'The treasure of our collection': the disruptive wonder of the Yirrkala crayon drawings
Howard Morphy (Australian National University)
Paper short abstract:
Crayon drawings from Yirrkala collected in 1947 by Ronald Berndt were exhibited in 2013 at the AGNSW. Viewers found the drawings challenging in part because they appeared to be so contemporary. The disrupted viewing was the culmination of a process whereby Yolngu contemporary fine art became possible.
Paper long abstract:
In 1947 the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt made a collection of 365 crayon drawings on brown butchers paper from Yirrkala in Northern Australia. Although Ron Berndt saw the collection as one of his greatest achievements, for nearly 60 years the drawings remained largely unknown stored in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. Recently they have gained in recognition. In 2006 the drawings were inscribed on the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World, and in December 2013 an exhibition of them opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Viewers found the drawings challenging in part because they appeared to be so contemporary. They were powerful aesthetic works that appeared to come from a developed artistic tradition. How was it they had not been recognised earlier? I will consider why the crayon drawings disrupted people's expectations about Yolngu art. I will argue that the disruption is the culmination of a process whereby Yolngu contemporary fine art became a possible artefact. The recognition of the crayon drawings as art resulted from a collaborative value creation process, which from a Yolngu perspective, resulted in a widening recognition of what they understood was already there. The anthropologists who worked with Yolngu shared a similar sense of the aesthetic power of Yolngu cultural production and art became integral to their own relativistic project of cross-cultural translation. The recognition of the Yirrkala crayon drawings as art became a desirable outcome for both Yolngu and the anthropologists.
The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters