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ELAR Occasional Seminar Series


When: 3PM, Tuesday 12 February, 2013
Where: Room 4421, SOAS, Russell Square, London ... location information

Sand drawing.jpg
Eileen Perrwerl narrates a sand story, from Ti Tree, Central Australia. Photo: Jenny Green


Drawn from the ground:
documenting verbal art in Central Australia



Jenny Green

University of Melbourne, Australia



Sand stories from Central Australia are a traditional form of verbal art in which a skilled narrator incorporates speech, song, handsigns, gesture, and drawing to create complex multimodal utterances. A seated storyteller clears a drawing space on the soft ground in front of them and as each ‘scene’ in the story ends the space is wiped clear before the drawing begins again. In some stories leaves and other small objects are used to represent story characters. These stories are a valued part of the traditions of Central Australian peoples. They were an important medium of entertainment in the pre-television era, and they continue to be a narrative form used for teaching, for demonstrating ceremonial knowledge, and for explications of everyday events. In addition, the iconography of this ephemeral art form underpins internationally recognised and economically significant Aboriginal art practices.

Sand stories from Central Australia are a traditional form of verbal art in which a skilled narrator incorporates speech, song, handsigns, gesture, and drawing to create complex multimodal utterances. A seated storyteller clears a drawing space on the soft ground in front of them and as each ‘scene’ in the story ends the space is wiped clear before the drawing begins again. In some stories leaves and other small objects are used to represent story characters. These stories are a valued part of the traditions of Central Australian peoples. They were an important medium of entertainment in the pre-television era, and they continue to be a narrative form used for teaching, for demonstrating ceremonial knowledge, and for explications of everyday events. In addition, the iconography of this ephemeral art form underpins internationally recognised and economically significant Aboriginal art practices.

My doctoral research (Green 2009) built on the work of previous scholars (for example Munn 1973; Wilkins 1997; Watson 2003; Eickelkamp 2008) and focused on recording sand stories with senior women from the Arandic language group. I established the basic principles of how sand drawing works and argued for a position that treats vocal/auditory and kinesic/visual systems in dynamic relation to each other. In this presentation I discuss recent documentations of sand stories and other narrative practices in Central Australia and give examples that show how narrators draw on the expressive potentials of the various semiotic resources at hand. The challenges of modelling this complexity demonstrate the need for new theoretical frameworks to describe the interactions of multiple semiotic systems in human communication, and the need to extend the notion of ‘gesture’ to include actions that have ‘graphic consequences’.

References

Eickelkamp, Ute (2008) I don’t talk story like that: On the social meaning of children’s sand stories at Ernabella. In: Jane Simpson & Gillian Wigglesworth (Eds.) Children’s language and multilingualism: Indigenous language use at home and school. London: Continuum International, pp. 79-102.

Goodwin, Charles (2003). Pointing as situated practice. In: Sotaro Kita (Ed.) Pointing: Where language, culture, and cognition meet. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, pp. 217-241.

Green, Jenny (2009) Between the Earth and the Air: Multimodality in Arandic Sand Stories  (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Melbourne).

-(in press) Sound, sign and inscription: Multimodality in Central Australian sand stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Munn, Nancy (1973) Walbiri Iconography. Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Watson, C. (2003). Piercing the Ground: Balgo women's image making and relationship to country. Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Wilkins, David (1997) Alternative representations of Space: Arrernte Narratives in Sand. In: M. Biemans & J. van de Weijer (Eds.) Proceedings of the CLS opening Academic Year 97/98. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

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