Accepted Paper:

Closing the distance: technique, expression and meaning in the art of Narritjin Maymuru (2014-1981)  


Howard Morphy (Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focuses on art by Narritjin Maymuru, a Yolngu from Arnhem Land in Australia. Combining perspectives from anthropology and art history I analyse the representational and expressive techniques he employs, providing insights into how art can be an effective means of communicating cross-culturally.

Paper long abstract:

This paper focuses on the work of Narritjin Maymuru, a renowned Yolngu artist from Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. Paintings by Narritjin exist from soon after the establishment of the mission station of Yirrkala in 1935, until his death in 1981. His corpus provides a rich opportunity to examine the oeuvre of Australian Aboriginal artist and analyse the techniques of representation he employed in conveying and expressing meanings and concepts through his artwork. Yolngu works of art whether produced for internal contexts — such as a circumcision ceremony or a mortuary ritual — or for sale to outsiders, have the same range of meanings and significance to the artist. To Yolngu art has been a means of acting in diverse and partially overlapping worlds.

In the spirit of Yolngu artists’ cross-cultural engagement I will position Narritjin Maymuru’s in a comparative framework which combines perspectives for anthropology and art history. I will show ways in which synergies can be found between the modes of representation Narritjin employs and techniques that art historians identify in western art forms - e.g. figure ground reversal, shimmer, depth - and evaluative criteria that can be applied - e.g. that a work is resolved, expressive, balanced and so on. My aim is not to write about influence, since Yolngu art is a relatively autonomous tradition, but to consider at the extent to which one can suggest generalisations about artistic practice that show how art can be an effective means of communicating cross-culturally.

Panel P021
Converging worlds: anthropology and art history (JASCA panel)