Arriving at the Potter Centre exhibition ‘Moving Backwards into the Future’, one is immediately confronted by two larger than life portraits: ‘Sexy and Dangerous’ (1996) by Brook Andrews, and ‘Ideas of Barak’ (2011) by Vernon Ah Kee.
‘Ideas of Barak’ positions the viewer as the object of Barak’s gaze. In viewing this portrait we are compelled to meet Barak’s gaze. This meeting or exchange of gazes has been a convention of European portraiture since at least the Renaissance, and can be seen in Late Roman funerary portraits.
The title is ambiguous: does it refer to the viewer’s ideas of (about) Barak? Or those of the artist? Or to Barak’s own ideas? Some viewer’s may imagine themselves as being able to approach the latter through the two dozen surviving drawings by Barak, two of which are displayed nearby in this exhibition.
Focusing on the means of representation permits only a temporary respite from Barak’s gaze. The portrait in based on an archival photograph of William Barak, but the photographic image has been translated into a set of arcs that recall the kinds of marks drawn in sand during storytelling, a traditional source for the styles of painting of Country evident in many of the paintings in this exhibition. These arcs also recall animal and bird tracks, although not a representation of the tracks of any specific creature.
‘Sexy and Dangerous’ uses the visual language of glamour photography to represent a young Aboriginal man. Photography, and the perspective optics it mechanised, is inherently a language of desire, and of a particular subjectivity, and of a certain coding of the gaze of the person depicted. Whether that person’s gaze meets that of the viewer, looks to one side, up or down, or ‘inward’, give nuanced meaning to the represented gaze, the person represented, and to the image itself.
Perspective encodes a viewpoint within the organisation, or structure, of the image, and implies a viewer. The image projects a viewing position into the space before the image; and viewers are invited, seduced even, into occupying this position. This position availabie to be occupied is not so much spatial as cognitive and subjective: one puts oneself in the picture.
This encoding of the gaze in perspective as a position for a desiring subject (viewer) is iterated in the title ‘Sexy and Dangerous’. It could refer to the man depicted, but could also refer to this system of representation and its social encoding of subjectivity as the desiring gaze.
Either term could refer to either the man depicted or to the viewer: is this man ‘sexy’? – a distinctly twentieth century term that has broadened its meaning from individual persons to objects, events and situations. Or does this refer to the viewer? Or to the act of observation? Are they all sexy? And dangerous? The title of this image has ambiguities.
Both portraits use contemporary art idioms, and are placed in the exhibition so as to face a wall of ‘early contact’ images.
Many of the paintings exhibited are of the Aboriginal landscape style that is both ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’. These landscapes articulate Country and Dreaming as a visual and gestural component of storytelling.
“The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past; such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen.”
Stanner (1953) p58.
The Dreaming is a cognitive system that encompasses perception, understanding, and one’s existence in the world; an all-embracing subjective world-view and world-experience. This concept of the Dreaming aligns with those of Country and of Language in Aboriginal discourse as encompassing, embracing entities, rather than as elements in a system of distinctions and oppositions such as occurs in western discourse: language as an abstraction from its specific instances (languages), or country as distinct from city.
“I can recall one intelligent old man who said, with a cadence almost as though he had been speaking verse:
“White man got no dreaming, Him go ‘nother way. White man, him go different. Him go road belong himself.”
Stanner (1950) p57.
Stanner’s anonymous elder provides us with a counter-view: of ‘white man’ as alien other; located within the Elder’s world-view and yet not. Any world –view must be capable of incorporating everything, including that which does not appear to belong. The Elder’s statement echoes those of Europeans since they first ‘discovered’ our Great Southern Land and its inhabitants in the mid-seventeenth century. Mutual incomprehension sums up this situation still, a situation which Stanner refers to as a “cult of disremembering”.
The system of perspective representation is a kind of Dreaming for modern western culture: our Dreaming. It embodies our ontology; an ontology of desire and of lack, geared to consumer culture in a global market with values that are often ‘counter-human’; a ‘Dreaming’ (or ideology and behavioural practices) that is embodied in each of us, and that we embody in our very being.
These two world-views are so dissimilar as to remain mutually incomprehensible. Stanner suggests they are almost opposite.
Even though I assert that the Western world-view has some equivalence to The Dreaming, they are not at all the same, and Stanner’s old man is perfectly correct in his assertion. I find the old man’s statement acceptable and poetic, even as I find myself inclined to disagree with his view. This may appear illogical, but logic assumes a common understanding or ground for all ‘acceptable’ statements, and these two viewpoints, the ‘Aboriginal’ and the ‘European,’ derive from the ‘grounding’ for their respective worldviews.
W.E.H. Stanner (1953) ‘The Dreaming’, in: Stanner, the Dreaming and Other Essays (2010, Black Inc Agenda, Collingwood, Vic.)