Archives for the month of: June, 2012

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Judy Watson

touching my mothers blood 

1988 etching and black ink

A New York University academic, Fred R. Myers states that an intractable problem with Aboriginal art is that while it exists outside the art system the more it is valued. However, once it is in the art system unprepared viewers do not know how to respond to it because, without the information they receive in an ethnographic museum, they cannot relate it to other contemporary art. They cannot see an informed consensus providing the basis for the work (Myers 1998). This retrogressive view of the adaptability of Aboriginal art is fortunately not the way it is viewed within the Australian contemporary art world. Changing attitudes have allowed both remote and urban artists to benefit from a growing popular interest. Aboriginal artists have extended the parameters of how their art is viewed, and this has allowed them to present their work in new contexts such as installation art and photography. This essay will explore the background to the advent of the careers of the artists Gordon Bennett, Robert Campbell Jnr, Fiona Foley, Tracy Moffatt, Lin Onus and Judy Watson. It will also explore how these artists have contributed to change through their work.

By the 1970s, viewing Aboriginal art through a primitive paradigm was becoming unpopular. New ways were being developed to look at global arts and liberate them from the pigeon holes of Western art history. An exhibition in Paris in 1989, Magiciens de la Terre, attempted to challenge primitivist paradigms by showing the work of fifty artists from the West together with a similar number of artists from non- Western traditions. The exhibition presented all the artists as ‘contemporary’ with an example being a huge mud circle painted on a wall by the British environmental artist Richard Long, alongside a ground sculpture by a group of Aboriginal artists from the Yuendumu community in Central Australia (Morphy 1999).

The background to this exhibition began in the early 1980s when, for the first time, Aboriginal artists were included along with other contemporary white artists in the Sydneyexhibition of Perspecta 1981. In 1983, the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris exhibited a large ground painting made by twelve Warlpiri men from the Lajamanu community. The ground painting’s ephemeral quality reflected the exhibition’s theme of Dream and Reality. It also created an avant-garde interest because it was an ephemeral ‘dematerialized’ art object and was considered to follow on the legacy of avant-garde challenges to mainstream expectations of an object-orientated art world (Myers 1998). However, although the recognition of Aboriginal art as being contemporary rescued it from being marginalised, it was only the art of remote communities in the north and centre ofAustralia that were achieving recognition. The art of the south that was being done by Aboriginal people in urban and rural areas remained unrecognized in what W.E.H. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’ (Morphy 1999).

Although Aboriginal artists in south-eastern Australiacontinued to produce art and craftworks, and some such as Ronald Bull (1942- 79) gained a reputation in the art world, they were negatively viewed as either producers of tourist art or, if they were mainstream contemporary artists, as being assimilated into Western culture. In 1993 the Aratjara Exhibition that touredEurope attempted to rectify the situation. The curators adopted the broad conception of Aboriginal art because, as the art historian Ian McLean notes, it was ‘not until 1990 were there signs of an institutional shift towards the inclusion of urban Aboriginal artists’ (Morphy 1999, p.378). Many of the artists included in this exhibition had been developing from the 1970s onwards in the art world and art schools of urbanAustralia. They drew their inspiration from many different sources reflecting the diversity of their backgrounds. Many found inspiration through personal pilgrimages back to the country of their forebears or in visiting fellow artists in remote communities (Morphy 1999).

Dijon Mundine facilitated communication between Aboriginal artists in the south-eastern states and those in Central Arnhem Landcreating ‘an environment of shared experiences in which mutual understanding developed’ (Morphy 1999, p. 392). Some of the artists that visited Arnhem Landduring this time were Campbell, Fiona Foley (b.1964) and Gordon Bennett (b. 1955). Bennett, a Brisbane-based artist, says that his paintings are ‘an ethnography of representation’ (Morphy 1999, p.399). He characteristically uses a representational system to draw complex analogies between Western art history and the colonial domination of Aborigines. In Outsider (1988) he uses Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles (1889) to show a headless Aboriginal person standing over a bed with two classical heads lying upon it. This postmodernist appropriation seems to challenge both his understanding of his formal art education and his sense of identity within that framework.

After graduating in 1988 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Bennett had first major solo exhibition in 1989 and has since achieved critical acclaim. He continues to engage his work in questions of cultural and personal identity (National Gallery of Victoria 2008). He describes this personal journey: “I was socialized into a Euro-Australian system of representation which included an art school education. However, my approach to aesthetics is to seek to extend my concepts of it and by extension to expand my concepts of representation’ (Morphy 1999, p.403). His paintings include much graphic detail, narrative, words, grids and commercial logos During the 1990s his  Home Décor series uses the aesthetics of the De Stijl art movement to depict stylized Aboriginal figures, (appropriated from the work of 1940s print artist Margaret Preston), as decorative artefacts entrapped upon a Modernist grid. After travelling toNew York in 1998, he developed a street-style appropriated from the 1980s neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat to convey the graffiti of racial and political activism.

