Sunday, June 19, 2011

Unsettled: Possession

[This is the final installment of an essay which began here.]

The student told us about a Kimberley artist named Eddie Burrup, whose work started appearing in Aboriginal art galleries in the 1990s. In a darker palette than much Aboriginal art, Burrup's work favored cosmic or Christian topics rather than specific Dreamings; his was an exciting new voice. He won prizes and was invited to contribute to several shows, including the 1996 exhibition at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Culture Institute in Adelaide called "Native Title Now."

Then an article appeared in a small art magazine, in which it was revealed that Eddie Burrup did not exist. Or rather, a white Australian woman painter revealed that "I am Eddie Burrup," though she continues to talk about him in the third person. Elizabeth Durack, a child of the Kimberley squattocracy who had lived on the land and known Aboriginal people all her life, had been working on a biography of Burrup and decided to come clean. He was her daemon. Response from Aboriginal people was quick and furious, if more muted among her friends. Durack has a place on the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation's "Wall of Shame" for theft of Aboriginal property and profiting from the imposture. She nevertheless continued to paint as both Burrup and Durack until her death a few years later.

Some in our class were furious as well, but not all. Several shared the pleasure of the student who introduced us to the case; the real scandal was not Durack's supposed fraud but the hypocrisy exposed by its success. If Durack's paintings were judged worthy of prizes when presented under the name Burrup but rejected when known to be her own, what did that say about the judges? Shouldn't they admit that they weren't motivated by artistic beauty but only by ethnicity? If so, shouldn't Durack be commended for calling their bluff? On the other hand, if their artistic judgments was fair, didn't the success of the paintings of "Eddie Burrup" confirm that Durack actually was a gifted Aboriginal artist, that ethnicity was irrelevant in art?

It was an ugly case, and I was not happy that it had been brought to my classroom. But the discussion it generated was the most lively we'd had all semester. Everyone was engaged, thinking, arguing. I realized that pursuing it might take us where the Hindmarsh/Kumarangk case had failed to - to tough choices about the weight and significance of Aboriginal matters in a modern society like our own. I didn't right away realize that the Burrup/Durack case also brought to a head my angstful questions about ownership and teaching.

I told the class to read up on Durack. (Her daughter Perpetua maintains an extensive website.) I wasn't about to let the work of a fake Aboriginal be the last word in my class, however, so we read also about contemporary Aboriginal artists whose work is at a remove from Dreamings, thematizing historical and political issues with words, found objects, collage, photographic realism, etc. I also showed two short films about the Aboriginal Memorial, a forest of hollow log coffins made for the bicentenary of European settlement of Australia in 1988 - one for the untended dead of each year of colonial occupation - now displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Canberra. A bonus: it's the work of an earlier generation of elders from Ramingining, the Yolngu community we'd encountered in "Ten Canoes."

Our discussion kept slipping back to Durack, however. Her case is even stranger than it first appears. Her daughter describes Burrup as an inspired invention which brought her mother's work the attention it deserved, but Elizabeth Durack herself described the arrival of Burrup the way mediums discuss being possessed. She spoke of him always in the third person, and felt a responsibility to help him express his art. She now realized that Burrup had been "nascent" in her artistic consciousness for decades before he identified himself to her.

Durack fascinated not just for her weirdness. She was the first and only settler Australian we had gotten to know in the class. In incorporating Aboriginal traditions in her art, she seemed the mirror and complement of Aboriginal artists we had encountered whose work in western media I defended from the class's authenticity police: Albert Namatjira, who made watercolor landscapes his own, and Darlene Johnson, whose film "Crocodile Dreaming" uses the conventions of horror films to convey an Aboriginal story.

Besides, Durack was an artist. Could not and should not an artist take inspiration wherever it presented itself to her? Some of us said "not an Aboriginal artist...," recalling issues of ownership and protocol. Others responded "but she's not Aboriginal." Why should a non-Aboriginal observe Aboriginal protocol and recognize Aboriginal ownership? One student - not a Durack defender - observed that maybe Durack developed a split personality precisely because her understanding of Aboriginal culture was so deep she realized she could never paint Aboriginal art.

