Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Aboriginal piece of art: Explanation

Sunset in the Australian Outback
     When we were in Australia, visiting the outback and Uluru, especially at Alyce Springs, we came across some Aborigines people who had set up some of their art laying on the ground for sale to tourists.     
     Read on to learn about the art we obtained in the Outback, Australia.
     There is an explanation I should give here immediately. Many of the indigenous peoples of Australia do not like being called Aborigines. This latter word means an original people, going back to even prehistory. But as in many areas of the world, a single word, such as Aborigines in Australia becomes imbued with negative connotations. Even though the word has no pejorative meaning itself, the dominant cultural feelings about the people it applies to contain so much negativity that it makes the word's use almost an insult. Currently in Australia, most of the many tribes of indigenous people prefer to use the word for "people" that their own language provides. There are so many languages in Australia that this means there is no one word. But some of the more dominant tribal words have come to some degree of general usage. One word used in the Australian media for indigenous people has been 'koon.' For we North Americans, that native American word also has unfortunate meanings. It was applied to Americans of African descent and would currently stand equally despised as the so called "N" word. I now prefer to use the word that applies to the Central Australian indigenous people from whom we purchased our piece of artwork. That word is Anangu (which means people) Pitantjaro referring to the local tribe of people in this area of Australia. Therefore, to end this first explanatory paragraph, our piece of art is Anangu Pitantjaro in origin.
     Here are some photos of us shopping among the artists in Alyce Springs. Then follows a reproduction of our art piece.

Typical painting telling a story, displayed in the Anangu
Museum, near Uluru.

Another piece of art telling a story. Here you can see the
footprints of the people as they travel through the story.

The artist responsible for the piece we purchased.

A local artist working outside Alyce Springs, Australia

    Australian Anangu art has gone through some recent ups and downs in its value. Before the current economic downturn a sort of mini bubble in purchase value had occurred. Large European companies including Sotheby's came into Australia and bought up a lot of the local art for investment purposes thinking that it was going to appreciate. There was an original attraction to this art by people who liked its uniqueness and purchased it because they liked it but like so many world financial phenomena investors created a "bubble." There was an overproduction of the art and then at times the market was flooded with these pieces lowering the value of the pieces. The "bubble" burst. This all happened in conjunction with a worldwide economic downturn beginning in late 2007. Since then many of these pieces have lost value. Interestingly most of the Anangu artists have not even been aware of these financial ups and downs. Most of these people create their art for spiritual and sacred reasons. They benefit from their side value and they are aware of this, but the amount of money that they earn from the sale of their work is a side benefit to the creation of the art itself. On the other hand, during these years 2007-2011, an art piece created by a well known Anangu artist after having disappeared for 40 years turned up again and was sold at Sotheby's for 2.4 million dollars. This seems to somewhat disagree with what I have just said. On another side note, the worldwide art interest which like any market force undergoes trends and fads, seems to be turning now more to primitive Chinese art styles. Time will tell.

     At any rate, this whole world market story, is unimportant to our purchase of our small art piece. We just wanted a souvenir of our visit to the Outback of Australia and a rolled up canvas is very easy to carry home. We just scanned the available prints lying on the ground and picked the one that was most attractive to us. At the time we did learn that most Anangu art tells a story, sometimes simple, sometimes more complex, from the nature and features of the lands that the Anangu inhabit to the features of their daily lives including hunting and gathering, visiting family and tribal events and also stories about the creation and the time that preceded creation, called Dreamtime. Our painting tells a very simple story of two ladies going out to gather the desert "banana" fruit. The leaves represent that plant and the large ovals represent the fruit. The black U represents a woman squatting with her gathering bowl beside her on one side and a knife to cut the fruit on the other side. If it were a man squatting, it would be a U with a dot in the center. A very natural indication of gender by representing anatomy, wouldn't you say?

     Here is a reproduction of our art piece -- Two ladies harvest desert "banana."

     I would like to close this piece with a story that our guide told us while we visited the Outback. This story is meant to point out the vast cultural difference between European culture in Australia, and the culture and thinking of the Anangu. Here is the story:
     A European farmer was working very hard in his field, pulling the plow back and forth across the heavy soil. An Anangu man sat on a small rise the whole day watching this farmer work, while he just sat and rested in the shade, chewing on a fig. Finally the farmer could stand it no longer and walked over to the scantily clad Anangu man. "Why are you sitting here watching me all day and not doing anything?" asked the farmer. "You could help me. I will pay you for each day that you come and work for me. After a while, if you work well, I will hire you and pay you a monthly salary.You will then have money to buy food and other things. What do you think? Are you interested?"
     The Anangu man sat quietly, chewed on his fig, and said, "I'm not hungry and I don't need things."
     The farmer continued, "I can pay you a salary, and you can save some of it, to pay for a house, to send your children to school, and if you continue to work and save your earnings, someday you can retire and then just rest each day and not have to work anymore."
     The Anangu man just looked wisely at the farmer and said, "But why should I work so hard for you and do all you said? I have a house all around me, and I can teach my children all they need to know. You see me here right now. Right now and all day today, what have I been doing? I have been just sitting in the shade and resting while you worked yourself sick. I am already, how do you say? Retired."

      This story demonstrates the difference in the European culture and the Anangu culture as it has and continues to differ in Australia today. The Anangu day is usually devoted to some hunting and gathering of food in the morning, enough to feed the family for that day. After this is done, the people do not even think of gathering enough to store for the next day. They simply spend the rest of the day resting, walking, appreciating nature, thinking, practicing sacred rituals, and in today's Australia observing the nearby Western culture which is an enigma to them. Likewise the European culture cannot understand the lack of a need to prepare for the future, to plan housing, food, and money accumulation for future needs, etc. The Europeans regard the apparent simpler lifestyle of the Anangu as laziness. And the above story sort of indicates how the Anangu think of our culture. Maybe, just maybe, there is some deep truth to their simpler life. At the very least, we can respect it and not denigrate their style of wisdom. 

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