Dr Darren Jorgensen, Senior Lecturer at UWA’s Design School, became interested in Indigenous art when a friend came back from the desert with a roll of paintings.
Just returned from Europe, when Darren saw the Papunya Tula paintings from a remote Aboriginal community he realised they were as remarkable as the paintings he had been studying in Paris.
Darren was in his 30s then and embarrassed to admit he’d missed one of the most interesting aspects of his own country. It was this cultural awakening that shaped much of what he researches and teaches today.
“When I got back to Australia, I drove a yellow kombi van to the Australian desert. I discovered this most inspiring art movement and incredible people speaking only Indigenous languages,” Darren recalls.
He hasn’t looked back. In fact, discovering the histories of artworks and paintings of remote communities forms a large part of Darren’s research. It takes him on regular field trips where he uncovers the archival complexities behind Indigenous art.
His work in remote Australian communities involves looking up hundreds of records on artworks and paintings, and what he uncovers is far from simple.
How the artists influence each other, what kind of storytelling is depicted in artworks and how archival practices preserve Indigenous memories and knowledge, is the kind of stuff from which art history is made.
For an art historian like Darren, seeing the lack of resources for studying Indigenous art was something that inspired him to work, together with Ian McLean, on a book entitled Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art.
Launched earlier this year by UWA Publishing, this publication is ground-breaking and reveals archival research in the production of Indigenous histories in Australia.
“The collection of essays we’ve put together are not by academics, but by art advisors and curators; people from remote art centres who have worked closely with artists and their archives to deepen our knowledge of where the Aboriginal art movement came from,” Darren says.
As well as explaining the complex practice of Indigenous archiving that takes into account the cultural sensitivities of storytelling, Indigenous Archives reveals the challenges the archiving process had to endure during colonisation.
Well before colonisation and certainly before the digital era, Darren explains the Dreaming was an all-encompassing idea through which archives were generated and artworks made.
“Before the digital era, the records of art centres were magnificent archives of the Dreaming, as artists and art managers sat down and spoke one-on-one about what the paintings represented.
“When digital archiving became available in remote Australia it meant that we lost records of these individual conversations,” Darren says. That’s why for him and for the communities he works with, it’s important to safeguard the workings behind the Indigenous archiving practices and preserve the invaluable narrative that shapes their art histories.
“We know so much, probably too much, about artists like Cezanne and Picasso, the European masters, but know so little about leading Australian artists like Bugai Whylouter or Ngipi Ward.”
He intends to shift this knowledge paradigm one outback trip at a time.