Howard Morphy describes the technique of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land painting: “painting is seen as a process of transforming a surface from a state of dullness to that of shimmering brilliance (bir’yunhamirri)”. (Morphy, H. (1998) Aboriginal Art, Phaidon, London and New York, p.188)
He indicates a clearly defined set of steps:
1.the painting surface is covered in an overall wash (typically red-ochre)
2.the key forms are outlined in yellow and black and basic figurative elements are coloured in.
3.large portions of the surface are covered in “cross-hatched” infill with a special long brush
4.the final work involves “outlining the figures and cross-hatched areas in white to create a clear edge which defines their form.”
Stage one is a straightforward, process. Stage two depends upon high-order artistic skill and a close understanding of relevant representational traditions and protocols. Morphy notes that this stage is performed relatively quickly by “a senior person”. Stage three is the most time-consuming, demanding technical skill but less demonstrable cultural knowledge. The final stage draws the painting together. Morphy does not mention who is responsible for this stage, but it seems likely that it is closely directed by the senior artist.
My interest is in the sophisticated mediation that this artistic process enables between elements of conceptualisation and mechanical technique. The term ‘mechanical’ has to be used carefully here. It is less, in this instance, to liken Aboriginal painting to the characteristic forms of industrial production than to pinpoint a dimension of iterative, non-conceptually grounded process within Aboriginal art-making. It is not as though the work of producing cross-hatched infill does not have conceptual, aesthetic resonance, it is that it gains this resonance and this potential to shape a shimmering aesthetic surface by casting itself in terms of a repetitive articulation of time and space. The work has a ritual, performative aspect. In relation to the cross-hatching, Morphy argues that “Yolngu are not merely producing an aesthetic effect but moving the image towards the ancestral domain. The cross-hatched surface of the painting reflects the power of the ancestral being it represents, the quality of the shininess is the power of the ancestral beings incarnate in the object.” (p.189) In this sense, the work becomes a means of summoning and invocation. Slow and mechanical it shapes a real and affective alignment with dimensions of ancestral being and opens up the possibility of manifestation. From this perspective then, processes of conceptualisation and mechanical technique are mutually imbricated. The distinction between concept and technique does not take a binary shape, but is instead structured as a play of mediation within the overall creative process. Concepts emerge as much from the space of mechanical repetition, which serves as a field of intimate communication and connection, as the latter is inevitably inflected by the rich context of cultural meaning.
This example indicates other ways of making sense of the relationship between conceptualisation and practical making within art; suggesting the need to re-evaluate the non-reflective character of making and to acknowledge the dynamic exchange between silence and eloquence within art. The relation between concept and fabrication is no longer cast in hierarchical or harshly binary terms – rather they appear congruent and enmeshed.