White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art

Ian McLeanWhite Aborigines:Identity Politics in Australian Art. Oakleigh, Vic, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 204 pp. RRP $39.95 hb.

The slim look of Ian McLean's latest volume is deceptive. White Aborigines contains within its compact pages a broad-based, theoretically informed, complex and lively critique of Australian identity gleaned from its history of art production. The text begins with a discussion of Australia in the European imagination before focusing particularly on representations of indigeneity in Australian art - from Watling and Tench's early colonial depictions of exotic (and terrorising) Aborigines at Sydney Cove to the latest postcolonial deconstructions of Western fantasies by Aboriginal artist Gordon Bennett. The dust jacket proclaims, in a somewhat high-blown fashion, that McLean "tells the story of the invention of an Australian subjectivity".
Well, maybe.
Readers may be familiar with McLean's postmodern and postcolonial perspectives from reading at least some of his arguments elsewhere. Earlier versions of all of the book's nine chapters (which themselves grow out of his Ph.D.) have been previously published as chapters in art and cultural anthologies and as articles in art and cultural theory journals, including three in Third Text and one in Thesis 11. His choice of journals reveals something of his bent towards cultural theory rather than specifically art history or criticism. His penultimate chapter,"Painting for a New Republic", recognises Gordon Bennett's art as an exemplar of a new postcolonial subjectivity. It echoes his larger discussion contained in The Art of Gordon Bennett (1996) which McLean prepared with the artist.
McLean's major thesis is that (white settler) Australian identity is founded on a negativity (in migration, beginning with the first convict migration) which sets up a psychological imperative of redemption (from exile for the convicts, from invasion for the settlers). He cites melancholia as its organising trope and proceeds to schematise this melancholia in Australian art through its concerns with landscape. Three chapters extend this thesis with regard to the art of exploration, invasion and settlement which McLean associates respectively with the aesthetics of the sublime, the grotesque and the picturesque. The associations are neither novel nor new but McLean pushes them farther than most critics, making heavy weight of their critical implications.
Although I would have welcomed more than the meagre nine illustrations in the book, the early chapters contain provocative comparisons of the differences between French (Baudin; the sublime) and English (Watling, Tench, Lycett; the grotesque) depictions of the landscape and Aborigines which McLean ascribes to the different national myths and colonial intentions of the artists' countries of origin. With reference to the theories of Kayser and Bakhtin, McLean argues that the psychological function of the grotesque is to defeat or mask the fears of the 'civilised' new inhabitants. Here the discussion resonates with Homi Bhabha's notions of colonial fear and paranoia, a discussion which is extended through McLean's comparisons between Glover's Australian and Cole's American 'picturesque' landscapes. The artists were contemporaries; both migrated to their respective countries to paint under the influence of Claude. But Cole's grand landscapes of redemption succeed in a nation where the coloniser had power, whereas Glover's haunting scenes often fail, as evidenced by the presence of Aborigines in his Tasmanian paintings long after their historical passing. McLean interprets their presence in Glover's art as uncanny eruptions of an uneasy settlement history of conquest. His discussions of Australian colonial instability could easily be extended into a study of the construction of Australian colonial whiteness.
McLean develops, somewhat unevenly, a set of complex theories about national identity in the text, one indebted to post-Lacanian and French feminist psychoanalysis as well as poststructuralism and deconstruction. He engages in important arguments about constructions of identity formation. Like McLean, I value French feminist and post-Lacanian frameworks for understanding constructions of identity and have employed them myself in Women and the Bush. In fact, many of McLean's arguments are foreshadowed there, although in relation to textual discourses of national identity rather than to art practices (all the more reason to be irritated by his two slight and misleading references to my arguments in that earlier text). But his own Oedipal knots, emphases on Oedipal negativity and an absence of fathers (whose places are variously taken up by Aborigines and the English parent culture) might be read by some as overdrawn and tendentious. It precludes, I think unnecessarily, important considerations as to the cultural impact of the European past, England's expectations of the colony, its artistic traditions, and its intellectual frameworks, all of which, it could be argued, significantly influence the dynamics of national identity as witnessed in landscape painting in the first 50 years of settlement. McLean seems to assert a psychoanalytic perspective at the expense of other important, cultural cum historical determinations concerning the colony's relationship to England. 'England', curiously, becomes the absent presence in McLean's narrative.
The second half of White Aborigines concerns Aboriginality and Australian nationalism from 1960s to the present. Here, McLean details what he calls the 'Aboriginalisation of Australian identity' (p75) through the idealisation of 'the primitive': in the Jindyworobak movement, the art of Margaret Preston (who gets rather short shift), Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd - all white Australians whose work, according to McLean, reveals a deep conviction that they are 'beyond redemption' (p103). This discussion echoes the cultural critiques of Marianna Torgovnick (Gone Primitive, 1990) on modernism and its fascination with and fear of the primitive other.
The book contains two short chapters on contemporary Australian art by Aboriginal artists. The discussion moves from Albert Namatjira to the Sydney Biennale, The Boundary Rider of 1992, in 15 short pages, introducing important themes about art, politics and the global unravelling of modernism which occurred in the 1960s and 70s. In Australia these include:
" attempts by artists like Imants Tillers and Juan Davila to label Aboriginal art as post-conceptual and link it to international trends which engage with postmodernism;
" conflicts concerning the acceptance, interpretation and understanding of traditional vs contemporary, rural vs urban Aboriginal art;
" postmodern deconstructive art practices and the conflation of identity, sameness, difference and alterity to be found in indigenous and non-indigenous art in different international and national art contexts;
" postcolonial and postmodern appropriations of indigenous art by non-indigenous artists.
McLean attempts to locate Aboriginal artists within Australian traditions, debates, and politics and also elsewhere - on the cultural boundaries with reference to both national and global artistic, critical and political concerns. He astutely traces Aboriginal negotiations with white Australia at the borders of signification. Tillers and Davila come off poorly here in their casting of Aboriginal art as 'post-conceptual', e.g. like theirs. As McLean affirms, despite 'our' reinvention of a postmodern primitivism and its embrace of hybridity, nomadism, diasporas and the collapse of boundaries, we are not all 'white Aborigines'.
His sobering critique that art galleries do not give Aboriginal art the same critical attention as non-Aboriginal art and that Koori artists remain un or underrepresented in major art shows (tellingly, this could include the New Worlds for Old exhibition) are reiterated separately by both Tim Bonyhady and Mary Eagle in recent issues of The Australian Review of Books (June and July, 1998 issues). Although I have some misgivings about the dominance of theory and its uneven development in the text, the paucity of illustrations and the big global arguments, it remains nonetheless a politically committed, theoretically astute, controversial and timely contribution to Australian cultural studies and the place of art within them.