A road well travelled
Posted: 08 Jul 2012 | By: Joseph Brennan
Art historian George Kubler’s seminal 1962 text The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things had a profound impact on art scholarship and served as a significant influence for artists like Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. In it, Kubler argues that art exists in sequences that posit successive solutions to problems. Further, he argues that the date of an art object is of less importance than its position within this sequence. What this means, as Dr Ronald Aminzade explains, is that “the history of any given object of art … can be dated not simply in terms of the number of years elapsed since it was created but also, and more importantly, in terms of its position in a process”. Kubler advocates locating art within “trajectories of relevant long-term processes” rather than dating them according to “some universal ‘objective’ time”. Kubler’s views are useful in connecting works that, while not necessarily created at the same time, are joined through a far more complex system of response, such as the works that appeared in Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route.
The exhibition, which finished at the Australian Museum in April this year, brought together more than ninety artworks that retell, from an Aboriginal perspective, a significant narrative in Australian history. Exhibition co-curator Dr John Carty (research fellow at the Australian National University) said the story retold is that of a stock route, which “was used through the first half of the twentieth century for droving cattle through 1850 kilometres of desert from the Kimberley to the southern goldfields of Western Australia”. Carty described the stock route as “a frontier narrative about the making of Australia”, a narrative that, until recently, had omitted “the voices of those who it impacted the most”.
Alfred Canning’s job as surveyor involved locating water that would support wells for cattle. Given that the route — which runs almost half the length of Western Australia — crossed nine Aboriginal language groups, Indigenous guides were required, many of which took part against their will. Carty described the manner in which water was located and secured for the purposes of colonial commerce as casting “a shadow longer and wider than the route itself”. Like any postcolonial pursuit, the value of this project — what Kubler referred to as art’s ‘solutions to problems’ — lay in the opportunities it provided for Aboriginal people to share in the telling of this iconic Australian narrative.
While no artist featured in the exhibition was alive when Canning first went through in 1906, few who grew up in the region were unaffected by the white passers-through and their cattle.
“The stock route, the way it was made, and its impact on desert waters and people, has had a complicated legacy for desert people to this day,” Carty said. Yiwarra kuju translates to ‘one road’ in Martu language. “We’ve used ‘one road’ to bind the art, people and story of the Western Desert together,” said Carty. “We use the Canning Stock Route as the meeting point, as the cross-cultural scaffolding on which to develop an understanding of Aboriginal country, and the shared history that happened within it.” Returning to Kubler once more, Carty’s description of the exhibition — as bound through the objects created in response to Yiwarra kuju — suggests the works included are far better understood as part of a trajectory, unanchored to time. This allows earlier and as yet uncreated works to belong to the same system, and the story to remain open to new interpretations and further rewrites. It allows, for example, Rover Thomas’s 1989 Canning Stock Route to appear alongside his nephew Clifford Brooks’ 2007 Canning Stock Route Country as works out of time, yet part of the same story.
The exhibition was developed by the National Museum of Australia (where it debuted in 2010) in association with the arts group FORM. The FORM Canning Stock Route project coordinated a ‘return to country’ trip in 2007. “We travelled along the route for a month or so, visiting sites and recording Aboriginal oral histories of that country,” said Carty, who was asked to join the project following his PhD work with Balgo artists. The return inspired both artistic reflection and creation. Patrick Tjungurrayi’s Canning Stock Route Country, for example, was painted while travelling; he unrolled it each day to paint at different sites along the route. He also accompanied the creation of the work with a series of oral histories. The exhibition itself was structured in a similar way, the main objective being to recreate the experience of walking the route. “You start in the southern end of the stock route,” said Carty, “and wend your way north up the Kimberley, passing through people’s country and the history that unfolded there.” A book on the exhibition was published by National Museum of Australia Press in 2010.
Images from top:
The Canning Stock Route, near Well 51. Photograph Tim Acker, 2007.
Curators at work with the Canning Stock Route Collection. Photograph Ross Swanborough, 2008.
(left to right) Rosie Williams, Dulcie Gibbs and Muni Rita Simpson, Martumili Artists working on the painting Minyipiuru (Seven Sisters), 2007, acrylic on linen, 300 x 125cm. Photograph Tim Acker, 2007.
Jan Billycan (Yulparija Artists), Kiriwirri, 2008, acrylic on linen, 79.5 x 59.5cm. Courtesy Short St Gallery, Broome.
Kumpaya Girgaba, Martumili Artists, Kaninjaku, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 124 x 291.5cm.
Elizabeth Nyumi, Mangarri (food), 2007, acrylic on linen, 156 x 79cm. Courtesy the artist and Warlayirti Artists.
Rover Thomas, Canning Stock Route, 1989, ochre and natural binders on canvas, 105.5 x 60.5cm. ©Artist’s estate. Courtesy Warmun Art Centre.
Nora Nangapa, Nora Wompi, Bugai Whylouter and Kumpaya Girgaba, Martumili Artists, Kunkun, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 124.5 x 294cm.