The complex nature of the influences and history that involves much contemporary Aboriginal art is exemplified in the work of Fiona Foley. After graduating from the SydneyCollegeof the Arts in 1986, Foley, along with other ‘urban’ artists such as Tracy Moffatt, Bronwyn Bancroft and Michael Riley, was a founding member of the Boomali Aboriginal Arts Cooperative in Sydney. She has worked in many different types of media and became well-known for her collaboration with the artist Janet Laurence on the installation The Edge of Trees (1994) for the Museum of Sydney (Allas 2008). Drawing on other Aboriginal art forms, Foley’s work becomes a commentary on the history of racism and oppression. The sculpture The Annihilation of the Blacks (1986) looks much like Fish on Poles (1962) an Aurukun sculpture that formed the focal point for a ceremonial dance. Foley’s sculpture, rather than being hunted fish, show dead bodies of Aboriginal people being hung upon poles. Also, in 1996 she made a ground sculpture much like traditional ground sculptures. Using flour as a material signified its importance in subjugating Aboriginal people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Foley’s photographic work, such as Native Blood (1994), explores the Western representational genre through photographing herself as an ‘erotic primitive’ (Morphy 1999). Again, like Bennett, she works from the position of postmodernism to change historical context.

The academic Chris Healy describes Foley as a witness; ‘her work is all about determined efforts of remembering- bearing witness to both specific instances and pan-Aboriginal experiences of colonialism- and refusing to remain silent’ (Healy 2003). Originally from FraserIsland, also the birthplace of the poet Oodgeroo Noonucal, her work brings a connection between art, Aboriginality, and place. Djon Mundine observed about her work; ‘this raw material- [is] a form of cultural memory- from FraserIslanditself… For Foley, this was an art practice carried out in a custodial role, a way of reclaiming the history of her people and their land’ (Healy 2003). In her piece Lie of the Land (1997), Foley lists the names of objects traded with Aboriginal people in the 1835 ‘treaty’ with John Batman. These words are engraved on seven sandstone slabs three metres in height and effectively records on giant headstones the objects which cost so many lives (Healy 2003).

While the urban Aboriginal art movement has grown in significance since the 1990s, the focus of it being somewhat marginalised has changed into it joining, without differentiation, to mainstream contemporary art. With this change, artists such as Bennett, Foley and photographer Tracy Moffatt (b.1960) insist on their recognition as artists not simply ‘Aboriginal artists’ (McCulloch 2001). Moffatt explores issues of race, history and gender through staged Surrealist photographs and films. Nice Colored Girls (1987) was a film that staged contemporary encounters between Aboriginal women and European men montaged with references to colonial history and racist attitudes (Morphy 1999).

Like Bennett and Foley, Moffatt was born in Brisbane, and took her first snapshots at the age of 13 in the backyard. These formed a series of coarse-grained off-set prints called the Backyard Series (1998), with one of the photos featuring a nativity scene played by children. Moffatt was adopted into a white family and these garden photographs reflect both the normality and surreal undercurrents which strain relationships in society. The film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) is an ambiguous story about the relationship between an elderly white woman and her half-Aboriginal child (Versloot 2000). In a Moffatt wrote to theNew York curator Lynne Cooke she explained: ‘Making art is quite therapeutic, like chopping vegetables, it calms me and keeps me off the streets’ (Moffatt 1997). She went on to state how important it is to advance your art and be influenced by others; not to be scared of taking anything new. She also states that her influences were mainly women artists such asFrida Kahlo,Georgia O’Keefe and the photographer Anne Brigman (Moffett 1997).

Lin Onus (1948-1996), who was also introduced to the artists of Arnhem Land by Mundine, had a different background to Foley, Bennett and Moffatt. His art also grew from a personal pilgrimage, but he was born in Melbourne where his father was an Aboriginal entrepreneur and craftsman, and his mother was Scottish. Onus grew up in an atmosphere full of Aboriginal art and, although he had no art school training, by the age of seventeen his early paintings were being sold by his father. These paintings were landscape inspired by the work of Albert Namatjira (1902-59) and Ronald Bull. However, the late 1970s and early 1980s brought a change in his work inspired by Trevor Nickolls (b.1949), an Aboriginal artist who went to art school in the early 1970s and was exposed to a wide range of contemporary art. He then spent much time in Arnhem Land and was taught clan paintings by artists such as Jack Wunuwun and Johnny BulunBulun. He painted a series of portraits of these artists in a hyperreal style on a background of their own paintings.

Towards the end of his life Onus turned increasingly to sculpture, using parody as a theme. His group Dingoes (1989) are realistically formed but painted in ochred colours of the Aboriginal flag. The group illustrates the life cycle of a dingo and includes a dingo breaking through a dingo-proof fence which was, according to Onus,  ‘a commentary on the treatment of these native animals which in Aboriginal eyes approximates the treatment of Aboriginal people themselves’ (Morphy 1999, p.391). He also used three-dimensional installations to display his strong sense of irony and humour. Fruit Bats (1991), is an example of the cross-cultural references and meticulous detailing for which he became so well-known (McCulloch 2001).

