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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Crossing Cultures

Frans Lanting journeyed to the Australian outback for a cross-cultural artistic collaboration

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Lanting and Tjupurrula collaborating over some of Lanting’s photographs.
“In indigenous belief, the whole landscape in Australia is connected by song lines,” Lanting says, “which mark paths across the land made during the ‘Dreaming,’ the time of Creation. The song lines exist today inside the minds of the people in the form of stories that must be honored and remembered to be kept alive, and people find their way through the landscape remembering and reciting those stories. So after we mused on the meaning of those boulders and how I looked at them and how he looked at them, Turkey said, ‘You know, what if I make a new painting?’ Which was an extraordinary proposition. But he said, ‘Yes, I can make that work.’”

Together the artists sat in the sand contemplating the themes, patterns and even colors for the painting.

“It was truly collaborative,” Lanting says, “and then he brought in his traditional symbology, telling the story of the giant emus and connecting it with the sense of place as symbolized by the circles and the lines, which show important landmarks on the journey. And then he went to work, and I was able to document the process of him painting it, the very first strokes and how he finished the canvas sitting in the desert.”

The entire painting, the whole of the collaboration in fact, took place fittingly in the outdoors. Lanting and his team camped for several days as Turkey worked, even enlisting the help of his family to fill in details under his direction.

The large painting completed, Lanting then worked to photograph it in the landscape. He struggled to make sense of the visual juxtaposition, and made several attempts before finding his ideal composition. He propped the painting up, angled it for perspective, and turned it sideways. Many combinations came close, but nothing seemed to do the works of the artist, the culture and the landscape the sort of justice Lanting felt they deserved.

Thorny devil, Central Desert, Australia.
“And then I realized that it needed something else,” Lanting explains. “It needed to be animated. And we hit on the idea—this again came through conversations at a campfire—that we could introduce a goanna to the scene. The people here are known as the Pintupi, which loosely translates as ‘the lizard eaters.’ A group of three older women set off into the desert and came back with a beautiful goanna. We had to experiment with it—but in the end it became clear that inserting the goanna into the scene on a stick, as if it’s floating through midair like a disembodied spirit, was the best execution.”

Ultimately, the cross-cultural collaboration was as much about the indigenous artist accepting the outsider, taking him in, showing him his home, sharing his stories of place, and working together. The end result, that physical collaboration of painting and photograph, was the icing on the cake.

“In the end, the image was published with a joint credit,” Lanting says, “and we both felt very proud of what we created. Sadly, Turkey passed away a couple of years ago, so this is also a definitive record of him in the latter stage of his artistic life. I look back on it now as a really unique collaborative effort. At the center of this was leaping into an unknown entity, both for him and for me.”

Frans Lanting is a preeminent nature photographer, OP columnist and frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine. You can see more of Lanting’s work at www.franslanting.com.


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