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The Principle Of Contagion In Walbiri And Dineh Drypainting Essay, Research Paper

Art in traditional, non-industrial societies was always fundamentally associated with the sacred, meaning it participated in the realm of deity. In fact, the term art , as it is used today, was not a term found in most cultures of the past. The artifacts, paintings, sculpture, and other stylized material objects created by ancient cultures, which are regarded as art today, were used instead by those people for very real purposes. Before

the time of ready-made paints and duplicate printmaking, endeavors into the creation of objects other than those absolutely necessary for survival were time-consuming indeed and required special preparation and planning. Everything that human beings used was found in nature, and thus the relationship of man to his environment was reinforced everyday; his very survival depended upon it. Because of the direct nature of man s tie to

the Earth, ancient beliefs about the sacred were also based upon nature, and the respect and reverence given to the natural world was much greater than it is today. Ceremonies and rituals were practiced frequently, often in accordance with seasonal changes,harvesting times, and moon patterns. Animals were paid homage and were often believed to be the ancestors of humans, and thus were regarded with kinship and respect.

Features of the landscape, unusual geological formations, certain hills or caves, were thought to possess mystical powers or be divine creations themselves. As a whole,humans were more aware of their connection and dependence on the forces of nature and sought to live in harmony with these forces. Thus, ancient art was a reflection of this holistic worldview, forever tied to nature and connected to the sacred.

The practice of drypainting is one example of native, or tribal, creative expression which has been used throughout the world in a primarily religious context (Wyman 249). Two cultures which practice drypainting are the Dineh, or Navajo, the largest group of native Americans in the United States, who live in present-day Arizona, and the Walbiri,an Aboriginal group from the western desert region of central Australia. Drypainting itself is also practiced for religious purposes in India, Tibet, and northeastern Nepal, used

in Christian rituals in parts of Latin America, and in Japan, where they are done for ornamental purposes only. In this paper, the drypainting focused on will be the Walbiri and the Dineh, and a comparison will be made between the two, primarily on the issue of drypainting ritual as an example of contagion, or direct participation, with the art, in some cases with actual physical contact. It is the principle of contagion which serves to connect the drypaintings with the people themselves, so that the painting are actually and

extension of themselves. Much of the spiritual meaning is also conveyed through the process of making the paintings, conveyed by the time involved in making the paintings, the skill of the artist, the feel of the sand through the fingers. As the artist crouches with bended knees to form the lines and circles of the painting, he himself is going through a spiritual change or catharsis. The painting then serves as a reminder of the effort, and thus becomes a reminder of the effort involved in all creation. Respect for creation, or,nature, is then reinforced in the acknowledgment of the drypainting process and serves to perpetuate the societies reverence for the deities, often depicted. Therefore, the whole community is involved in the painting, and it becomes a vital part of each persons life.

In Walbiri drypainting, the subject is often the country, the travels, the camping places, or the rock or pool where some totemic ancestor first came to life and, when the creature sees itself in the painting it comes to occupy its likeness. Therefore, the painting are in effect the same as the deity, and are sometimes called dreamings , which refer to the Aboriginal religious belief in the Eternal Dreamtime , a past time when mythical beings wandered the Earth creating aspects of their landscape. Through their art, the Walbiri communicate with their ancestors, and can become united with the Dreamtime.

In his essay, Aboriginal Australian Aesthetics , Richard Anderson comments, To touch a tjurunga ( the permanent residences of the dreamtime spirits) is to come into direct,physical contact with the realm of the supernatural, and such contact insures the perpetuation of both mortals and spirits (p.65). Here Anderson illustrates the importance of contagion and he reiterates this idea, which he calls the greatest significance of Aboriginal art , in his conclusion. …one of the most fundamental components of Aboriginal philosophy, the belief that through art mortals can come into immediate,intimate, and genuine contact with all the important spirits of the Eternal Dreamtime


Karen Munn, in Walbiri Iconography, talks about the correspondence of themovement of the body to the shapes themselves, and how this relates to Walbiri cosmology. The contact between sacred objects or designs and the body is an important aspect of the activity (p.261) She continues, Philosophical premises about the macrocosmic order are continuously brought into the sense experience of the individual Walbiri man through the agency of this iconic symbolism (p.261). The drypainting then serve to relate the Walbiri to his environment, man to deity, individual to society. The symbols thus articulate the relationship between the individual or microcosm and the

macrocosm, and through the immediacy of touch and sight bind the two together (Munn 216).

In Figures 1 and 2, the direct nature of participation by the people in the paintings clearly seen. In Figure 1, a group of Walbiri men sit together to collaborate their efforts. The concentric circles in the middle of the painting are a common feature in Walbiri drypainting and they relate to a waterhole or hole, where dreamings emerge and then go back into the Earth. The various arrows around the circles are the paths the dreamings take and represent movement, which is another theme in Walbiri iconography. Figure 2 depicts a woman telling a sand story to children. The sand story is distinctive to women, and it utilizes the natural topography of the desert floor. As the women tells a particular narrative, a yawalyu story (story told by women), she may often sing songs as well. In yawalyu painting symbols and graphs are used to represent different things in the story. This provides a good example of the cultural education employed through the use of drypaintings and the separation of women s and men s roles in drypainting, which

teach gender roles to children as well.

