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Aboriginal art before it became an industry

The following excerpt is from an article that appeared in Eureka Street — volume 1, number 1, back in March 1991. In it, Rosemay Crumlin recalls travelling in search of Aboriginal Christian art for an exhibition to coincide with the World Council of Churches Assembly. She was joined on her pilgrimage by exhibition co-curator Anthony Waldegrave-Knight and the project's conceiver, Frank Brennan, then director of the Jesuit research and social action agency Uniya.

Sculpture by George Mung, photo by Henry Jolles

Our first journey into the outback was full of adventure, incredible 49-degree heat, and quite a lot of disillusion. You see, part of the process involved visiting remote Aboriginal communities to see whether we could discover any art that gave evidence that people were re-thinking Christianity in their own symbolic system. And what Christian art we did find was often as bad as I'd expected.

But at Balgo, in the Central Desert, we came across some huge wall-hangings and panels rolled up in the church the people there use for liturgies. I knew we were at the edge of something. But the heat was terrible and Anthony and I and even Frank (who looks like God, walking around in his hat) thought we'd had enough. It wouldn't have taken much to persuade us to omit Turkey Creek from our itinerary.

I rang Sister Clare Ahern at Turkey Creek, admitting to some hesitation. Her reaction was unambiguous: 'I think you should have come here first.' So we caught the little mail plane to Turkey Creek and arrived at the Meriingki Centre.

There, on the walls, was what we had been looking for. Startling! ... absolutely knockout works from the people of the Warmun Community. But particularly astonishing were those of Hector Sundaloo, George Mung and Paddy Williams. These three had been Christians from way back, and now, in their late 50s or early 60s ... they are the unmistakable community leaders. Hector is regarded as a ngapuny man, a man of God.

There were many paintings we might have taken from Turkey Creek, all of them done not as an artist would paint in a studio but as part of liturgy, done for use.

George Mung had carved a statue out of a piece of tree, a work of extraordinary beauty. Here it was, sitting on top of a hot-water system. About a metre high, it is an Aboriginal woman, a Madonna, pregnant with a man-child who stands in a shield just below her heart, his feet extended and his hands tipping the edges of the shield. It's almost like the image you get in the Leonardo drawing, but also like a Russian icon (which George Mung could never have seen).

The woman's body is painted with the paint reserved to young Aboriginal women before they have children. Accompanying her is a carved wooden bird, because Aboriginal people in this area believed in the holy spirit long before Christianity came. They believe that each person is accompanied through life by a holy spirit, male for male and female for female.

This work of George's would take its place, I believe, beside the great sculptures in the history of art. It is as moving as the carvings at Chartres, as great as the Germaine Richier crucifix in the church at Assy or the great Lipschitz sculpture at lona. It is incredibly moving.

This image alone raises major questions, as did the whole Turkey Creek experience. The art would be worth millions of dollars to a collector. It is not well-known as yet. I wondered, what if we take a sculpture like George's and show it to the world? What happens to the community?

We spoke of this together with the people, backwards and forwards. Our argument was that this work of theirs no longer belonged just in that little group. The world is entitled to its greatness. Not that the people expressed it like that themselves. George Mung said simply (of his sculpture), 'You take it. You take it. I'll do another one.' Never was it so clear how different was his sense of time, value and ego from that of European Australians ...

A lot of people think Aboriginal art is about dots and circles on canvas. In that they are really just thinking of the Central Desert and what has happened with Central Desert art. In fact, Aboriginal art differs in each part of the country and has its own local tradition.

What you have are people with a highly developed sense of vision, and because their languages have not been written down until now, their eyesight and sense of story — their visual and oral traditions — are enormously well developed. That will change, of course; the young people's eyesight will not be as finely tuned as the elders', nor their psyche as captivated by story.

Two of the Turkey Creek paintings exemplify that outer and inner vision. When I asked Hector, the painter, about one, he explained in a softish voice (he's a big tall man): 'This is the young Joseph and the young Mary before they came together.' Since, in the tradition of that area, they would not be able to speak to each other, each is seen to have a holy spirit, and so their spirits can commune. It is a marvellous image.

On my return to Turkey Creek to collect the paintings, the people invited me to an adult baptism. Though a priest spoke the words, it was in fact Hector, regarded by the community as their own ngapuny man, together with the elders and the community itself, who performed the ceremony. We discovered something from that: the second criterion Anthony and I had set ourselves — a sense of immediate spirituality — meant that the paintings in the exhibition have all been done by an older man or an older woman, since it is they who have the law. For Aboriginal people, art is valid and good if it truthfully tells a story, and if the story is told by someone with the required authority.

I was struck by something Salman Rushdie said in an interview shown last November. Rushdie claimed that he couldn't imagine a world without story. I feel that very strongly myself. It reminded me that those who do not understand story or its importance will never understand Aboriginal art. Nor can anyone who under-values symbol find a way into the art.

Rosemay CrumlinRosemary Crumlin is a member of the Mercy order, and one of Australia's best-known curators of religious art. She is the author of Images of Religion in Australian Art, and curated an exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Victoria.


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