White face: Blak mask

Courtesy Bart
Image courtesy Bart

Welcome to the surrealistic world of a contemporary Aboriginal artist or Aboriginal curator. Where to begin? What can one say? Where did we come from? What is this place we're now at? And where the hell are we being led? Has there been a change in real terms or is the appearance and acclaim of Aboriginal art merely, as many Aboriginal people feel, just a “smoke and mirrors” trick to disguise an inaction if not regression in Aboriginal affairs – a BLAK mask covering a white Australian face?

The last edition of Artlink was titled “Remote” and sought to discuss the art created in Australia’s more physically remote regions. There is of course remote and “remote”. Where is the centre? Really, here in the North, or in the South East? I was invited to write something on remote north Queensland for this edition of Artlink but declined because in fact I had never been there. I live in Brisbane. I did suggest two other Aboriginal writers who had more experience of this region, one of whom was published.

I was subsequently asked to write a more general critical piece for this “Stirring” issue. But in today’s art climate, how can one make serious criticism that is not taken for just a “dummy spit”? It will be an unusual Brisbane-based Aboriginal art article to not feature a photo of a well-known commercial gallery director (non-Indigenous), nor an authorising promo quote from the Minister for Arts. I make the following comments without malice.

Nearly half of the total Australia-wide Aboriginal population of currently 410,000 actually live in remote and regional communities. In these rural areas of Australia Aboriginal people make up to sixty percent of the population of the region – and in artists’ numbers, both broadly and in name, even more of them are artists. Aboriginal people make up at least twenty-five percent of the Northern Territory population. In Remote (Artlink 25:2) sixteen out of the nineteen articles covered Indigenous artists and issues, and four out of the nineteen articles were on non-Aboriginal artists.

Yet only two of the nineteen articles were by Aboriginal writers. Many of the non-Indigenous authors writing made a point of how remote regions are where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists are talking to each other through their art. Is it because Aboriginal artists are using Western materials or using non-Aboriginal technicians that they are perceived as “talking” to each other across the divide? How far does this transcend the undenied inequities of people’s histories, lives and art careers?

Although there are innumerable conferences, talks, symposiums and so on concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in fact very few if any of these are discussions/debates by and for ourselves. At a recent conference concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island art all the speakers were Indigenous Australians. I asked the Indigenous speakers to speak more “honestly” to the subject and not promote their institution but asked the “white” audience members to refrain from speaking and even asking questions to allow space for the Indigenous members to speak. To reinforce this, I asked these audience members, against normal practice, to refrain and listen – to “shut the f**k up”. Despite what I thought was a clear and strong request, amazingly, some in the audience still thought this didn’t refer to them and had to intervene in the discussion.

Aboriginal art is entering its fifth phase[1] where Aboriginal artists, curators and academics are reflecting on their work and now challenging the dominant voice of the academic houses – the house of anthropology, the house of Western art history and the house of Women’s Studies in its current definition – to be allowed to think and speak for ourselves. Until now a small clique of anthropologists have dominated and still dominate this discussion – Richard Bell’s B.I.N.T.s (been in the Northern Territory) possibly. More directly, different compliant Indigenous people have variously been used as their BLAK mask.

Is Brisbane right as it tries to pride itself on being a sophisticated, international city far removed from the image of a small hick town in the “deep north”? Is Brisbane still “remote”? In late July an article in a local paper made the claim that “Brisbane is the Indigenous Art Capital of Australia.”[2] Well, while hardly true, Brisbane’s certainly laying claim to be the urban Aboriginal art capital of Australia. A senior art figure used to make the comment that Australians were culturally dying of thirst adrift in a sea of (Aboriginal) art. Amazingly, Richard Bell, Fiona Foley, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Bennett, Leah King-Smith and Jenny Fraser all live and work in Brisbane at the moment – many returning after a long time away in the south.

Julie Gough and Gordon Hookey also live and work in Queensland. Queensland College of Art graduate Tracey Moffatt spends extended periods of the year in Brisbane (her 2004 work was created here). This is without mentioning people such as Arone Raymond Meeks. Such a richness of art creation that comes from this increasing group appears in a never-ending series of solo and group shows at commercial galleries, contemporary art spaces and in installations of public artwork. They all work and exhibit in Brisbane to varying degrees but reserve their major work for interstate or international venues.

But none of the above has been exhibited in the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art except for Gordon Bennett. A non-visual Aboriginal artist has been chosen for the next APT. Western art history is punctuated by gatherings of artists at specific cities, regions, and countries for various reasons that lead to change in the way art was made and read. In another city this would be thought of as an interesting development. A major art critic commented that it would make an interesting article but was really nothing significant, after all Cate Blanchett appeared with Ricky Swallow in Venice this year. Now that was really important news to write about (sic). It’s interesting that the article mentioned previously, really more a promo for a commercial gallery, is the only writing to notice this gathering and wasn’t from the art or academic world.

I once heard an internationally famous Aboriginal cultural figure ask about the contemporary cultural environment of a remote Aboriginal community: “what are these people like?”. Without any sense of irony or doubt came the reply, from a senior museum person, to the effect: “Well, if you talk very slowly and very clearly so that they understand what is required of them, they will respond as needed.” I often wonder how visiting foreign artists, curators and dignitaries take in such clangers. An Australian Asian art curator suggested that perhaps visiting Asian artists most likely take it as a given that Australians are racist but want to be in the exhibitions and, being the professionals they are, put up with the expected crudeness visited upon them – it’s just a cultural difference after all.

