Contemporary Arts Practice as a means towards Indigenous Intelligence

in·dig·e·nous [ in díjjənəss ] (adjective) „ 1. belonging to a place „ 2. natural
in·tel·li·gence [ in téllijənss ] (noun) „ 1. ability to think and learn „ 2. secret information 

(I have included this post as a recollection of some of my recent thoughts towards a future research proposal looking at how indigenously inspired arts practice may inform and contribute to sustainable living and policy…)

  drawing materials (st agnes, cornwall; F Owen/P Ward 2012)

“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.” Flann O’Brien, from The Third Policeman

Indigenous intelligence (to me) is an ability to perceive our place and behaviour in relation to the animate material of the universe, through practical engagement, as a creative resource and response through which we may continue to survive. This is not necessarily a bold utilitarian perspective but one embracing all the cultural, technological and experiential means by which we may affirm our evolving being (both without guilt and) as responsible and sensible co-inhabitants of the planet.

Despite successive civilization’s best efforts to dislocate us from the patch of ground beneath our feet, to alienate us from those entities within our reach and to take away the knowledge of our means of independent sustenance, we only have to touch the earth around us and really see the living forms within our own dynamic and burgeoning environment to begin the process of learning again. There is a tendency in the ‘civilized’ world to idolize traditional tribal cultures while bemoaning our own as the cause of all our contemporary ecological ills. However, if we were to scratch lightly beneath the surface we would discover the extent and quality of our own indigenous cultural identity organically inspired through our innate responses and connection to the immanent ecology in which we live.

“Some speak of a return to nature. I wonder where they could have been?!” Frederick Somner

  lobster pots, st agnes, cornwall; view over bristol (P Ward 2012)

But then by no means is indigenosity necessarily some romantic back-to-nature utopian ideology in reaction to humanity’s debilitating ineptitude and failure to get it all right first time. It is also being streetwise within an urban sprawl. It is being aware of our surroundings and the relationships within them. It is an ability to respond spontaneously, creatively and appropriately to the physical and spiritual reality of where we live. To understand the substance of a place, to note the passing of the seasons and their influence, the ebb and flow of weather and visitors, the trends and patterns of wildlife, both human and more-than-human, the fruiting and the falling, the safe and the toxic. Through such temporal understanding we may learn to live within the means and limitations of a place, to become a sympathetic element of its ecology, but also when to reach beyond its superficial boundaries, to ask for help – nobody is an island after all.

We can receive only what we already have! We can become only what we already are! We can learn only what we already know! It is a matter of realizing potentialities. It is not a matter of “adding to” but of “developing,” of “evolving.” We contain within ourselves a world of capacities, of possibilities, which the outer world summons forth, speaks to, releases. Perhaps this is why we learn most about ourselves through devotion to others; why we become joyful and active as we respond to the formative forces in the materials in our crafts: their potentialities call forth our own, and in the dialogue of which I have spoken, we discover our own inner vision by bodying them forth.”M C Richards, from

And it is giving thanks for these things and this knowledge – for the miraculous provision of nature. It is recognizing and respecting our fragility, our dependence on each other for sustenance and our tendency, through our enthusiastic inquisitiveness for life, to abuse and overuse what is offered to us; to overindulge in our arrogantly acclaimed abundance until there is nothing left for even ourselves. This is not a quality exclusively possessed by those in the civilized world it is our nature born out of circumstance and intelligence. No individual culture is exempt from criticism. There is no master race. It is our nature. We are all pray to the same temptations; we must all learn to live with them.

 rock drawing, st agnes, cornwall (F Owen/P Ward 2012)

So, it is observing and enacting equality of opportunity with our fellow beings, our more-than-human neighbours, our other-than-human co-existents. It is respecting the equal right to thrive and survive but remembering that nature is not as sentimental as we see ourselves to be, not as nostalgic for times past (although more literally liable to homesickness – others often not being so adaptable as ourselves) but living day to day, conscious of nothing beyond its own needs in that moment but somehow living within them. Nor aiming to control or manipulate or alter the nature of their place within it for their own selfish ends but accepting limitations as a gift and a guide to wellbeing, to sensible, intuitively guided existence.

“After all, anybody is as their land and air is. Anybody is as the sky is low or high, the air heavy or clear and anybody is as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and the way they learn and everything” Gertrude Stein (from Becoming Animal, An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram)



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