There are many ramifications of Dr Lynne Kelly’s research. Foremost is the impetus to question our modern ideas about the level of knowledge and intelligence of indigenous people. As with any historical inquiry the insights derived often tell us more about ourselves than the traditional cultures under examination. In particular, exposing the level of hubristic self-importance we attribute to the technological advances of the modern world and our condescending attitudes towards those we deem as less sophisticated, ‘primitive’, and therefore inferior. We tend to equate the ‘modern scientific wonders’ that surround us with the teleological notion of progress and the inevitable improvements in the human condition. As if the slow unfolding of human history is akin to the dawning understanding and maturation of a child as they grow to adulthood. In a sense we have conflated the notions of the natural ‘state of grace’ of childhood with the concept of ‘the noble savage’.
Dr Kelly’s research not only refutes this view of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures, but inverts these concepts entirely. It is our present day globalised Western culture that acts as the child, while the adults among us are those many cultures that precede our own by millennia. Cultures with their own highly sophisticated non-literate technologies, knowledge and profound insights into the natural world. And yet, like petulant children, we refuse to accept how much we have to learn from them. Blinded as we often are by the arrogance of our own self defined cleverness.
For myself personally, the primary insight relates to matters of (capital A) Art and how it is currently perceived within the context of the modern Western world. Much has been written that both praises and derides current manifestations of Art and artistic practice. This short blog is not meant to recapitulate these issues, rather to overstep them entirely by acknowledging the different purpose Art serves, and the context in which it is created, in ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures. A purpose that offers much to us in the modern world by grounding art (with a small a) within the concrete reality of every person’s life.
As Dr Kelly puts it herself,
“In the western context, the primary measure of art is aesthetic. In non-literate contexts, the primary motivation is didactic.” (Page 41, The Memory Code, 2016)
Or to put it in less measured terms, in the contemporary world art serves little more purpose than decoration, whereas in traditional cultures art has always been a means of teaching and aiding them in their learning and understanding of the world. Contentious as this may seem, since there are many examples of Western art that serve the purpose of didacticism, it draws the broad brush stroke of delineating the different purposes art serves in these different manifestations of human society.
With these thoughts in mind let us turn our attention to how we, as modern Western citizens, have been taught to look at the art of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures. Trained as we are to look for variations in line, the juxtapositions of colour, or the compositional elements of symmetry and balance, we have no conception of the artwork’s meaning beyond the parameters of these limited aesthetic considerations. An analogue of this is to consider a masterpiece of Western literature in the same light. Just imagine a book collector buying the complete works of Shakespeare based entirely on their attraction to the decorative attributes of the binding! Never is it imagined that there is a meaning and purpose that lies deeper than the mere appearance of the object in their hands. In a similar sense, ours is a culture that judges art only by its cover. Of course a magnificently bound book is a beautiful thing to behold, but this aesthetic experience is incidental to the essential purpose the book serves in the first place.
The artworks of indigenous cultures across the world certainly are aesthetically beautiful, but they are also purposeful in their creation. Just as those who have no knowledge of literacy cannot possibly conceive of what lies between the covers of a book, we too are unable to conceive of the rich seam of human knowledge and understanding that is hidden beneath the surface of these artworks. Yet even the illiterate are aware that a book’s primary purpose is to be read, regardless of their inability to read it for themselves. As a modern Western literate person myself, I am only just learning the same is true of much ancient and contemporary indigenous art.
As a result of these musings I was intrigued by the observations I made of how attendees at our first workshop related to the artworks used as markers for the preliminary memory trail. Sculptures that had been made for the sake of aesthetic consideration were being utilised solely as a visual or conceptual link to the piece of information that needed encoding. Aesthetics had very little to do with the purpose these artworks currently served. Thus there was no question of being able to appreciate or comprehend the Art, and so no preconceptions tainted the experience of actual observation. The viewer’s gaze was seemingly more objective and I wonder, as a consequence of this type of contemplation, if the sculptures acquired more meaning, more relevance, and were thus more memorable?
In the contemporary world we may never be entirely certain of how to correctly ‘read’ indigenous artworks, but we can at least learn to acknowledge the alternative purposes they serve in the cultures from which they derive.