Aboriginal art has now become part of the mainstream in contemporary art inAustraliaas it is collected by the same institutions, exhibited within the same gallery structures, and written about in the same journals. This has come about because of the struggle by Aboriginal artists to have their work incorporated rather than assimilated into the institutional structure. Artists such as Judy Watson (b.1959) show how the adaptability of Aboriginal art contributes to an overall push in it being judged on its aesthetic qualities rather than its story-telling properties (McCulloch 2001).

Watson uses painting, sculpture and print media to create complex, subtle works that evoke the spirit and feeling of place. Her style is predominantly non-figurative, using the texture and surface qualities of the painted canvas, lithographic stone, or plywood base to express meaning. Her set of sculptures the guardians/ guardian spirit (1986-87) represent the matrilineal part of her family. The figure forms allude to termite mounds and the spirits that they represent. Many of her paintings are designed to hang without frames like textiles (Morphy 1999). Another Brisbane-based artist, in 1990 she was able to experience her Aboriginal heritage when she visited her grandmother’s country in north-westQueensland.

Although art from the south-east of Australia generally fits into a global category of contemporary art that emphasizes individual style, there are common themes and patterns of influence that distinguish Aboriginal art. Many artists draw on themes of their identity, past and also shared experiences of oppression. The subject matter of Robert Campbell (1944-1993) ranged from the history of racism in rural NSW to its mundane existence. Growing up in Kempsey, he learnt to draw at the primary school at Burnt Bridge Mission where he also helped his father decorate boomerangs. Whilst working as a seasonal worker around Kempsey and a labourer in Sydney, he developed what Djon Mundine calls a ‘confident’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ style (Mundine 2008) painting for tourists and local art shows using available materials.

Campbell’s work is both humorous and insightful and he wrote: ‘As an urban Aboriginal artist my work does not look “typically Aboriginal”… My paintings are in fact very much what I feel in my own heart. Very personal’, (Morphy 1999, p.380). A characteristic of his work is the contrast between the bright optimism conveyed in the colours of the paintings and the dark themes they explore. In Death in Custody (1987) he documents an important issue of contemporary Aboriginal politics; that Aboriginal people are the most imprisoned segment of the Australian population and the number of young men who die in custody (Morphy 1999).

It is because of the starkness of the statistics of Aboriginal poverty, infant mortality, sickness, and prison populations that these artists continue to address these issues. However, this should not necessarily pigeon-hole them as “Aboriginal” artists. Their work is political as well as being concerned with identity. These are subjects which interest many contemporary artists. By extending the boundaries of popular response through the use of new contexts, these artists have been able to change attitudes to the way their art is viewed. Furthermore, there is a need for Aboriginal artists to continue to explore their Aboriginality and through their work, aid non-Aboriginal people in understanding the impact of racism and disinheritance.

References:

Gordon Bennett, 2008, Retrieved January 23, 2009 from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett

Healy, C., 2003, Fiona Foley. Silent witness? Retrieved January 26, 2009, from http://www.anu.edu/hrc/research/WtoS/Healy.pdf

McCulloch, S., 2001, Contemporary Aboriginal Art- A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture-Revised Edition, Allen & Unwin Sydney

Moffatt, T., 1997, A letter from Tracey Moffatt to Lynne Cooke, curator of Dia Centre for  the Arts, New York, in advance of her show “Free Falling”, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs/moffatt/project/traceymoffatt.html

Morphy, H., 1999, Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

Myers, F., 1998, Uncertain Regard: An Exhibition of Aboriginal Art in France, Ethnos Vol. 63, No.1, Retrieved January 22, 2009 from http://www.homepages.nyu.edu

Versloot, A., 2000, Roller Queens and Narrow-minded Machos- The World of Tracey Moffatt, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.radionetherlands.nl/features/cultureandhistory/moffatt000602.html

Bibliography:

 

Allas, T. (n.d), Fiona Foley, Retrieved January 30, 2009 from http://www.daao.org.au/main/read/2575

Gordon Bennett (n.d.), Retrieved January 29, 2009 from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett/

Green, C., 1999, Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennale Art Journal Vol.58, No.4 pp.81-87, College Art Association

Healy, C., 2003, Fiona Foley. Silent witness? Retrieved January 26, 2009, from http://www.anu.edu/hrc/research/WtoS/Healy.pdf

Judy Watson (n.d.), Retrieved January 26, 2009 from http://www.nga.gov.au/Landscapes/Wat.htm

Ladds, A. (n.d.), The Reconciler, Retrieved January 31, 2009 from http://www.theblurb.com.au/Issue27/LinOnus.htm

McCulloch, S., 2001, Contemporary Aboriginal Art- A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture-Revised Edition, Allen & Unwin Sydney

Moffatt, T., 1997, A letter from Tracey Moffatt to Lynne Cooke, curator of Dia Centre for  the Arts, New York, in advance of her show “Free Falling”, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs/moffatt/project/traceymoffatt.html

Morphy, H., 1999, Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

Mundine, D. 2008, Robert Campbell (Junior), Retrieved January 26, 2009 from http://www.daao.org.au/main/recent

