The Streets of Papunya: Walter Benjamin and Art History

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 7:45 PM
Room: 304
Oral Presentation
Vivien JOHNSON , Art History and Theory, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
For Indigenous artists from Australia’s Central and Western Deserts, ancestral power inheres in the landscape from past events and is transmissible to the protagonists’ descendants as political (and also social and cultural) power. They have made this power, known as ‘Dreamings’, the subject of their art. In doing so, they have turned their faces to the past seeking, like Benjamin’s angel of history, to “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed” by the “single catastrophe”[1] of colonisation.

 The artists of the Papunya community have another legacy from their forefathers’ actions at this site: the artistic lineage founded here by their fathers and grandfathers. These men made Papunya famous as the birthplace of an Indigenous art movement that has revolutionised Australian culture, overturning the modernist dichotomy of indigeneousness and contemporaneity that once consigned Aboriginal artists to the eternal past of the ethnographic present. This paper will examine the political struggle in which the current painters of Papunya are engaged to recover that legacy after a period of decline set off by complex factors, including a thoroughly postmodern ‘identity theft’. Denied their birthright and history as a site of artistic production, the Papunya painters are combining both ancestral and artistic legacies to wrest back the power to shape their own destiny, thereby effecting a Benjamin-style ‘opening-up’ of history. They are using the street signs, provided by colonisers hoping to turn their community into a ‘normal Australian suburb’, to proclaim their cultural and artistic heroes. Overturning cultural protocols against speaking the names of the dead, they announce that this future will be built on their own achievements and the ancient ongoing power of place. [1]all statements in double quotes from Walter Benjamin Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History Illuminations