Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Creation ex nihilo?

I thought today's session of "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" would be all about the alleged "fabrication" of "sacred women's business" around Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island), but students were entranced instead by another case of fabrication, brought in (not as a case of fabrication) by a student. In the 1990s work by an artist named Eddie Burrup appeared in Aboriginal art galleries, and won several prizes. The large diptych above from 1997 is called "Genesis 1 ... In the Beginning" but also has an alternative title:

All that ol' Dreamin' mob —
'e 'alf way now
for comin' out
brom underneath ...

The artist also explains it: Breaking free from some subterranean region, or slough, creative forces emerge — part human, part animal. Fish, reptile, bird and mammal will shape the sentient universe and be shaped by the events of the ensuing epoch before finally submerging again having committed an eternal ontology to perpetuate itself cyclically, via the whole of natural and supernatural phenomena, wherein beginning and end are an indivisible closed circuit.

But "Eddie Burrup" doesn't exist, at least not as an Aboriginal man. He is the "alter ego," the "daemon" of a white Australian painter named Elizabeth Durack, who spent most of her long life in the outback Kimberley. Aboriginal life and ritual have been themes of her work from the start. Durack revealed the - shall we call it a hoax? she didn't think it one, and claimed to be surprised at the angry responses to her revelation - herself, and continued to paint under "Eddie Burrup"'s name until her death. She claimed that he was nascent in her consciousness as a painter for many decades before surfacing.

Everyone in class had an opinion about this, and not everyone understood why Durack has a place on the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation's "Wall of Shame" for "Identity Appropriation." Isn't she "entitled" to paint what she wants, as an artist? Isn't she even entitled to paint "as an Aborigine" if she's put in the time, or is so inspired? Is her painting under a pseudonym any different from George Elliot's writing under a man's name? We'll discuss it more on Thursday, when everyone in the class has had a chance to learn more. Though it makes me a bit ill to think of devoting part of our propenultimate class session to this, it may be the last best chance to discuss the very different notions of identity and entitlement in the cultures we've been studying. But also to look at what we're doing studying them: to some extent, the Burrupians in my class are revolting against my deference to Aboriginal traditions...

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