morphy, M. Perkins (ed.), The Anthropology of Art: A Reader, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Malden, USA, pp. 1-32.

Myers, Fred. 2002. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rainbow Spirit Elders. 2007. Rainbow Spirit theology: Towards an Australian Aboriginal theology 2nd ed. Hindmarsh, S. Aust.: ATF Press.


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