Myers, F., 1998, Uncertain Regard: An Exhibition of Aboriginal Art in France, Ethnos Vol. 63, No.1, Retrieved January 22, 2009 from http://www.homepages.nyu.edu

Nelson, R., 2007, Gordon Bennett, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.theage.com.au/news/arts-reviews/gordon-bennett/2007/09/19/11898815568

Through artists eyes: Tracey Moffatt and Gordon Bennett Retrieved January 29, 2009 from http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/index.html?page=97971&pid=0

Versloot, A., 2000, Roller Queens and Narrow-minded Machos- The World of Tracey Moffatt, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.radionetherlands.nl/features/cultureandhistory/moffatt000602.html

White, A., 2000, Aboriginal Art: Sacred and Profane, Review of Susan McCulloch, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture, Art Journal Vol. 59, No.4, pp.105-107, College Art Association

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Judith Ryan wrote about the artist Rover Thomas in her 1993 catalogue essay for the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition of Aboriginal art: ‘As an artist Thomas is not locked inside language patterns or ritual structures of the Western Desert; he looks beyond them to another world of reality and enjoys the freedom to depict this expansively…’ (McCulloch S., 1999). Acquiring his own individual style, Thomas’ paintings are characteristic for their highly textured ochre surface, minimal imagery and sense of space. A restricted palette, in which black usually predominates, leaves an aesthetic impression of a highly resolved abstract painting. As an overview of Rover Thomas’ life, this essay will attempt to understand how he developed so fully as an artist at such a late stage of his life, and why his work had such an individual character.

During the early decades of the twentieth century the cattle industry was established in the Kimberley region of far northWestern Australia. The Indigenous people of the area lost all their land as European settlers took it for their cattle stations. These stations then used the Indigenous people as forced labour. Along with Europeans staking claim to these people’s lands, they expected them to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes that would make life easier for the settlers. However, it also suited the pastoralists to have a compliant workforce so the Aboriginal people were also left much to their own devices, allowing them to sustain the values and traditions of their tribal lives (Carrigan B., 2003). Rover Thomas Joolana was born into this new and relatively dependent relationship in an Aboriginal camp around 1926 near Well 33 on theCanning Stock Route. His birth was not officially recorded, but it is known that both his fathers (his actual father and the man who raised him) were Wangkajungka, his mother Kukaja. These are two adjacent language groups in theKimberley. Thomas never knew first hand the world his parents had known before white settlement, but still was able to understand the rules of Dreaming which continued to shape the local Indigenous world.

When he was about ten his mother died and he was moved to Billiluna Station, where he worked as a jackaroo and was initiated into traditional law by a man from Sturt Creek. Another Kimberley artist, Queenie McKenzie, told of how she sewed Thomas’ scalp back on after it was trodden on by a horse (McCulloch S.,1999). He then worked with a fencing contractor in Wyndham and later the Northern Territory. He eventually returned toWestern Australiawhere he worked as a stockman on the Bow River Station. Later, he worked at the Texas Downs Station for nine years and then Old Lissadell and Mabel Downs stations. He then returned to Texas Downs where he married his second wife. By the 1960s changes in popular views forced the government to introduce new pastoral laws which mandated equal pay for both Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal workers. Unfortunately this saw the majority of Aboriginal workers dismissed as they were no longer a source of cheap labour. They gravitated towards the towns of Fitzroy Crossing and Kununurra. In the eastern Kimberley a camp called Warmun was established by the Gija people at Turkey Creek, whose traditional lands surround Halls Creek to the south.

Back in 1974 when Thomas moved to Warmun, it was a small government reserve and a difficult place to live. It had few facilities and makeshift housing was all that was available. Only a few buildings had electricity and there was no running water. The social conditions were difficult as tensions increased with the expanding and diversified population. Turkey Creek was more of a refugee camp rather than a community; many felt excluded and longed to return to their country, and most were apprehensive of the encroachment of mineral and energy exploration. Fortunately, the prevailing government was interested in Aboriginal conditions and investment in community infrastructure began. A school was to be established, a community store constructed, houses built, a bore sunk, pipes and taps installed, electricity provided and pensions and welfare benefits became available, allowing basic needs to be met. It was to this paradoxical but burgeoning community that Rover Thomas moved to and it became the background for him ‘finding’ the Kurirr Kurirr, a ceremonial narrative dance cycle (Carrigan B., 2003).

Thomas’ story about how he became an artist is entwined with an event in 1974, in which one of his elderly female relatives was badly injured and died after a car accident near Turkey Creek. Her spirit visited him soon afterward and related to him Dreamtime stories and songs. Thomas shared these dreams with his community, who evolved a ceremonial song and dance cycle from them called Kurirr Kurirr (Genocchio B., 2008). The Kurirr Kurirr is an embodiment of the spirit of the old woman who died while being flown to Perth for medical treatment. The narrative sequence of the cycle follows her spirit back across her country; along the way encountering Dreamtime beings, as well as events from the historical past such as a particular massacre. The Rainbow Serpent predominates in Kurirr Kurirr, being associated with the swollen creek in which the accident happened, Cyclone Tracy, and the tidal whirlpool at Derby over which the old woman dies. The Rainbow serpent also underlies this cycle of work in a profound way by linking the region’s diverse language groups and giving them chains of communication and cooperation (Carrigan B., 2003).