At one of our cultural institutions in 2005, the powers that be think so highly of their Aboriginal staff that, against all practices of other government institutions nationally, they still don’t trust them to meet without a white supervisor being present – we must keep an eye on these dangerous blacks. To not have the white advisor present is discrimination, apparently, according to the institution. At the same institution, the nominal head of Indigenous art is still a non-Indigenous curator. What one sees is more than patronising, it is an inability to deal with adult Aboriginal people as intelligent human beings and contemporaries – one can only deal with young people, someone who won’t challenge you. Children should be seen and not heard after all. This is the stuff of the “stolen generation”. Native Canadians call it “coercive tutelage”.

For the institution it’s about a marketing exercise and not about intellectual or moral rigour. It’s about collecting the money while dispassionately, bureaucratically, ticking the boxes as a number-crunching exercise. Australian history and the search for their soul, their national identity, can be seen as the spreading of a European Christian cloak of many colours overlaying a markedly un-European physical and spiritual landscape. It’s like the paradox of Easter: how do you get from Crucifixion and Resurrection to chocolate bunnies and chocolate rabbit eggs? Every kid knows rabbits don’t lay eggs – now that would be a miracle. In cross-cultural (multicultural) matters if you’re not young and sexy then you’re old and traditional. If you’re not young and sexy are you irrelevant or remote? Maybe young and cynical is the best to be.

Aboriginal art and multiculturalism only came into being in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a history before this, of course, but it is denied. A curator friend told me that, in film and audio, it is as important to edit the silences as the noise; and in many cases it is better to follow the silences not the noise. Where culture is a fashionable whim you only hear the noise and the silences remain silent. It’s complex, I’m told. Without being a structural anthropologist there are two histories at play here:

Inside–Outside
Good–Evil
Reality–Dream
Fear–Hope
Known–Unknown
Noise–Silence
Respect–Disrespect
Periphery–Centre

With the annual Telstra National Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, there is the choice of judges – nearly always an Aboriginal and a non-Aboriginal judge. Why two judges? Why one white and one black, an Aboriginal artist asked me? Is it just to make sure we don’t fuck up, and do something stupid and embarrass the institution? Do we need a white art expert or is it a sign of reconciliation? Do the judging panels of other major art competitions, such as the Archibald, insist on such a multicultural and/or gender balance? Do the Indigenous judges affirm their Aboriginality by choosing a very traditional piece? Are they intimidated by not being from the north (think they’re not “real Aboriginals”), not on their own land, and therefore choose a local northern artist as the winner?

At some point in the past the discipline of anthropology realised its inherent subjectivity. In the field of contemporary Western Fine Arts subjectivity is the name of the game, but the field remains unaware that this may be a problem or crime in a cross-cultural context. Following a lecture for post-graduate students at a Queensland art school the first subject brought up in question time was, “What did I think of collaboration” and when did it become “appropriation”? Taking the question to mean Indigenous/non-Indigenous collaboration, I suggested that I can’t tell an artist what to do, but generally I don’t believe it works.

In any “collaboration” the central point should be the power balance between the artists involved and who benefits from such a meeting. For Aboriginal artists collaboration has been a crime on the one hand (as with Kathleen Petyarre) but then it’s an absolute necessity on the other (special reconciliation art awards/exhibitions, and features in magazines like Artlink). Is the enforced, pushy collaboration and appropriation by non-Aboriginal artists like the philosophy student cheating in his metaphysical exam, caught looking into the soul of the boy next to him?

Why collaborate? Do white Australians collaborate with each other to any significant extent? Can you name great history-changing artworks that were the result of collaboration, other than husband and wife/partners (I am aware of artists Ulay and Marina Abramović, Jeanne-Claude and Christo, Gilbert and George)? While there are some well-known white Australian husband and wife partnerships, why are white Australians so keen to collaborate with Aboriginal artists? When I ask these questions I’m invariably told that, of course, it’s much more complex (too complex for an Aboriginal person to understand)?

Last year Brisbane-based Indigenous artist Tony Albert created an artwork titled Our Richard – honouring the role played by artist Richard Bell – how he says things that many Aboriginal people think and feel but never say. Australia is famous for two things more than others: we have the best sportsmen and sportswomen in the world, and we have the best Aborigines in the world. There is the claiming of Aboriginal public figures as Australian despite the racist history of the country – our Cathy (as against our Richard). In contrast to the past where Aboriginal art was invisible, almost every State and National Gallery now has an Aboriginal art section, but in many cases the Australian art section still controls it bureaucratically.

With so many buyers and collectors travelling to remote Aboriginal communities, where Aboriginal art is created, is this the centre of Australian art or is the place where it is sold the centre? For collectors of Aboriginal art, many now travel to the source and a number of community art centres are accommodating this. More broadly, when will Australia start to live in the Pacific or even more importantly start to live in Australia instead of hoping one day to go home to England, or to remain as an honourable guard dog at a remote American or English colonial outpost in the Pacific?

Not everything is negative and bleak. I was told of a warm incident at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics where hundreds of central-Australian women danced as part of a large Indigenous group’s symbolic ritualistic blessing to the Games. Apparently, after their dance, when they entered the exit tunnel a group of Maori men who were there as part of the next set performed an impromptu haka for the women as a mark of respect at the power of the dance performance. What kind of cultural gesture would/could white Australia make?

Footnotes

  1. ^ See Djon Mundine, The five phases of Aboriginal art in Australia, from a presentation at the National Conference of the Australian Studies Association of Japan at the Osaka National Museum of Ethnology, 2004, publishing as additional online content for Stirring (25:3). 
  2. ^ “Earthly colours: Why Brisbane is the Indigenous Art Capital of Australia, [Judy Watson on front cover] in Arts on Fire by Phil Brown, Brisbane News, July 20–26, 2005, Issue 548, www.brisbanenews.com.au. 

Djon Mundine, a victim of friendly fire, is an independent Indigenous curator based in Brisbane.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.