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'The same but different' : social reproduction and innovation in the art of the Kunwinjku of western Arnhem Land




Taylor, Luke

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This thesis presents an analysis of the artistic systern of the Kunwinjku of western Arnhen1 Land, Australia. The analysis focusses on the n1eanings encoded in Kunwinjku bark paintings and how the operation of the artistic system develops the sernantic productivity of paintings. The theoretical basis of this analysis is semiological in the n1anner outlined by Saussure. The thesis begins with a historical analysis of the development of the market for K unwinjku paintings. I argue that the production of bark paintings for sale has largely replaced the traditional contexts of secular painting and also some forms of ceremonial painting. I show how bark painting now has a very in1portant role in the transmission of culturally constituted sets of rneanings between generations of Kunwinjku. After this general introduction, the analysis shifts to the way that bark paintings are integrated with the Kunwinjku social systen1. I consider the dynamics of the way Kunwinjku men compete to acquire knowledge of Ancestral subjects, and how paintings are used as a public display of the knowledgeable status of individual artists. I show how the acquisition of knowledge is organised in respect of the ceremonial systen1 and how paintings used in ceren1ony are an important means by which such knowledge is comn1unicated. The analysis of the rneanings encoded in ceremonial paintings provides th~ introductory background for a rnore detailed exarnination of the way bark paintings encode both rnundane and 111ore esoteric ceren1onial references. The 111ain body of the thesis identifies different types of Kunwinjku bark paintings and the specific way n1eaning is encoded in each type. It begins with paintings that Kunwinjka consider to be naturalistic representations. This analysis distinguishes the variety of ways that Kunwinjku see components of the outline form of their figures to be iconically motivated. The succeeding chapter investigates the way that paintings which show more an1biguous figurative forms depict the transformational characteristics of the Ancestral Beings. The innovative potential of such paintings is discussed. The next chapter shows how the composition of the figurative forms of some bark paintings can be n1odified to resernble the composition of ceremonial paintings as a means of incorporating more esoteric references in the work. The final chapter of this analysis reveals how different types of x-ray infill of figurative motifs associates the figures with distinct reahns of 1neaning. Different paintings can refer to the reahns of food division, the nature of death. social grouping or the organisation of landscape. I describe the way that. senior K unwinjku artists 1nay develop new types of x-ray infill i.o create new n1ean1ngs. In the conclusion I consider the way Kunwinjku are progressively socialised to understand the n1eanings of different types of paintings , and how the artistic systen1 is organised to create the se111antic productivity of paintings. I show that Kunwinjku not. only learn t.he 1neanings of different paintings , but also learn to abstract stuctures that organise their understanding of the relationships between paintings. By showing how the artistic systen1 works to condense many reahns of Kunwinjku experience of the world I show how this sytem is involved in the n1aintenance of the continued coherence and vitality of K unwinjku belief. I relate innovation in K unwinjku art to the sen1antic productivity developed within the system.






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