As the Warmun community developed this song/dance cycle they travelled and performed it over much of the north of Western Australia, even into the Northern Territory. The most important part of the ceremony was the painted boards, left over from community building work and carried by the dancers. The first of these boards were painted by Thomas’ uncle Paddy Jaminji from the stories that Rover related to him. Jaminji was recognised as the artist of the community as he had been known for his wooden carvings and ochre patterning on boomerangs (Genocchio B., 2008). Mary Macha, a government art consultant was incredibly excited when she saw these boards for the first time: ‘Paddy showed it to me…More paintings were added and, of course they suffered in their travels… But they were powerful!’ (McCulloch S., 1999, p.118). Even though Jaminji was initially not interested in selling them to her, he eventually sold her two sets on condition that she brought him more boards.

However, Thomas perhaps became frustrated at his lack of recognition as ‘Dreamer’ of these paintings and strode up to Mary Macha a few years later and said: ‘Rover Thomas, I want to paint’ (Thomas R., 1994, p.49). At first, Thomas and Jaminji worked together on a level piece of ground then, when houses were built, they were able to paint on the concrete floor. An example of their first collaboration is The Spirits Jimpi and Marginta (1983), depicting the two devils that accompany the spirit of the old woman (McCulloch S., 1999). It was painted in thickly applied ochre pigments mixed with gum collected from the surrounding trees. Later the two artists began to paint on their own and, although these paintings by Thomas and Jaminji could appear to be a recently invented style through which it is hard to see continuity with earlier styles, the Australian National Gallery curator Wally Caruana states that the style is deeply rooted in the traditional pictorial conventions of the east Kimberley rock art. It is also associated with the patterns of body painting traditions (Thomas R., 1994).

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Paddy Jaminji and Rover Thomas

The spirits Jimpi and Manginta 1983

natural pigments on plywood

60.0 x 120.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Jaminji’s paintings show a careful and precise stippling of white clay dots delineating the different coloured forms in the work, whereas Thomas’ own work of 1983, such as The Dog and the Emu at Lake Gregory shows more impatience with the same method. Jaminji is also careful to compose the imagery of his paintings with a certain balanced symmetry while Thomas’ composition is quite haphazard. Most of  Thomas’ work of 1983 is also rough in execution, according to Mary Macha due to his use of bush gums that were mixed with his pigments. It resulted in a rough, loose textures finish that made it difficult for the overpainting of white dots to adhere to the ground. It was when he was introduced to the water-soluble gum of the Kurrajong tree that the artists of Kulumburu used, that he was able to achieve stability and the matt surface that he desired (Rover Thomas Joolama n.p.).

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The Dog and the Emu at Lake Gregory 1983

natural pigments on hardboard

46.0 x 61.5 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

One of the most striking works of that year is Wungurr is the name for that Snake (1983). Two snakes, one charcoal black, the other yellow ochre are entwined forming a powerfully graphic presence on the orange-coloured raw plywood base. Again, Thomas has executed the white dot outlines quickly, with the outer dots of the black snake allowing the yellow snake to become part of the interior space. It is the embodiment of the Rainbow Serpent and depicts the junction at Turkey Creek where the woman had her accident (Thomas R., 1994). An extension to the story of this painting is Ngamarrin (The Snake near Turkey Creek) (1984). It depicts the Snake crawling over the hills, the darker areas representing burnt grass and shadows. Where the serpent shows its head, depicted in lighter ochre with a white dot for the eye, is the place where the car accident happened (Thomas R., 1994). There are three separate colours used in this painting, a large area of dark red-brown which is applied in differing layers of transparency, a lighter more orange ochre that provides a background, and a large central single area of charcoal black that represents the landscape. The painting also shows a more steadfast and persistent effort in its depiction of area, and is a precursor to the later more austere compositions.

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Ngamarrin (the Snake near Turkey Creek) 1984

natural pigments on plywood

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

A good example of a more simplified composition is Bedford Downs Massacre (1985) which shows a complete break from figurative imagery to illustrate a narrative of an incident that occurred between European and Aboriginal peoples around 1924 in theEast Kimberley. The massacre at Bedford Downs relates to an incident in which, after the collection dray loads of wood by the Aboriginal workers, the manager of the station distributes poisoned rations of food to them. Along, along with the manager’s neighbours, they shoot the victims while they are incapacitated and writhing in agony. They then use the wood to cremate the dead (Thomas R., 1994). The pale ochre that is used in the three key spaces of the painting conveys a sinister image of ash on dark red ground and, along with its title, the starkness of the narrative.

