Sunday, May 11, 2003

Geoffrey Bardon – “Shepherd of the Aboriginal art industry” or “still a white man”?

I thought that Geoffrey Bardon’s recent death was a good time to revisit something I wrote eight years ago on the founding of the Aboriginal art industry, and in particular, Papunya Tula in 1971-72. Since what appears to be the definitive obit (URL above) is rather misleading by not mentioning the conflict (coming from at least two directions) that Bardon faced at the time, I’ve pasted my article, below, as an item of correction. In no sense do I intend to rain on Geoffrey’s catafalque (if you’ll forgive my mixed metaphor); rather this is a respectful squaring of the ledger; a necessary doing of 'business' in the sense connoted by the lucid Indigenous term “sorry business”.

If you’re only slightly interested in this topic, the probable highlights for the general reader are:

- the almost-unbelievable, Orwellian-pervasive presence of the (Native) Welfare Department on the ground at the time (from which the “still a white man” quote comes). This is not ancient history stuff – the wife of former “Protector”, Harry Giese, is alive and still working, as Chancellor of Northern Territory University.

- there is another, lesser-known, Bardon who lives on – James/Jim (Geoffrey’s brother). “Revolution by Night” by James Bardon (Sydney, Local Consumption, 1991) is a sui generis account of the 1970s Papunya polyverse, as it might have been lived and witnessed by a camp dog (who is secretly Caucasian underneath his mange). Searing stuff – thick with equal parts of insight and madness. Highly recommended reading; particularly if you currently think that Keith Windschuttle has anything worthwhile to say whatsoever. “Revolution by Night” is an eye-opener; Windschuttle is a Woollahra dinner-party wonder. Here's a sample of RBN:

1. The Approach to the Night-Continent

In a century born allegedly in shining robes it was strange how there was no fit to what was seen. There was a randomness, a horror, an awful savagery in our given designs, and our visual language no longer spoke what we thought we saw.

NOTE: the article below has so far not been published, if anyone is interested in the hardcopy rights, please contact me.


Papunya Tula: the Keys to the Painting Room – Unpublished mss Paul Watson, 1995

Australian Western Desert art has generally been historicized in terms of a very definite time and place of origin: 1971 and Papunya. Further to this foundation mythology is the central establishing role played by one man, Geoffrey Bardon. The text components of books on Western Desert art will either have been written by Bardon himself, or feature a dramatic biopic of Bardon’s time at Papunya in 1971-72. While Bardon’s role, played out against a mainly racist white sub-community, was admittedly courageous and mercurial, its very centrality - if not hegemony - detracts from the telling of stories, or “dreamings”, other than Bardon’s own, particularly those of the Papunya Aboriginal artists. Specifically, by being responsible for adding European meaning - and value - to the paintings 1 Bardon sets himself up to hold a sort of master-key 2 narrative over Western Desert law and culture.

Ostensibly, it is market demand that drives the need for paintings by Aboriginal artists to come with attached descriptions and diagrammatic “keys” 3. Bardon’s central role here adds legitimacy and closure to the foundation myth, but this myth is made problematic by its tacit acceptance of the dichotomy between “traditional” and “compromised” 4 Aborigines. Bardon’s framework is the initial comfortable acceptance of this dichotomy, but then the quickly moving on to defuse it by setting up a neutral field of origin, a “year zero”.

The foundation myth thus misses the visceral historical impact of the 1960’s collisions of law and culture in central Australia: the incarceration of the then-sovereign Pintupi in 1962 and the illegal dispossession of traditional owners from their lands by pastoral lessees after 1967. Although Bardon is not insensitive to, or shy of, addressing generally the horrific history of white colonisation (as it happened before his own eyes), his mythologised role is problematic because it seems to re-invent a formal white framework over Aboriginal cultural practices; and so to arguably re-institutionalise 5.

