On the cave walls of the town
In his reconstruction of the short and spectacular career of Kiwi neo-expressionist Philip Clairmont, Martin Edmond suggests that his hero chose to work on frail materials like hessian and to use poor quality paints because he rejected the idea that art should be eternal. Clairmont was obsessed with death long before he suicided in 1984, and he may have derived a sort of comfort from the fact that his work would decay as surely as his body. Would it be romantic to suggest that the yellows and azure blues of Clairmont's paintings shine more brightly, because the material on which they are dashed is thinning and crumbling?
It is not only modern artists who have worked on surfaces which threaten their creations. The paintings and carvings that pre-industrial peoples have made on stone and wood are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature, and require augmenting or revising if they are to survive indefinitely.
In many parts of the world, the violent appearance of modern society has broken the cultural traditions that gave meaning to prehistoric paintings and carvings. As the guns, holy books, and ploughs of invaders abolish old ways of living and thinking, images which once instantly aroused a chuckle or a sigh or a vow become alien, inscrutable things, of interest only to the archaeologists and tourists who follow inevitably in the rearguard of the colonising army.
I remember leaning over a thistled cliff-edge in north Otago, gawking at something - a long, luxuriously curved river, or moon, or tail - painted faintly on the crumbling wall of a cave just large enough to hide a frightened sheep. In the somewhat more comfortable environs of museums, I've stood for hours in front of painted panels that have been hewn, in acts of preservation that are nonetheless sacrilegious, off the walls of other obscure caves in the interior of Te Wai Pounamu. The meaning of these works has been lost to the culture that created them. The images have not died, so much as transmogrified into mere motifs - decontextualised formal arrangements that have been attractive to Pakeha modernist artists and designers like Theo Schoon, ARD Fairburn, and Gordon Walters.
In Australia, where the tradition of outdoor painting was far more developed, rock art has become big business. Both indigenous and white Australian tour companies compete to fly tourists to remote caves and ravines, and to explicate the images which survive there. Many of the explications depend on indigenous storytelling, not modernist theory, because the connection between the outdoor galleries and the peoples who created them was never completely broken.
Yet although many Aboriginal peoples retain knowledge of the meaning of their outdoor art, few of them paint or carve on rock walls today. Recently Wamud Nomak, the last man to paint on the rocks of the Northern Territory's western Arnhem Land region, died at the age of eighty-three. The open-air galleries of the western Arnhem Land have become open-air museums; any future work on them seems likely to be done by conservators and archaeologists intent on preservation, not artists intent on elaboration.
The guides who usher parties of Japanese and Swedish tourists through remote galleries will probably benefit from the final breaks in the living connection to rock art. Many of those who come to brush flies from their faces, gawk and click cameras are attracted by the idea that they are looking at the residue of an ancient, bygone civilisation. Like the shopper who pauses over expensive silverware in an antique shop, they are attracted by the glamour that age and lack of use can give to objects. The wistfully sentimental response to the death of Wamud Nomak in parts of the Australian media suggests that the desire to consign Aboriginal outdoor art to the past is strong.
Before I visited Australia earlier this year I was certainly inclined to see the outdoor painters of the Outback as doomed, noble figures, at odds with the modern world - as indigenous versions, perhaps, of Philip Clairmont and other ill-fated Bohemian painters of the West.
As Skyer and I travelled through the little towns that cling to mines, truck stops, and bottle shops beyond the Murray River, though, I was astonished to discover paintings all around me. On the cave walls of towns like Broken Hill, Wilcannia, and Dubbo, a new generation of painters is creating ambitious, eclectic, and sometimes angry works which at once innovative and recognisably Aboriginal. These murals are seldom mentioned in tour guides, and buses do not park beside them and disgorge elderly tourists. Broken Hill was not an important pre-contact Aboriginal place, because it lacked water. Nowadays, though, about five per cent of the town's population is Aboriginal. The Barkindji peoples, who live in the Darling region of New South Wales which includes the Hill, have a distinctive traditional painting style: where the 'Desert Aboriginals' of central Australia famously use dots, the Barkindji have often built their art around lines. An Aboriginal school of art exists in Broken Hill, and a number of murals around the town feature work by its graduates.
This painting, which decorates the side of an Aboriginal-owned building in Broken Hill, shows the eclecticism of the new outdoor art. Although it includes some Barkindji elements, the head of the mythological figure it depicts alludes to the gwion gwion style (also known as the Bradshaw style) of art which is found in the Kimberley region of far northwest Australia. The gwion gwion mode was abandoned by the people of the Kimberleys many thousands of years ago, but it can still be found on hundreds of thousands of rock walls, and it has drawn the attention of many non-Aboriginals - and, unfortunately, become a magnet for pseudo-historians fond of wacky speculations about lost civilisations - because it seems superficially to resemble certain European and Middle Eastern styles of art. The artists of the Kimberleys have little interest in the gwion gwion mode, so it seems that the modern Barkindji artists may have come across the style as a result of European enthusiasm. By taking over elements of the gwion gwion style Barkindji artists have perhaps protected its mana.
A thousand or so kilometres to the east, beside a railway line on the messy outskirts of the rural service town of Dubbo, Aboriginal artists have covered the shadowy concrete pillars of a bridge with murals whose confident forms and bright colours seem to mock their inauspicious setting. Not even racist graffiti diminishes the glory of these obscure, anonymous works of a living art tradition. If you're planning a trip to Australia, then my advice is to skip the thousand dollar helicopter ride to the cave in the Kimberleys, and head down to the scruffy side of the nearest town. Great art waits there.