Again, in 1986, he simplifies both his composition and palette further in Lake Argyle. Only two colours are used, charcoal and red ochre, to effectively show a topographical view of the dam on the OrdRiver. Again the pigments are laid on quickly, with the gum to add translucency, to create four simplified shapes outlined in white clay stippling. Thomas describes it as a place where a star fell during the Dreamtime. ‘The water, lake, go right down… my drawing, water go in there, he go all the way water. Long time ago, but still a hole there’ (Thomas R., 1994, p.58). This still relates to the Kurirr Kurirr cycle in which water, as a manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent, plays a role of transportation.

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Lake Argyle 1986

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Much of  Thomas’ work also relates to places that he has travelled through, and portrays both the intimacy and enjoyment he had through his connection with the landscape. The unusual painting Roads meeting (1987) shows a crossroads where a bitumen road and a dirt track meet. The two outstretched hands are supposed to represent the stop signs on the road. It is unusual because of its graphic, diagonally geometric representation and lack of organic shapes. The hands are similar to hand stencils found in rock art traditions, and seem to be reaching out to each other. It could be interpreted as a conceptual portrayal of the traditional, represented by the dirt track, and the modern, represented by the bitumen road, meeting and reaching out to each other. Thomas was quite individualistic within his community. He lived on his own outside the settlement and spent much of his time working inPerth at his main benefactor, Mary Macha’s, house (Carrigan B., 2008).

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Roads meeting 1987

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

Thomas returned to the theme of the Bedford Downs massacre in 1988 with the painting Kananganja (Mount King). Here, the large main shape is representative ofMountKing, and the long, thin areas are where it casts its shadow. The small circle in the lower left corner represents the place where the bodies of the poison victims were burnt. Verse 15 of the Kurirr Kurirr Cycle describes how Thomas dreamed the event:

The shade from the hill comes over and talks in language: ‘munga lurrlungu’,

The Devil Devil and woman look around and see the shadow [spirits] of people killed long ago by Kartiya [white people].

They see where the bodies had been burned.

They make a song about those people.

                                                                                                Rover Thomas (Thomas, 1994, p. 26)

The painting, like the first Bedford Downs Massacre of 1985, is sombre in its choice of colours. There is little contrast between the tones of orange-yellow ochres chosen, except for the dark red circle where the bodies were burned.

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Kananganja (Mount King) 1988

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 180.0 cm

 National Gallery ofAustralia

Grugrugi: Owl 1989 is a return to full figurative representation and uses a more detailed motif of a previous painting in 1984, Ngarrangkani. The white ochre owls are depicted in a vertically reverse form of each other, yet are similar in most other respects. They are Dreamtime spirits, maybe the spirit of the woman, and bear a resemblance to the Wandjina figures through their large eyes and simplified noses and mouths. The eyes of the upright owl show red amongst the browns and pale yellow ochres of the rest of the painting.

Another massacre depicted as part of the Killing Times series is the Ruby Plains killing in which the owner and manager of the Ruby Plains Station come across some Aboriginal men butchering a stolen bullock. They shoot and decapitate the men and place their heads in a hollow tree. The men’s friends are alerted to where they are by the crows that gather over the dead bodies (Thomas R., 1994). Ruby Plains killing 2 (1990) shows the heads of the murdered people in the hollow of the tree trunk, as well as depicting the place where the murders happened through the use of a topographical plane. It shows the Ruby Plains Station as a circle in the upper part of the painting and the road to Balgo which extends in two ways from it. The longer black lines represent the creek which feeds into the OrdRiver then Lake Argyle (Thomas R., 1994). The depiction of such murders by Thomas seems to suggest that his intention was to create an historical record of the events which had never been officially recorded, other than by Aboriginal oral tradition.

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Ruby Plains killing 2 1990

natural pigments on canvas

90.0 x 110.0

National Gallery ofAustralia

In 1983 Thomas painted a very simple composition called The Rainbow Serpent destroyed Darwin which illustrated the movement of Cyclone Tracy. In Cyclone Tracy (1991) he painted a more elaborate version of these events. The black line rising from the bottom of the painting shows the starting place of the wind, then as the line turns and widens into a large space it shows the full force of the cyclone. The yellow ochre lines running into this large black area show more winds feeding the cyclone and the red ochre portrays the wind filled with red dust (Thomas R., 1994).

Looking across from Kununurra they see that Darwin has been flattened by the cyclone.

The Rainbow Serpent destroyed Darwin.

                                                                                                Verse 31 Kurirr Kurirr Cycle

                                                                                            Rover Thomas (Thomas, 1994, p.27)

The painting is significant in being able to successfully convey an effective impression of the crescendo of the cyclone. The black area swallows the yellow ochres like a large mouth. The blackness swallows everything in its path.

