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My M.A. research
Abstract of my M.A. thesis
Website live-your-dream

Painting Authenticity


Aboriginal art and knowledge in an intercultural space

(Warmun, Western Australia)




Mayke Kranenbarg


supervisor: Dr. E. Venbrux 


My thesis is about paintings produced by Warmun artists and the consequences of their entanglement in a global art market. The main theoretical problem I am concerned with is how ‘culture making’ happens through art. In this approach I have been inspired by Myers, who in his latest work Painting Culture (2002) follows the Pintupi art movement of central Australia from its beginnings in the 1970s to the international recognition it has gained now. What Myers makes clear is that there are several discursive levels involved in the social constructions of the paintings. These range from ‘indigenous accountings to those of governmental policies, art dealers, and art critics’. Indigenous artists may stress that their paintings are ‘stories’, while art critics may see them as visually innovative. Yet others may value them for their ‘exoticism’. We can therefore not apply one meaning to them, nor can we perceive the categories attributed to them as fixed. Aboriginal artists are involved in a dialogue with non-Aborigines about the meanings of their paintings.

     One of the issues that are most prevalent in this dialogue is whether Aboriginal art that is painted for the market can be called ‘authentic’. From a western art tradition perspective, that has historically valued indigenous art for its ‘otherness’, indigenous art that is produced with non-traditional materials and for a western audience is seen as inauthentic. However, artists themselves claim that their works are authentic. This aspect intrigues me very much. The Gija artists I spent time with emphasised that what they painted was truth, that their stories were not made up, as they came from the Dreaming, and they were concerned that people might not understand this. When after my fieldwork I encountered people who were outsiders of Gija culture, I was always asked the same question: ‘Is this art still traditional? It cannot be spiritual since it is made for sale, can it?’ These ideas reveal much of our limited concepts of ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, and ‘authenticity’. In my view Aboriginal art has the abilities to challenge static notions.

     In my thesis I have focussed on the meaning of authenticity from an Aboriginal perspective, and how this is reflected in Warmun art. Other important questions concern the representation of Warmun art in the west. What image is given of Aboriginal art and culture in non-Aboriginal places, such as art galleries? What effects have the demands of the tourist market on Aboriginal artists and their works? What is the role of the non-Aboriginal people in the promotion of Warmun art? These questions all survey how ‘authenticity’ is expressed in different art contexts. They enclose the meanings attributed to indigenous knowledge as well as the continuing debate about the nature of this knowledge.


I found that Warmun artists consider their painting movement important for two main reasons: its use in the education of younger generations in local knowledge, and in forming exchange relationships with non-Aboriginal people. Both functions are continuations of indigenous institutions. The first establishes traditional mentor-novice relationships, in which young people learn from related elders how to depict their country and the knowledge imbedded in it, during which their social identity is reproduced. The second function is to be seen in the context of ceremonial exchange, in which one’s identity is objectified to outsiders in order to elicit recognition. Warmun artists experience the sale of their paintings not as ‘selling images’ but as revealing Dreaming and other local knowledge in return for money and recognition.

     The fact that the artists produce for an artworld that is not of their own making, limit them in their artistic freedom. In the west Aboriginal art is in general valued for its ‘otherness’ and ‘authenticity’, in the sense of having emerged from an ancient tradition that is unaffected by external influences. Buyers of Aboriginal paintings expect them to be ‘traditional’ and ‘spiritually motivated’. In order for the paintings to be marketable these expectations have to be met, which is a task of art coordinators. Warmun artists are encouraged to paint with natural ochres, and each artwork is sold with a document that proves its authenticity by mentioning the skin name and language group of the artist as well as the story that is part of the depicted country. Such documents enhance the value of the paintings in the market, and are also considered important by the artists themselves who aim to bring forth an understanding of their relatedness to the land and the Dreaming. However, in contrast to the common sense notion of ‘authenticity’ in the west, an Aboriginal conceptualisation of ‘authenticity’ does not exclude change. An ‘authentic’ painting in the latter sense is connected to the identity of the maker who has been authorized to paint certain country and reveal certain knowledge. Artists paint from the Dreaming, which is to be understood as a creative dimension that is rooted in the past, yet continues in the present. It has a hidden dynamic – the Dreaming ancestors created the land and its beings but their influence continues as a powerful force. Unexplainable events, often concerning death and destruction, are interpreted in the context of what is already known. Dreaming knowledge is therefore continuously expanded. A photo camera can become the main theme in a Dreaming story, as well as Christian topics. From an Aboriginal point of view they do not make the paintings less authentic. Yet, due to the demands of the market such story content is usually excluded from paintings.

     Nevertheless, opinions on Aboriginal art are not fixed, but are constructions that change through time. Contemporary Aboriginal artists use new media to express their ideas and these become more accepted, even though urban Aboriginal art is still much less popular than the more ‘conventional’ dot paintings. Warmun artists are highly innovative in their style of painting and this process continues. At a Sydney symposium about East Kimberley art a dialogue between a non-Aboriginal audience and Aboriginal artists was set in motion to enable artists to represent themselves and non-Aborigines to get a better understanding of the meanings of the paintings. Aboriginal art is not transparent and it is therefore most important to provide information with it. It is Aboriginal artists’ aim to communicate with their art. Through their paintings they hope to achieve recognition for the intimate relationship they have with their country and for the wrongdoings of the past, when many of their ancestors were killed and their land was taken from them. They aim to make their audience aware of the spiritual forces in the country, and the ongoing nature of the Dreaming.

     Aboriginal notions of ‘authenticity’, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ have the power to challenge our static perceptions of these concepts. My hope is that the innovations they bring in their paintings will encourage an understanding of Aboriginal culture as dynamic and fully participant of the 21st century.