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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Presentation Details

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Skin and Soul: Globalisation and the Articulation of Arnhem Land Microcultures

Paul Magin.

According to my late friend and mentor, Nachirrka, “Bark painting is like skin; ceremony is soul”. Bark painting is the outside appearance of Arnhem Land culture. It is a skin and an interface with the rest of the world and it also protects the inside. Bark painting is one of the primary means by which remote Arnhem Land microcultures communicate with the rest of the world.

Ceremonial activity, on the other hand, is the very soul of Arnhem Land microcultures. Ceremony stays on the inside and it stays protected. It is rarely available for the delectation of the uninitiated. Ceremony is a store of identity that essentially remains self referential. It is an identity built from a positive ontology in which beingness is internally realised. Sacred ceremony, and hence Arnhem Land microcultures, manifest a cultural life force, an élan vital, in which identity is internally defined according to difference over time. Aboriginal microcultures are what they are, not because they can be differentiated from what they are not, but because they can be differentiated, not only from what they were, but also from what they could be.

Accepting the definition of identity according to such internally generated life force enables us to better understand how Aboriginal microcultures can successfully engage with external forces while remaining viable.
Arnhem Land elders are able to articulate (link) their paintings into global marketplaces while at the same time maintaining the absolute integrity of their ancient and sacred ceremonies. This paper shows how this successful articulation is possible. It also shows how linkages to globalization facilitate the articulation (clear expression) of Arnhem Land cultures and foster a broader acceptance of these cultures. Most importantly, this paper shows how these linkage to (macro) globalization, in an unexpected twist, strengthens the traditional sacred/secret (micro) cultures of Arnhem Land. Fundamental to this analysis is Deleuze’s Bergsonian project.


Paul Magin  (Australia)
Public Programs Officer

Maitland City Art Gallery

Paul Magin is an art historian who has represented, worked and lived with the most important Aboriginal elders in Australia. He arranged sacred ceremonies for World Expo 2000 (Germany), BBC MIllenium broadcast, Olympic Torch Relay, and elsewhere. His unique understanding of Aboriginal culture is practical, theoretical and personal.

  • Bergsonism
  • Deleuze
  • Bark Painting
  • Aboriginal Art
  • Ceremony
Person as Subject
  • Johnny Bulunbulun England Banggala Thompson Yulidjirri Bruce Nabegeyo

(30 min Conference Paper, English)