In the 1970s, an Anglo-Australian advisor to the Pintupi Aboriginal people of the remote Western Desert of Australia suggested that they transfer some of their traditional designs to modern European painting media (notably acrylic). The result was astonishing: a seemingly endless stream of brilliant, intense, moving paintings emerging from one of the most remote and impoverished places on earth. By incredible good fortune, Fred Myers, one of the most sensitive and wide-ranging ethnographers in anthropology, was there almost from the birth of the movement, recording what happened. This is his authoritative book on the meteoric rise of an art style that has achieved world reknown.
The art is enmeshed in Aboriginal religion, which in turn is enmeshed in the land. Most of the paintings are of religious landscapes. Myers is at his best in explaining the differences between Aboriginal views of the paintings (basically, as religious art connected with land and land rights) and westerners' views (basically, as beautiful pictures). Myers does not make the comparison, but it is rather like looking at Italian Renaissance religious scenes. You can't fully appreciate what's going on (however much you may enjoy the color scheme) if you have no idea who Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene were.
Other books have focused on the art and its makers (not only Pintupi; other groups had their own artistic triumphs, and now I am told that most of the artists in Australia belong to the tiny percentage who are of Aboriginal background). Myers thus concerns himself more with the reception that the paintings had in the wider world, and the whole process of winning recognition as "art" for what was once dismissed as mere "aboriginal craft" items--a racist dismissal. Myers is incredibly fair-minded (more than I would have been) to all parties, in the face of this, but sometimes anger inevitably breaks through; for example, after reporting one particularly dismissive review, he says "Here, then, were outsiders who knew more than the participants but did not bother to talk with them, outsiders whose representational practices directly thwarted the representations of Aboriginal painters" (p. 292).
Racism took several tactics. First and most odious was attacking the marketing of the paintings as "commodification" or "commoditization"--translation: it's fine for elite white artists to sell their stuff, but Immoral and Sinful for poor and nonwhite folks to make an honest dollar the same way. Related were attacks on the lack of "authenticity" of the art because old-time Aboriginals didn't have acrylic; again, no one attacks elite white artists for using media that Leonardo da Vinci didn't use. Then there was the early consignment of the art to "natural history" museums! (This had changed by the early 1990s.) Another tactic was glib talk of Aboriginals as "the Other," to be "situated in a discourse of alterity" or of "cultural construction" instead of treated as humans. (Not only do some perform the "othering," but also those who criticize it, can bury the whole matter in floods of jargon--not much help, in the event.) The last word on the subject of "the Other" was said long ago by Rimbaud: "je est en autre" ("I is another"); after that, we need no more on the issue. Add in patronizing bureaucrats, crooked dealers, and well-meaning but uncomprehending viewers, and the mix is such that one wonders how the Aboriginals keep going.
There is much more in the book (over 400 dense pages). Many less dramatic points are of more interest to the theorist. They defy summary here. Defying summary, too, is Myers' wonderful account of his own experiences in the Western Desert and in the urban art world.
The only problem with the book is that much of it is (necessarily, I fear) couched in the lingo of the art-criticism and culture-studies world--a lingo noted more for preciosite' than for comprehensibility.
Myers demolishes the simplistic rhetoric of "resistance" and "accommodation." What emerges is something far more powerful. Humans sometimes confront the most horrible oppression, racism, and brutality by transcending it--by marshalling all their resources in a cascade of concentrated brilliance that "outshines the sun." Delta blues is one example (and the source of my phrase). Roma music is another. In art, we have the explosion of Northwest Coast carving, painting and printmaking over the last 30 years. These and many other similar cases may be the best plea we have for redeeming the human species in spite of our countless sins.