Navajo sandpainting looks entirely different from Walbiri sandpainting, in its shapes and patterns. As illustrated in figures 3 and 4, Navajo sandpainting (fig.4) places a great emphasis on symmetry and repetition, whereas Walbiri painting is almost always asymmetrical and uses a variety of different sized figures and designs. Though both pictures show human-like figures, the similarity in form basically stops there. One common aspect that is seen in both cultures is the use of circular forms as illustrated in

figures 5 and 6, though Navajo paintings mostly use a semicircle rather than a full circle. Real connection can be drawn between the Dineh and the Walbiri in the act of makingdrypaintings in the first place, and in the need for direct participation as an act of ritual through the drypainting process. It is probable that such a relation can stem from the fact that both societies were primarily hunting and gathering societies, intimately tied to the land. Both societies were, as a result, egalitarian and emphasized the needs of the group

over that of the individual. In such societies there is little benefit for excess material items, so the need to preserve the paintings was not considered important. In fact, during the commercialization of Navajo sandpainting, many Navajo were greatly bothered and even angered by the fact that the paintings were unable to be erased. The permanency of them defeated the special nature of the painting as being temporal, existing in real time, the purpose of which to be symbolic of life, and man, itself. Nevermind the fact that producing paintings for a profit went against the entire Navajo worldview. The paintings

were created for spiritual purposes only and because man was worldly, and limited in his powers, he should not possess that which is intended for deity.

The Navajo figures (fig.6 and 7) show the ritual aspect of the sandpainting, and are very similar to the previous figures of the Walbiri. In the Highwater article, excerpts from the Navajo Night chant reveal the Navajo belief in humans interaction with deities through ritual. The Navajo Night Chant is a nine day ceremony which is a form of therapy conducted by the chanter for the cure of a patient . A basic belief of the Navajo

is that there is a delicate balance within nature, and that ones true state is harmonious and beautiful, which is termed hozho The nine-day ritual is conducted in a series of purification through sweating, chanting, and the drawing of sandpaintings. The ceremony takes place in a large lodge, called a hogon, and is accompanied by the chanter, the patient, and a large array of singers and dancers, holy people, and relatives and friends.

Like the Walbiri, the Yeibichai, as it is called, involves the whole community as it is believed the energy of the group can help the deities in curing the patient. In this society, art, religion, and medicine are not considered separate entites, but instead are interrelated. In the poetry of the chant on the second day, the chanter sings, I am the Slayer of the Alien Powers/Wherever I roam/Before me/Forests are strewn around/The lightning

scatters/But it is I who have made it (p. 41), which helps the patient to realize his own part in his own healing process. Than on the fourth day, he says In beauty before us,may it rain/In beauty behind us may it rain/In beauty below us may it rain/In beauty above us may it rain/In beauty all around us may it rain (p.43). This passage illustrates the Navajo ideology of a circular worldview, emphasizing the four cardinal directions and than an encompassing circle. It also shows with the word us the acknowledgment of the whole community as sharing a common future and goal. The passage also show love

and respect for nature, and connects it to beauty. Throughout the chant, beautiful symbolic phrasing demonstrates the communal, holistic life of the Navajo.

Witherspoon, in his article, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe , explains, This ritual identification allows the hozho that radiates from the Holy Person to extend to and be incorporated in the being and mind of the patient through prayer and song, symbol and sandpainting (p.191). Leland Wyland in his book, Southwest Indian Drypainting, the perhaps most important function is identification of the patient with the pictured supernatural. He sits on the figures while the singer moistens his palms with herb medicine and presses them to various parts of the figures bodies and to the corresponding parts of the patient s bodies…Since the singer is the surrogate of these

supernaturals, thought of as being a Holy Person while performing in the ceremonial, this physical contact reinforces the process of identification. Thus, the patient becomes like the drypainted powers, strong and immune to further harm (p. 33).

To the Walbiri and Dineh peoples, the world and their participation in it was innately spiritual. In Myth=Paradigmatic Model , Mircea Eliade searches for the underlying motivations of nonindustrial man, and believes that at this early stage in history the sacred was essential to man s understanding of the world. On page 101, he states, For all these palaeo-agricultural peoples, what is essential is periodically to evoke the primordial event that established the present condition of humanity. Their whole religious life is a commemoration, a remembering . The Walbiri used their Dreamings to reenact the creation of the natural elements around them, to remember their ancestors

by the reenactment of the paintings. Eliade also asserts that, Men s religious behavior contributes to maintaining the sanctity of the world (p.99). In the Dineh hogon ceremonies, the patient is trying to sanctify himself, and his society as well.

The art of these two societies shows the complexity of interpretation that ancient cultures had in looking at the world. They perhaps saw connections, meanings, and abstractions that modern peoples may never again see. It is amazing to look at the detail in the Dineh work, its impressive symbolism, or the Walbiri creativity, the complex relationships in their Dreaming works. Is it a wonder that these societies were ever called

primitive, especially when one looks at modern art today. The Walbiri were certainly ahead of the game when it came to abstract art. Today, most people would not have the patience to sit and do a sandpainting for even one hour, let alone nine days. Much attention to detail had been lost in art, and quite definitely, art as participation is almost dead as people tap away on their computers searching for meaning and a sense of connectedness with society. Contagion is necessary to human happiness and is a vital part of the creative process; hopefully, we may one day return to drawing in the sand.

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