A more benign assessment of the Papunya Tula foundation mythology would emphasise Bardon’s own personal plight, particularly in the years 1971-1972, in that he did not then “hold the key” even over his own life, much less over the Papunya Aborigines. Bardon was always under the close scrutiny of the Welfare Department - formerly the Native Welfare Department, which had simply re-invented itself, Orwellian style, under the leadership of Protector and art-thief 6 Harry Giese 7.

In this sense, he was held in a form of captivity, akin in type - but vastly different in degree - to the incarceration of Papunya’s Aborigines. The quasi-fascist Welfare Department pointedly reminded Bardon that he was “still a white man” 8 following Bardon’s success in setting up the Papunya Tula co-operative artists’ company, run separately from the hitherto all-pervasive operations of the Welfare Department. Perhaps even more defining in ensuring Welfare’s animosity to Bardon was the Aboriginal custodianship - literally holding the key - of the “painting room” 9; later ransacked by whites 10. A major riot occurred at Papunya during Bardon’s brief time there , so perhaps justifying Bardon’s sense of Wagnerian grandeur when recollecting the moment, two decades on:

I would like it to seem that the painting movement’s beginnings were a marvellous dream of the time . . . [Later, in] 1980 I sometimes thought that, among those new fires and shattered expectations an older Australia was passing away forever, that our own symmetries had been set aside and made helpless, and that a new visualization and idea of a continent had come forth, quite literally, out of that burning or freezing red sand. It is hard to be clear about an entire continent wondrously re-perceived by the brutally rejected, and sick and poor. Yet this is what occurred. This was the gift that time gave, and I know this, in my heart, for I was there. 12

Whatever the broader consequences of the “movement” Bardon seems to have started at Papunya in 1971, problematics raised at the local level - of the “School” - cannot be avoided. Bardon does not critically analyse his own admitted aesthetic intervention either in terms of general issues of style 13 or - particularly glaringly - in terms of the actual painting medium: ochre or acrylic. The quite differing perceptions and recollections over whether early Papunya art was painted mainly from ochre, as opposed to acrylic 14 seem collusive in avoiding the now unpalette-able and largely unadmitted: that the early paintings were done in acrylics but on a deliberately restricted, ochre-ish muted palette. The issue here is much more than an aesthetic one here. Use of the acrylic medium was directly propelled by Bardon, in his role as a materials (include paint) broker to the artists 15, a role later taken over by the town store 16. The effect of this was, seemingly unintentionally, to remove the production of Papunya paintings from the larger intra-Aboriginal national economy, of which ochre trading was an important component. That Bardon’s apparent naivety could possibly be more negatively characterised, as paternalistic racism, is demonstrated by his remonstrations toward the Pintupi’s over-confiding of their secret-sacred material 17 and his hierarchy of Aboriginal groups, based on the level of European “contact” the group had had: Pintupi art thus had a “pleasing . . . lack of sophistication” 18.

Since the modern foundation of Aboriginal art at Papunya in 1971, the popular perception has been that such art has become a juggernaut that has long since eclipsed its humble, and recent origin. Indeed, contemporary assessment of the Papunya-inspired art scene is likely to paint it as moribund, or “dotted-out” 19. It is perhaps a corollary of having a spectacular, mythologised rise that the end should be abrupt too. However, it is also deeply ironic that over-dotting is literally a feature of much Aboriginal art, in part because it is a way of concealing secret images 20.

Rather than modern Aboriginal art being seen in terms of a binary divide between the pure, or good, old days as opposed to the kitsch and debased present-day, its production and distribution need to be seen as part of a continually re-negotiated continuum; a balance between history and neology. Jennifer Biddle has reminded us of the dubiousness of freezing Aboriginal culture into permanence 21. It could cynically be observed that European collectors of “early” Papunya art, Bardon included, have a strong vested interest in maintaining the false myth of an authentic, frozen past.

