The challenges before Dr Jonathan Jones as he investigated Koori artistic practice were great. He was faced with the dispersal and poor documentation of Indigenous works in colonial times and the complications that created as he sought to embed cultural respect into his academic practice.
Dr Jones is a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations of south-east Australia and an artist and curator himself. His research considers one particular element of artistic practice in south-east Australia—the unique and continuing use of the line by the region’s male artists, since before European contact.
His recently completed doctoral study revealed a south-eastern artistic aesthetic that is significant, and unbroken throughout changing social, political and cultural climates.
“There was no real art history theory, no real understanding of the practices in south-eastern Australia in an in-depth way,” Dr Jones says of the spur for his research, which is ongoing. “I wanted to start filling in that gap. I want to provide a place and a space in history for the next generation to understand where they'vecome from and maybe help them to think about where they're going.”
Dr Jones notes that much cultural material was exported out of Australia in the early days of colonisation. So his study involved tracking down materials around the world—works that might only be on a list, with not even a photo available. He would have to travel to a collection to document works such as shields created in pre-contact times.
Sometimes these shields had never been out of storage,” he says. “I’d be the first to see them.” Rather than photographing them, he’d spend hours drawing them, one by one. “And in drawing them I’d start to see connections,” he says.
The fact that these works had little history attached meant Dr Jones had to work with cultural protocols in a different way. “In a perfect world, if a researcher wanted to investigate Wiradjuri shields they’d ask Wiradjuri elders for their permission. But of course nothing was recorded properly so we didn’t know whose material it was,” he says. “I’d find some leads about which community a work came from. I’d then go to that community and ask retrospectively for permission to research that collection.”
This has led to a key contribution to Aboriginal studies in the development of a Wiradjuri-specific research methodology which Dr Jones has named Yindyamarra Winhanganha.
“In seeking the advice of elders, one of the key messages was around this word yindyamarra. It’s a word that’s used to mean ‘respect’. But a direct translation of it is also to ‘go slow’, to take your time, to be patient, to work with things, to understand your relationship to people, things and place.”
When Dr Jones asked Wiradjuri elder Uncle Stan Grant, why no-one had made the connections he was now seeing, his mentor told him it was because of yindyamarra—because in drawing the shields Dr Jones was going slow, spending time with them, respecting them, so eventually the shield would “share” with him.
“And so that's part of the methodology—that idea around respect and going slowly and thinking about connections in a different way,” Dr Jones says.
→ Read about an AGNSW exhibition associated with Dr Jones’s study.