Art: from orality to literacy

Art has a vastly different purpose in non-literate cultures than it does in literate ones.

Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic. A rash statement? I hope it’s one which generates debate.

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 Australian Aboriginal art, which may have been traditional or may have been produced for the Western market.

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Spider by Linda McRae, Possum by Ron King-Smith.

Too often I read that non-representational art in the archaeological context must have been for religious rituals, and interpretation is left at that. If the ‘primitive’ art is recognisable as an animal or scene, it is often assumed to be simply a repsresentation.

If the art is abstract, it is assumed to be due to some nebulous ritual. Except when interpreted by archaeologists who are very familiar with an indigenous culture, motifs are rarely, if ever, described in terms of the complex knowledge systems known from non-literate cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and American Pueblo peoples.

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Spiral petroglyph, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

There are a wide range of resources which document the way non-literate cultures use abstract motifs as memory aids to the knowledge system. Often, the same abstract sign can signify a range of meanings depending on the context, ceremony and person reading the signs. It is essential that interpretation of traditional art of non-literate cultures, historic or archaeological, be considered in terms of the way in which art aids the way a vast corpus of knowledge is memorised.

Two books, among many, have been hugely influential in my thinking on this topic.

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Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Howard Morphy is a leading writer about the Yongu of northwest Arnhem Land, one of the Aboriginal cultures which has retained a great deal of their traditional knowledge and been willing to convey it to anthropologists such as Morphy. Among many other aspects, Morphy explains how a single set of abstract images can lead to a multiplicity of interpretations by the Elders depending on the situation.

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Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History covers the extraordinarily beautiful art of the African Luba people. It is claimed that their success as a culture in terms of longevity and range, was due to their memory devices, including the memory board known as a lukasa. Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have edited this book on the Luba and their memory systems as well as written extensively on the topic themselves. Although the Roberts focus on the historical knowledge, they also refer to knowledge in a variety of genres including the pragmatic information which is my particular interest.

This topic fascinates me. I will be coming back to it many times in the future!

 

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This entry was posted in archaeology, indigenous memory systems, memory, Memory Spaces, mnemonics, orality, primary orality and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Art: from orality to literacy

  1. Rebekah Copas says:

    Good seeing this page, as my own orientation into “memory spaces”, included learning how indigenous Artists produce their work, and I believe this is why your work I am reading in this blog, makes perfect sense within my own experiential reality. I have been making odd looking objects for a while now, and calling them a “bio-photonic resonator”, after reading of Romanian research in which a theory is developed of scientific explanation for homeopathic ultra high dilution medicines. Unfortunately the Romanian work is in a muddle of interconnectedness with the Japanese Reiki movement, but relied on old Soviet photographic technology. Perhaps calling my objects of Art, a miniature memory space, might work better! Regardless of which, I am looking forward to disentangling my mind from the far out understanding of magnetism, neuron action potentials, and flux transfer events, all interacting, oddly suspiciously, by reading your forthcoming book.

    • Lynne Kelly says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Rebekah. You are coming form a very different perspective than me which is wonderful! I love my memory spaces and am more and more feeling the artistic aspect to them. I have started art lessons and it is all sort of blends in together.

      I’d love to know how you are using your miniature memory spaces!

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