At the heart of this was a question to me, and the way I'd been conducting the class. None of us is Aboriginal, and we're not in Australia. Why should we honor Aboriginal understandings of property and protocol? This was the question I'd intended to force with the Hindmarsh/Kumarangk Island Bridge controversy. Durack brought it home to our classroom in the basement of The New School, a few meters from the space where Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham created modern dance.

We were not being artists in room B002, but the project of the liberal arts is closer to the arts than to law. It's about liberty - the liberty and perhaps obligation of the individual to make and remake herself in conversation with the best fruits of human culture. It resists restrictions on thought and questions authority claims, not in the service of narcissism but of a deeper and broader humanism. It celebrates the work of study and dispels prejudice. It empowers agency and respect, identifying injustices and the ways to fight them. These are my values, too, and presumably the reasons students had signed up for my class. But I had created a space in which such liberty was permitted only to Aboriginals, whose acts of reinvention and appropriation were celebrated. Aboriginal people could do no wrong, while settlers, it seemed, could do no right.

Though they weren't entirely clear to me, I had my reasons. The structure of ownership, distribution and protocol was the main "takeaway" from traditions I felt could not be translated or transported from their land. I was especially intrigued with the way the particular interlocking cycles of nature are in Aboriginal life integrated and lived socially, and the dynamic and ununified understandings of land and person it involves. It confirmed my sense that reality is so rich that no tradition can ultimately do it justice - even as it resonated with my sense that western understandings of ecology are in need of drastic revision. It suggested a model for a pluralism (though I was pulling an Eliade here: would any Aboriginal put it that way?).

In my other classes, as several of the students knew, I have been moving steadily away from the benevolent authoritarianism of phronimos and the Zen teacher - in theory if not in practice. My democratizing mantra is "who decides?" All of us, ignorant though we are, make worlds for ourselves out of what's available to us, often more creatively than the specialists of our traditions. The specialists condemn this as "syncretism." I think syncretism is probably the norm in human history; the antisyncretic impulses are what need to be explained. (I'm not praising one and condemning the other; both have their place.) This view of the creativity in syncretism is obviously part and parcel of my understanding of how traditions work. It's why I had no patience for questions about the "authenticity" of an Aboriginal person's invoking Jesus or painting in acrylics on canvas.

While the Aboriginal in my class could do no wrong, however, it seemed the settler could do no right - except, perhaps, helping Aboriginal people do right. Postcolonial historian of anthropology Patrick Wolfe insists that there can be no innocent view of Aboriginal culture. Like Gill (their books both came out within a year of each other, though I can find no evidence anyone has brought them together), he thinks the best and only thing the settler can do is deconstruct the settler's ideologies. Aboriginals have no use for a theory of the Aboriginal. Any pretended attempt to understand the Aboriginal is already another act of occupation.

I conducted my class as if one might occupy oneself with Aboriginal traditions without occupying them. This is how I approach every other tradition I teach about. I pose tough questions about the agendas of supposedly value-neutral scholarship, and seek out insider voices. Indeed, I often channel them and encourage students to do the same ("what would Hume/a devotee of Saint Jude/a Jewish reader of Eliade/Santideva say?"), increasingly in writing or improv exercises. Until this class, I had no sense of trespassing, let alone of taking something which is not mine. As I shared the fruit of my research with students and encouraged them to make it their own, I had no sense of passing on something to which I may have had no right. Have I been pulling a Durack all along?

Near the end of the semester I chaired a discussion about the liberal arts with alumni of our college. One is an indigenous Alaskan, who offered some thoughts about the liberal arts from an indigenous perspective. In some deep ways, she suggested, traditional conceptions of the liberal arts have elective affinities with settler colonialism. Suppose we understood land as knowledge rather than property, and recognized knowledge instead as property - respecting human traditions as sovereign rather than insisting on a project of "inclusion"? This hit me with the force of revelation. In my stumbling way this was what I had been trying to do, without quite knowing it. She proposed a new mission for the liberal arts: "teaching the settler to be indigenous." I don't know if I can teach about Aboriginal Australia again. But this is where we begin.

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