Drawn from the Ground. Sound, Sign, and Inscription in Central Australian Sand Stories.
By Jennifer Green
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2014 Pp: xvii + 270
Green's book provides a fascinating and fine-grained analysis of a traditional narrative practice among Arrerntc women that entails the telling of 'sand stories'. Green's principle concern is how the technique of sand drawing is used in conjunction with speech, gesture, hand signs and song to communicate meaning. The complexity of sand story narration is such that it is difficult to separate these different semiotic modalities from each other. Indeed, 'in isolation, each of these modalities does not carry the entire message' (2014: 90). Accordingly, Green focuses on sand drawing as part of an 'ensemble' of expressive forms. Her approach is informed by new developments in linguistics and anthropology which view language as more than just speech and emphasise its embodied nature.
There is now a rich anthropological literature concerning various forms of inscriptive practice employed by Arrernte, Warlpiri and Western Desert peoples in Central Australia. However, much of the work (for example. Bardon 1979; Biddle 2007; Dussart 2000; Watson 2003) focuses on painting on bodies, sand and canvas. With some notable exceptions (referred to below), the narrative practice of sand drawing has been mentioned only in passing, if at all. This lack of attention is curious given that Aboriginal sand drawing practices have been documented in various other parts of the country, including South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. Significantly, earlier linguists have largely ignored sand story narration.
Green traces the first record of sand drawing to 1915, when the missionary Carl Strehlow described a sand story game involving leaves that Western Arrernte women played at Hermannsburg. His son, T.G.H. Strehlow, later also referred to the practice. However. it was Nancy Munn who provided the first detailed description of sand drawing, in her book Walbiri Iconography (1973). Green notes that, in a chapter devoted to sand drawing as narrative practice, Munn described the system as 'a kind of visual language for ordering meanings in general' (1973: 212). Describing the graphic forms as 'media of social interaction', Munn observed that to use them in sand drawings, in accompaniment with speech, was to "'talk in the Walbiri manner'" (quoted in Green 2014: 36). Munn's research with both men and women provided a groundbreaking structural analysis of the iconographie system employed in sand drawing and painting. Ute Eickelkamp and Christine Watson have carried out more recent work on sand drawing. Eickelkamp conducted a three year study of Pitjantjatjara children's sand drawing and stories and examined the social contexts in which these were produced and their social meaning (see, for example, Eickelkamp 2008). She adopted a psychoanalytic approach to their thematic content in order to understand what they revealed about 'how the children's inner world relates to the social field' (Eickelkamp 2011: 104). Watson, on the other hand, emphasised the performative dimension of sand stories in her analysis of the sensorial and embodied aspects of Balgo women's art and ritual, and her interests are more closely aligned with Green's.
A number of writers have recognised the multimodal and performative nature of sand drawing, but a lacuna has existed in the treatment of specificities: just how does inscription work in concert with sound and sign to convey meaning? Providing answers to this question, on the basis of a study of Arrernte women's sand stories, is the task Green set herself. Her book is both theoretically and methodologically sophisticated and draws on linguistics, sign language and gesture studies, semiotics and anthropology to provide a detailed cross-disciplinary account of how the sand story system operates. Her approach recognises that 'social actors are not only embodied but they consistently and systematically use bodily movement according to cultural schemas in discursive practices, and not simply in addition to them' (Farnell 1995: 296, emphasis in original, quoted in Green 2014: 3).
After the introductory chapter, the focus in chapter 2 is on the social and cultural dimension of sand stories. Having sketched a brief history of sand story documentation. Green discusses two distinct styles of sand story and describes the ways hands are moved and physical props (such as sticks and wire) are used in their performance. She notes that typical themes of sand story include Dreaming ('Altyerr') narratives and tales involving jealousy, romance and conflict resolution. This section also discusses other forms of inscription --for example, maps, diagrams and games--and it explores the relationship between sand stories and women's land-based ceremonies called awely.