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Cyclone Tracy 1991

natural pigments on canvas

168.0 x 183.0 cm

National Gallery ofAustralia

 In 1991 Thomas went on to paint his birthplace on the Canning Stock Route and his father’s burial place, these became the subjects in which he was interested in the latter part of his life (Carrigan B., 2003:78). He painted the things that were important to him and were directly related to his own experiences Mary Macha relates that he was a traveller and did not constrict himself to painting ‘his own country’, saying in an interview: “Once, when he was painting down here, someone asked him, ‘is that your country?’ And he just laughed and said, ‘no I steal anybody’s country’” (Carrigan B., 2003, p.63).  After being the first Aboriginal artist, along with Trevor Nicholls, to represent Australia  at the Venice Biennale of 1990, Thomas received a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994. However, his health was failing and after 1995 he was only able to paint sporadically. Illness and failing eyesight were taking their toll when he died in 1998. His unique vision and style reflect his affinity and understanding of the landscape and events. Also, without being a part of any major international art movement, the power and the simplicity of his work cannot properly place his work in the realm of contemporary abstractionism, but reveals it as a visualization of transcendental thought.

Bibliography:

Ackerman, K. 1998, Rover Thomas- tribute  http://www.artlink.com.au/articles.cfm?id=1390 Retrieved: 4.1.09

Artists Biography- Rover Thomas Joolama c. 1926-1998 www.ngv.vic.gov.au/rover_queenie/rover.html   Retrieved: 4.1.09

www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/media/archives_2004/rover_thomas      Retrieved: 4.1.09

Carrigan, B. Ed. 2003, Rover Thomas- I want to paint, Heytesbury Pty Ltd T/ as the Holmes a Court Gallery,Perth

Gennochio, B. 2008, Dollar Dreaming- Inside the Aboriginal Art World, Hardie Grant Books,Melbourne

Mc Culloch, S., 1999, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture, Allen and Unwin,Sydney

Morphy, H, 1998.  Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

www.ngv.vic.gov.au/iwanttopaint     Retrieved: 4.1.09

Thomas, R. 1994, Roads Cross- The Paintings of Rover Thomas, The National Gallery ofAustralia,Canberra

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There are a variety of notions as to what consciousness is. Some people denote consciousness simply as the difference between being awake/aware and asleep/unaware. Neuroscience posits consciousness as being various neural oscillations (Block 2002), but is still unclear as to how meaning is generated in the brain (Crick and Koch 1998). One of the most important features of consciousness, its subjectivity, is reported by Searle to be a neurobiological process (Searle 1980), or the notion of ‘what it is like to be’ by Thomas Nagel (Nagel 2002). According to Ned Block (2002), various notions of consciousness cause confusion and Block’s paper, Concepts of Consciousness, wishes to clarify and define consciousness through separating it into two distinct categories- phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. This essay will argue that Block fails to establish such a separation which does not help his cause of clarification.

Block (2002, p.206) describes the concept of consciousness as a ‘mongrel concept’ which is used in describing a variety of concepts to identify different phenomena. Block (2002) disputes these different phenomena being treated as a single concept, and he wishes to divide consciousness into recognizable states in order to provide clarity and certainty for people when they discuss consciousness. By categorising consciousness into two main types: phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness) and access consciousness (A-consciousness), Block (2002) contends that one type of consciousness is based upon non-physical phenomena and the other is based upon the physical functioning of the brain.

Block (2002) theorises that P-consciousness is based upon perceptual experience, not simply the state of awareness that one is in when one is awake. P-conscious properties can be referred to as ‘what it is like’ to have states such as pain, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and experiential properties of sensations such as thoughts, desires and emotions (2002, p. 206). Block (2002) also contends that such conscious states can make an intentional difference and can be representational. However, Block also holds that P-conscious states can be held distinct from any cognitive, intentional, or functional property, namely A-consciousness. A-consciousness is non-phenomenal consciousness and it is based upon its functionality. Block (2002) maintains that it is used for reasoning, reporting, and the direct control of rational action. One of the relationships between P and A consciousness is that A consciousness reports on the information gathered from P-consciousness.

Another relationship between the Block’s two concepts of consciousness is that although each type is distinct it also interacts with the other (2002, p.210). For example, when perceptual information is accessed it can change the intentional direction of thought, or as Block puts it, it ‘can change figure to ground and conversely, and a figure-ground switch can effect one’s phenomenal state’ (2002, p.209). In Block’s (2002) view an experience’s content can be in both conscious states at once because of the phenomenal properties of one and the representational properties of the other. However, there are three main differences between these two types of consciousness. Firstly, P-consciousness is phenomenalwhile A-consciousness is representational.  Block (2002) remarks that the content of P-consciousness is the ‘what is like’ component and this allows the content of an experience to be both P-conscious and A-conscious. Secondly, A-consciousness is functional, or as Block (2002, p.209) declares: ‘…what makes a state A-conscious is what a representation of its content does in a system’. Thirdly, P-consciousness can be a type of ‘kind of’ state. For example, if pain is a P-conscious type then every pain must have that feel, whereas A-consciousness could sometimes fail to be accessible. Block sums up these differences by maintaining that P-conscious states are sensations, whereas A-conscious states involve ‘propositional attitudes’ such as thoughts, beliefs and desires, representational states expressed by ‘that’ clauses. (2002, p. 209).

