Robyn Ferrell Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context 
New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, 192 pages. $50.00

Time and again, as I read through Robyn Ferrell’s new book, the words of Frank Scott’s villanelle passed, unbidden, through my mind. Not steering by the venal chart, that tricked the mass for private gain.We rise to play a greater part. Reshaping narrow law and art, whose symbols are the millions slain, From bitter searching of the heart We rise to play a greater part. Through the lens of the Australian Aboriginal art movement Ferrell confronts the reader with some surprising truths about the world we live in and the myopic and murderous callousness which makes us inattentive to these realities.

At the heart of this callousness lies an aesthetic impoverishment. Ferrell frequently makes biting references to the Real World of Western subjectivity. One suspects that Ferrell’s Real World has overtones of Scott’s venal chart, focusing simultaneously on the private individual subject and the apparent commensurability of objects. In the study of indigenous art, observes Ferrell, it matters that we consider the operations of Western desire, because they pass through that redactive lens, and even in passing through it have the power to “remind us of our own lack of self-possession.” The vivacity of images in their capacities of ordering and unseating have the power to take us beyond exchange, whether specifically market-driven or the comparative exchange of sacred lore so dear to the ethnographer. In a passage of considerable wisdom Ferrell considers the mystery of indigenous arts and what is known by them in their Western reception:

These mysteries come from the same place and time – the “Real World” of the twenty-first century, already technologized and rapidly globalizing. This is from where the echoes of other times and places are heard, as precious revenants, or as genuine gifts in an uneven exchange of ontologies. (Ferrell, 5) 

There is power, then, in this artwork with its distinctive ontological concerns and phenomenological deployment. Noting some of the visual similarities between Aboriginal art and Abstract Expressionism, which led European artists to presume some sort of spiritual kinship with ‘primitive’ art, Ferrell details the very different genesis of the use of abstraction and the claims made by the paintings. European artists like Mark Rothko claimed this kinship on the basis that the subject matter they painted was ‘timeless and tragic’. Aboriginal paintings, bourne out of traditional knowledge practices known as jukurrpa or Dreaming, on the other hand have strong connotations of legality and claim of title to country. “The Dreaming emerges as an ordering of sensations and impressions that ‘makes sense.’ It does so as a living practice.”  This act of embodiment is of absolute importance, the claim of title to country is not the claim of privation we might commonly understand today, but rather a claim to a knowledge of the living law of the land. At on level Ferrell reads this as ontological difference. The separation of subject and object, so central to Western thought, appears not to be the case for the Aboriginal Dreamings. Recognizing the difficulty, as one shaped in a Western subjective mode, of inhabiting a world Ferrell names the body as the leading example of an object which at least questions the dualism. “my body… belongs to me a little less than I belong to it.” (9) The Aboriginal understanding of “country”, she suggests, could in a way be understood as an extrapolation of precisely this sentiment. Understanding of “country” is irreducible to the abstractions of the map. A whole bodily experience and orientation towards the land is involved.

Yet, in the translation of the Dreamings to canvas and the medium of acrylic, abstraction also occurs. In naming its distinct genesis and development, which she goes on to outline in further detail both aesthetically and historically, Ferrell tells the story of a people whose work and history is powerful and unique and resists the logic of colonialism and commodification even as it enters the global market. There is no question that Aboriginal Art, with an increasing place of prominence on global art markets, participates in a commodity form. The economic reality is a part of those artistic creations, indeed a very important part. However, to reduce artistic creation to that subjugation is, Ferrell argues, is naive and misguided. Markets do not create value, she says, they are merely an effect. It is rather from the aesthetic mode, which produces a certain order, that value can be generated. This accords as much to legal value as economic value, which in the end are in a sense indistinguishable. The power of the image, and in this case the images of the Aboriginal Dreamings, are potent indeed. What they carried forth was an ordering of the world, a reverberation of the past, which both remembers the violence of the West and challenges its hegemony. British common law had, in its first encounters with Aboriginals, discerned no law among them. The revelation, through art, of law and ordered being challenges the viability, at the heart of British law itself, to the land claims laid. Ignorance, as Ferrell points out, is not a legitimate claim.

Sacred Exchanges, finally, is a harrowing dialectic of the confrontations of forms of being in the world. Creativity and natality, destruction and death. The abjection perpetuated by ignorance when one historical form becomes so insular as to refuse being to another. At the same time it is an account of hope, of vigorous persistence and the possibility of renewal. If I have done this book a disservice it is in failing to attend  to its nuance and subtle rhythms of hope and reshaping.

Copyright: Joshua Paetkau