1. Bardon G, Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert (1991) 34-35.
2. However, even with his clear controlling role in respect of the “keys”, Bardon shows his senility by noting the ceremonial and participatory aspects of the story-telling behind the “keys”: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert (1991) 35.
3. The use of “keys” - in catalogues, and as accompanying paintings sold through commercial galleries - is mostly market-driven, although the enquiry needed to obtain the information seems anthropological: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 25, 34-35 cf 38; Bardon G, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (1979) 15 . The theory seems to be that without the additional “key” the art buyer would be suspicious that their putative acquisition was merely tourist art, or kitsch. The use of “keys” has been strongly criticised by Eric Michaels (“Postmodernism, Appropriation and Western Desert Acrylics” pp 28-29); and in his Afterword to Kuruwarri: Yuendemu Doors (1987) [in Bad Aboriginal Art (1994) 50-51], despite “keys” being used in the body of the book itself. Jennifer Biddle (“Dot, circle, difference: Translating Central Desert Paintings” in Diprose R and Ferrell R, ed’s, Cartographies: poststructuralism and the mapping of bodies and spaces (1991) 34) criticizes Michaels’ disclaimer; however it is likely that Michaels’ wishes were simply overridden when it came to the communal production of the Doors book. Bruce Chatwin has also vigorously attacked the use of “keys”, calling them “just so stories”, (in Johnston V, “Rite and Wronglines” Binocular: Focusing Writing Vision (1991) 105), but guardedly defended by Vivien Johnson, who asserted it is “Orientalist” to deny the fact that paintings tell important stories [which, in turn presumably, can only be fully told by accompanying “keys”], but cf 110. See also: Hodge B “Aboriginal Truth and White Media: Eric Michaels meets the Spirit of Aboriginalism” (1990) 3:2 Continuum 201, 214-17; Loveday P and Cooke P, Aboriginal Arts and Crafts in the Market 39, and Rowse T, After Mabo 91, quoting Gabrielle Pizzi.
4. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 23. See also notes 17 and 18.
5. Note the quasi-feudal arrangements involved in the painters being given “permission” by the Welfare Department to paint “for” Bardon: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 28. The early outlet/market for Papunya paintings was also largely an institutional one, with “a museum collection” of paintings being purchased for the Papunya School: ibid 34. [Contrast the Yuendemu cultural museum, established in the late 1960’s, antecedent to a painting “movement” in that town].
6. Bardon tells of a certain painting being sent to “Harry Giese’s government collection in Darwin” in 1972, implicitly having been expropriated by the Welfare Department: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 31. For other instances of such theft, and dubious accounting practices see ibid 43, 138.
7. This happened in 1953: Welfare Ordinance (NT) 1953; see (1996) 78 Aboriginal Law Bulletin 11,12, discussing Namatjira v Rabe (1959) 100 CLR 664. The Welfare Department was suspicious about B’s motives from the beginning: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert xiii, and - amazingly - actually forbade Bardon to leave Papunya on weekdays without Departmental permission: ibid 42.
8. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 36.
9. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 31.
10. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 38.
11. Either in April or May 1971: Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 14, 43.
12. Ryan J, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert (1989) 10, 16. The “new visualisation” theme was later taken up by Bardon’s brother James in Revolution by Night (1991).
13. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 35, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert 15, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert 25.
14. Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert 14, Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 25-26; Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert 25.
15. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 22-24.
16. Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert 27.
17. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 24, 34-35.
18. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 25.
19. Susan McCulloch, “Art From the Heart” Weekend Australian 20-21 May 1995. In Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert 25, Bardon refers to the “recent development” of paintings telling only “trite or commonplace stories”. See also Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert 28, where 1975 is used as the cut-off date, after which the use of dots was primarly as a “mechanical filling-in device”.
20. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert x, 127. In Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert 14, the over-painting process is seen as the reaching of community consensus. 21. Biddle J, “Dot, circle, difference: Translating Central Desert Paintings” in Diprose R and Ferrell R, ed’s, Cartographies: poststructuralism and the mapping of bodies and spaces (1991) 30, 35.

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