As Block’s intention is to define these states of consciousness so that they can be properly identified and not confused, he needs to show that the relationship between both P and A consciousness can be separated. To do this Block (2002) gives particular examples of A-consciousness without P-consciousness, such as a computational robot that is identical to a person but that does not experience phenomenal or perceptual states. To act, the robot needs to receive information. Even the simplest computer needs information and it does not seem plausible that the robot would be able to do any computing at all if there was not data entered into it. That would appear to make it an inanimate object. Therefore, with data or information taking the place of perceptual states and phenomenal experience needing these states to provide information, this example of A-consciousness without P-consciousness does not seem credible.

Another example that Block (2002) gives of A-conscious states without P-consciousness, is the blindsight patient, who can guess that there is an ‘X’ rather than an ‘O’ in his blind field. For someone to have knowledge of this ‘X’ so that they could guess it was there, they must have some previously gathered experience or knowledge of that ‘X’. An analogy to this example could be my guess as I am driving that there is a motorcyclist in my car’s blindspot from my previous perception in my rearview mirror of her travelling in the same direction as me but in a different lane. I would only think about the motorcyclist, or the ‘X’ in the case of the blindsight patient, if I had previous knowledge or experience of it. Unless we are talking about assumed innate thoughts, I cannot have thoughts about something of which I have no previous knowledge or experience. Therefore, Block’s analogy seems not to succeed on this account.

Block (2002) keeps on with his blindsight analogy with a person who has superblindsight. He states that this superblindsighted person can guess that there is a horizontal field in his blind field purely though introspection, in the way that Block (2002 p.211) says we can solve problems simply through thoughts popping into our minds, or the way that one might just innately know the time, or which way North is without experiencing it. This superblindsight example is contentious because resolutions to problems need to be based upon some experience or knowledge. Even our knowledge of North, without having some perceptual experience such as it being pointed out, is debatable. The concept of North would not have any meaning. It seems that the only way A-consciousness could be a state without P-consciousness would be to conclude, as Descartes did, that ‘even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from being touched or seen but from their being understood’ (Descartes, 2002, p. 13). Such an assumption of innate knowledge makes this analogy appeal to belief, rather than prove a truth.

Block (2002) also claims that P-consciousness without A-consciousness is possible. To be P-conscious without being A-conscious, one would be perceptually aware without being able to transmit that information into useful data. An objection arose to this claim which states that we would never be in the position to know whether P-consciousness without A-consciousness is possible. Block (2002) responds to this objection in his paper by arguing that introspection would allow us to be aware of our consciousness and to see it as being distinct from A-consciousness. This is a contradictory response, as to be introspectively aware would be putting A-consciousness to use thereby one would be P-conscious as well as A-conscious. The truth of the claim of P-conscious states without A-conscious states also appears unconvincing.

Block’s intention to differentiate various concepts of consciousness in order to counteract confusion seems to end up being confused itself. Intuitively, there does not seem to be any problem thinking about consciousness as being perceptual on the one hand and functional on the other. These two types seem to work together to underpin a functioning mind. However, there is confusion between the two types, with A-consciousness being found by Block (2002) to be indeterminate and P-consciousness sometimes straying into the realm of A-consciousness through having properties such as thoughts, wants and emotions ( 2002, pp.207-08). Although we can assume Block does not see such states as thoughts and desires being functional, these could be categorised as functional activities of the brain.

Computational approaches to the mind see access consciousness being identical to phenomenal consciousness because of its function of information gathering and processing (2002, p.208).  So is the categorical statement that Block puts forward true: If P = A then the computational model of the mind is correct? Phenomenality and accessibility consciousness are considered features of consciousness, as are intentionality, subjectivity, qualia, self-consciousness, unity and dynamic flow etc. (Gulick 2004).  However, this does not mean that being identical features of a single concept or that being part of many features of consciousness allows the computational model to be correct. There were other models of the mind that were not necessarily computational before Block made his claims. Furthermore, computational models of the mind are not necessarily correct for other reasons, such as the binding problem (Crick and Koch 1998). From the number of features of consciousness, it appears that it has a multidimensional rather than a singular or dichotomic quality.

Block argues that his claim needs his two consciousness types to be able to be conceptually separated. For me, he fails to establish this. Without empirical or conceptual evidence, it is like stating that a single or multiple thing/s are necessarily two separate categories simply because they have been put into two separate ‘files’. Therefore, I do not think that Block’s model of consciousness as a single theoretical perspective is plausible.

References:

Block, N 2002 ‘Concepts of Consciousness’, in D Chalmers (ed), Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Crick, F, Koch, C 1998, ‘Consciousness and Neuroscience’, Cerebral Cortex, no.8, pp. 97-107, viewed 3rd  May 2012 http://www.klab.caltech.edu/~koch/crick-koch-cc-97.html

Descartes, R 2002, ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ in D Chalmers (ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Nagel, T 2002, ‘What it is like to be a bat’ in D Chalmers (ed) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York

Searle, JR 1980, ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences, no. 3, pp.417-457, viewed 3rd May 2012 http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/searle.prob.html

Van Gulick, R 2004, “Consciousness”, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), viewed 5th May 2012 http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/consciousness/