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Dussart Brings Aboriginal Art to New York
November 8, 1999

Ohe Warlpiri, an Australian Aboriginal people, are a study in contrasts: they derive deep meaning from ritual body painting, and yet are willing to paint their myths in acrylics and videotape their rituals to communicate with more modern cultures and earn money for their survival.

And thanks to Françoise Dussart, associate professor of anthropology, their work will be featured this month as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West in New York City.

Studied for nearly two decades by Dussart, a member of the women's studies faculty, the Warlpiri work is part of an exhibit on Body Art: Marks of Identity that will be at the museum from November 20 until May 29.

On sabbatical this year and a visiting research scholar at New York University, Dussart will also lead a discussion about Warlpiri body painting on Thursday, November 18, at 6:30 p.m. The presentation includes slides, indigenous video production and a presentation on CD-ROM. It will focus on the traditional relationship of body, land and spirit in contemporary Warlpiri Society and will showcase Dussart's study of Warlpiri kinship and gender issues.

For the Warlpiri, art production now represents the principal non-governmental source of revenue for the settlement, located at Yuendumu, in Northern Australia, Dussart says.

The body designs, sand paintings, ritual performances, and acrylic representations of their cosmology have increasingly attracted the scrutiny of film makers, art critics, curators, and anthropologists, she said.

"It is important to note that the body painting derives its potency from its ritual context," says Dussart. "As a forum for social action, this ceremonial life provides an arena in which fundamental battles of gender, politics, economics and kinship find expression."

The paintings are complex. One, for example, which Dussart analyzed in a chapter of Rethinking Visual Anthropology (Yale University Press, 1997), depicted two mythical brothers and their father, a blue-tongued lizard. The painting tells the story of the brothers' inadvertent transgression of a taboo and their subsequent punishment by the father who "sings" a magical fire to immolate them. The brothers ultimately die in a secret cave near a sacred site.

Body paintings, for which the Warlpiri use natural pigments and animal fat or baby oil, is done on both men and women, but with different materials. Each body painting is designed to last only for the duration of the ceremony, and never more than half a day. The paintings are sold to raise money for the society and also serve, says Dussart, as "a form of social dialogue with the world outside the settlement."

Dussart's latest book Kinship, Gender and the Currency of Knowledge Among the Warlpiri will be published next fall by Smithsonian Institution Press.

Several years ago, Dussart was one of the first professors to establish a live satellite hook-up in the classroom. For one of her "lectures" she created a "feed" between 250 UConn students in Storrs and 12 Aboriginal artists who explained, as Dussart translated, the mythical stories they paint onto canvasses and why the paintings were testimonies to a culture that is vibrant and alive.

The festival at the American Museum of Natural History will feature five programs that explore how individuals and communities use the body as an expression of aesthetic, political and social practices. The program highlights the contrasts between the meanings of "body art" in traditional and contemporary societies.

The Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival is the largest showcase for international documentaries in the U.S. Named for the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, the festival was founded by the American Museum of Natural History in 1977, in honor of Mead's 75th birthday and her 50th year at the museum. Mead was one of the first anthropologists to recognize the significance of film for fieldwork, and produced several films about Bali, films that examined child-rearing from a cross-cultural perspective, and others.

Films screened at the festival are chosen from more than 700 submissions annually. The festival is supported by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Natural Heritage Trust, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Panasonic, The Tape House Editorial Company, Soros Documentary Fund, Open Society Institute, and the Canadian Consulate General of New York.

More information about the festival is available on the World Wide Web.

Karen A. Grava