Jimmy Pike

Increasingly work by third-world artists is being included in the dialogue on where art may be heading in the aftermath of this Eurocentric age. The series “Artists of the World” has been launched with the show entitled “Jimmy Pike—Paintings from the Great Australian Sand Desert.” Pike is an Australian aboriginal, from a nomadic family that settled down to work a cattle ranch. In 1980, after killing a man in a fight, Pike was sentenced to life imprisonment. In prison, he began making art under the guidance of two teachers. Adopting the imagery of his ancestors, he tied it to Western techniques: acrylic on canvas, drawings, linotypes, and—after being paroled in 1985—silk screens.

Historically, the concept of “artist” did not exist for the aborigines. The closest equivalent to the artist was the magician, who performed rituals to ensure the survival of society. For this reason many of the themes in Pike’s work—the sand mosaics, the rock and bark paintings, the body paintings—focus on fertility and myths of creation. The core of aboriginal culture is the experience of survival in the desert, and the watering hole is a repeated motif. Abstract signs and geometric patterns transform myths into a hypnotic pictorial language that establishes meanings, explains the world, and conjures up natural processes. Behind each painting is a narrative that is known by the members of the tribe, yet ultimately harbored as a secret. Pike’s works have this same twofold visual and narrative content, and he too insists on guarding the secrets of tradition.

Since, in the final analysis, the essence of this culture is kept from the Western viewer, his focus shifts to archetypal experience. When it comes to the past, which once provided a vital pictorial language keyed to survival, we sense that Pike can reference it only by way of quotations. Few of his works tap an elementary power capable of camouflaging and transcending the gap between the aboriginal and the Western experience of art. A different relationship to aboriginal culture dominates Pike’s work: tradition is reshaped into a decoration, myth into superficial sensation. No wonder his work has become the basis of a thriving “desert design” business. T-shirts, kerchiefs, and textiles have become the new artifacts of aboriginal culture. They guarantee a material foundation for Pike’s existence. Instead of the watering hole, we have the boutique as a contemporary form of an “art for survival.”

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.