Chapter 3 describes the innovative recording, annotating and coding methods that Green employed for her research. In order to capture the multidimensional nature of sand drawing, she used one video camera that filmed from above and another that focused on the ground in front of the performer. For transcription of the data she employed ELAN software, which linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen developed. Given the dynamic and multimodal nature of the art. Green states that it was important to find a method of annotating and coding that did not force an artificial separation of drawing, sign and gesture. ELAN is innovative in that it allows the user to analyse co-occurring visual and auditory elements through the creation of multiple annotation 'tiers' that are 'time-aligned to the visual and audio media' (2014: 74). Green's discussion of how to segment various units of action provides insight into the complex interrelationship between sign, gesture and drawing and the issues involved in cross-categorisation. In relation to the latter, she used sand story 'quizzes' to crosscheck that her categorisations of gestural movements reflected performers' understandings.
In chapter 4 the 'quizzes' are used to identify a small set of Arrernte symbols that have conventionalised meanings. These symbols relate to physical objects as well as number and motion. Green found that they are similar to those Warlpiri use, as described by Munn, and notes similarities and some differences with the symbols women at Balgo use, as described by Watson. This chapter includes a brief discussion of continuity and change in older and younger women's sand drawing. For example. Green notes intergenerational continuity in the meaning attributed to the symbols among women from more remote communities but some differences in the interpretation of young women who live in the more urbanised setting of Alice Springs. The innovations that were introduced by younger generation females living in both settings are also described. Despite the fact that young people now learn to use the relative frame of spatial orientation at school, they continue to adopt the absolute frame of reference to orient their drawings and read socio-spatial relations and movement within a drawing, just as the i r mothers do. Green's discussion of this issue draws out the significance of the absolute frame to Arrernte social organisation and culture.
Chapter 5 begins with a useful introduction to previous studies of Aboriginal sign language and gesture. It then examines how conventionalised sign language is used in sand stories in conjunction with spontaneous gestures that do not have shared social meanings. Both signs and gesture 'draw on the same pool of iconic raw material' and use similar techniques for representation (2014:149), which means that it was not always easy for Green to distinguish between the two modes. She found that interpretation depends on context, which suggests that pragmatic factors also play a role in how people perceive signs (2014: 163).
Chapter 6 analyses the sequential structure of sand story narratives and examines how visual and verbal modalities are tied together in this process. According to Green, this question is 'one aspect of what Levinson has referred to as the "binding problem" in multimodal face to face interaction' (2014: 166). She shows how erasure of sand drawing segments combined with deictic gestures and speech serve to convey shifts in scene and thematic content. Green also explores the role of partial erasure and redrawing of elements within a 'visual frame". The discussion is thought-provoking in terms of how space and time in sand story narration relate to other spheres of Arrernte social life.
Chapter 7 begins with an outline of Arandic song features that contextualises the discussion of sand story vocal styles. It then examines the range of vocal expression, including speech, song and a kind of songlike vocalisation, which accompanies sand story art. Green's analysis concentrates on song and provides insights into Arrernte poetics. The discussion is clearly illustrated with song texts and musical scores that align with transcriptions of speech and visual elements.
Chapter 8 reflects on the affordances of different modalities of sand story narration. Sand stories do not simply consist of sand drawing: gesture, sign, song and spoken modalities are all important in this dynamic art. Rather than being based in one particular medium, sand drawing is executed in both the air and ground. While signs and gestures made in the air are temporary, the relative permanence of designs left in the sand means that they can be used to 'spatially anchor' aspects of the story which the performer verbally narrates (2014: 225). These considerations underline the importance of understanding sand drawing as a distinct and flexible semiotic system. In the final section of the book Green briefly surveys sand drawing practices in other parts of the world. She also suggests future areas for investigation --for example, research involving multiple performers in the creation of a sand story.
Drawn from the Ground is a beautifully written, innovative and comprehensive linguistic study of Arrernte sand story narration. It is based on Green's PhD thesis, which was undertaken after decades of working with Arrernte people, and reflects her deep knowledge of Arrernte language, art and social practices. In addition to being attractively presented, the illustrations, diagrams and tables used in the book are informative and well integrated in the text.
According to Nicholas Evans' commentary on the back cover of the book, it 'draws the study of language in a totally new direction'. However, it will be of interest well beyond the field of linguistics. From an anthropological perspective it provides an excellent foundation for future studies that seek to integrate linguistic and performative approaches with perspectives that are more broadly focused on social and cultural meanings. It will also appeal to people interested in human movement, theories of embodiment and art more generally.
The University of Sydney