Drawing a line under Koori artistic practice
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.
Transcript: Murruwaygu: following in the footsteps of our ancestors
Jonathan Jones (JJ): I truly believe that there's a renaissance happening, that there's a cultural renaissance happening in the south-east which is driving an amazing array of cultural practices.
Reko Rennie (RR): Now it's exciting times because we have, there's a whole connection now of south-eastern Australia where people are drawing on that material and making powerful work.
JJ: Murruwaygu: Following in the Footsteps of Our Ancestors is an exhibition that looks at male artists from the south-east of Australia who use the line to create their artworks.
The exhibition's broken down into four periods, classic Koori art, artists from the 1800s, artists who grew up on missions, and two young, contemporary artists.
RR: For me it's all about pigments and stuff at the moment.
JJ: Mediums include artists working with print media, working with painting, and new media, but also looking back at artists who work with traditional forms like shields. This is the first time we're really looking at the southeast as an artistic movement that crosses generations, it crosses time spans, and also crosses different mediums.
It's a real patchwork of knowledge in front of us.
From talking to old people to going to archives to looking at country to thinking about language and, you know, drawing a line between all those bits of information to somehow come together again and build that knowledge back up.
I'm not sure that a non-Aboriginal person would be able to come up with some of these ideas because they're ideas that are really about locating ourselves within a sort of history.
The mainstream, for the most part, has never connected shields with contemporary artists or Tommy McRae with Roy Kennedy. And those kind of connections, I think, could only come from within the community looking at ourselves and thinking about ourselves.
Joy Murphy (JM): There's always got to be a time, doesn't there, when something catches on, so it's kind of like the thing of the moment. So we've really got to pounce on that as well.
JJ: You know, exhibitions are something that community can come and really sink their teeth into.
Steaphan Paton (SP): Yeah, I mean. It hasn't stopped, the story hasn't stopped, and people have been continually making things and practicing culture.
JJ: The way we actually even just get artists involved and actually have a tangible outcome for them.
10 years ago, there was probably less than 10 possum skin cloaks in the world. Today, there's hundreds of possum skin cloaks. Language wasn't being spoken in classes. Today, Wiradjuri is being spoken and taught right around the Wiradjuri country.
Yamandhu marang bidya? Ngawa, baladhu marang?
Stan Grant (SG): I guess my old grandfather taught me because he thought down the track, they'll pass some of this on somewhere. Now, the language had never been written before.
JJ: Murruwaygu is a Wiradjuri word. It's based on a number of words.
SG: Murru, it means your nose.
JJ: Murruway is the paths, or tracks, and Murruwaygu is actually the designs used on objects.
SG: Follow your nose, boy. If you ever get lost, follow your nose. It'll get you out of it. That's the way we're going do it in Murruwaygu.
JJ: It sounds silly, but I guess my dream is actually that someone, not disagrees with me, but someone picks up on some of the ideas that we've presented through the show and through this research and takes it further.
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.