The Meaning of Aboriginal Art

This essay is not about interpreting Aboriginal art rather it is about the wider issues raised by Aboriginal art, issues that tear through the discrete context of contemporary art and connect it to history, to the everyday, to politics and to the future.

This essay is not about interpreting Aboriginal art rather it is about the wider issues raised by Aboriginal art, issues that tear through the discrete context of contemporary art and connect it to history, to the everyday, to politics and to the future&

Untitled (Bumerang mit Spiegel / Boomerang with Mirror) is an artwork made by Joseph Beuys in 1982 which contains three elements, a boomerang, a broken piece of mirror shaped roughly like a heraldic shield and a piece of string tying the two together – the mirror hangs down from one end of the boomerang making the boomerang look like a fishing rod. The work implies that when you look at another culture it is yourself that you see and that one culture fishes in another. It is one approach to thinking about the relationship between contemporary Aboriginal art and other contemporary art.
The strangeness and exoticism of the boomerang, a simple-looking wooden tool with a magical facility almost like memory – it returns - is frequently used as a symbol for Australia, even though boomerangs were originally made in many countries all over the world, Ancient Egypt, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Denmark, Holland, Germany and by the Hopi Indians, the Inuit, and peoples of India.

Australia is geologically the most ancient continent in the world, highly distinctive in its flora and fauna, an isolated ark of a place, and the ancestral home of many widely distributed and quite distinct Indigenous cultures, involving at least two hundred language groups and several hundred more dialects, whose occupation of Australia is of immense antiquity, 40,000 to 60,000 years; who have suffered greatly under colonisation and who have come together politically over the last fifty years.
As it is only about 200 years since the beginning of colonisation Australia is frequently seen as a 'new' country even though, in addition to its ancient Indigenous cultures, there are many venerable cultures from all over the world with a presence in the histories, memories, languages and habits of Australians.

Old and new, united and divided, some of the cultural contradictions within Australia are typified by two recent books, both of which are called The Native Born. One uses this term for Aboriginal people – it is a substantial monograph on a stunning collection of objects and representations made by people from Ramingining in Arnhem Land and held by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The other book is about the first non-Indigenous people to be born in Australia in the 19th century. Such people, the sons and daughters of convicts, were lumped by the British colonizers with 'the blacks' as 'Australians', 'colonials', 'currency' - a debased coinage compared to sterling, a sub-species forever lacking the breeding of those born in Britain. Echoes of the cultural cringe developed from such beginnings still haunts Australian culture (a phrase itself once considered an oxymoron) and has provided ripe ground for the confident assertion of Indigenous culture.

The assertion, interrogation and contiguity of all the different cultures, both introduced and Indigenous, found in Australia form a significant thread in artworks made in the last twenty to thirty years in an awareness that may be called postcolonial. Postcolonial art deals with the baggage, the backwash, of colonialism, of centre-periphery debates, of issues of cultural imperialism and regionalism. It re-views history from the point of view of the dispossessed or disregarded who are recast as survivors and the subjects of their own destiny. It enlarges the world by multiplying the extant possibilities of vision, of interpretation and of imagination. It emphasizes the relationship between the individual and history and the way cultures fold into one another.

In Australian art both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists till the field of the postcolonial and the relationships between and within their cultures. This is complex littered ground but fertile. It produces an art in which the three themes of origin, encounter and diaspora continually recur, issues which are currently both intensely global and intensely local.

Everyone's history and daily life are coloured by ideas of origin – 'Where do you come from?', 'Where were your parents born?'; 'What or where is your country?'; 'What is your native tongue?' 'Who are your people?'; by encounter - adjustments of behaviour, of etiquette, of understanding – one people with another, one religion with another, one tribe with another; and by diaspora - the taking of Indigenous children from their parents, the scatterings of people brought about by the Irish Famine, the Holocaust, wars and other conflicts.

The study of beginnings - creation and origin stories, form a fundamental part of human cultures. Though the quest for origins is frequently referred to as part of the Enlightenment project i.e. a consummately Western one, all Indigenous cultures are constantly concerned with origin stories, of people, of places, of ways of behaving, and so on. An entire Weltanschauung is contained in origin stories whether they are relatively constant like those of Indigenous peoples or constantly being updated like those in societies in which empirical science drives enquiry. Yet Western culture takes on the investigation and interpretation of the origins of the entire world in its drive to measure and to explore, to understand and to exploit, intellectually as well as for purposes of conquest, while Indigenous peoples have come to know one place very well and to see the entire world within it.

The relationship of Australian Aboriginal culture to Western culture in regard to origins is especially unique and intertwined. A certain proportion of the foundations of the West's current ideas about human development come from anthropology and are concerned with the evolution of culture, the development of abstract thought, ethics and social organisation, and the difference between magic and religion. Many of these ideas were developed from observations of Aboriginal society in Australia beginning in the 19th century. Thus in a strange doubling or reversal of history there are extrapolations from Aboriginal culture (in particular the observations of Spencer and Gillen among the Arrenrte in Central Australia) which lie within the West's ideas about itself, or rather about what it is to be human.

The sureness of Aboriginal knowledge of origin contains an element of moral integrity and righteousness that overflows into Aboriginal artwork, all of which can be considered to be postcolonial in its potential to confront the expected paradigms of art. This position also applies to Indigenous artworks that come directly from traditions that precede colonisation, as they draw attention to worldviews that have survived colonisation.
Australian art history is currently being rewritten and re-viewed in the face of Indigenous art and what it conveys about alternate histories and ways of approaching the world. The category of Indigenous art includes rock paintings, body paintings, ground paintings, bark paintings, acrylic paintings, songs, music, weaving, ceramics, wooden objects, films, photographs, necklaces, baskets, videos or all of these art forms. Many of these art forms are today called both traditional and contemporary. The simultaneous assertion of tradition and innovation is part of the modus operandi of Aboriginal art. This paradigm shift involves holding together what have previously been thought of as mutually exclusive categories.

By escaping such stereotypes Aboriginal art demands a rethinking of art, of art history, of culture. It challenges conventional approaches to contemporary art by standing simultaneously both outside and inside it; and it charges that category with its narrowness, forcing confronting political perspectives into Eurocentric visions. The logical extension of each Indigenous person being seen as having a story worth telling, and having the ability and right to express that story in art that is highly valued, is that this privilege belongs to all people thus asserting art as not a specialist activity operating within its own 'world', but rather as belonging to all the people of the world as a place for performing the kinds of tasks that Aboriginal art does.

Aboriginal art performs many tasks at once. It is a history lesson, about origins, encounters and diaspora; about violent dispossession and simple acts of daily life; it is a statement of cultural endurance, frequently it is a title deed; often it is an expression of religious ideas and exultation in the patterns found in the world. It always asserts the force of a non-acquisitive culture that has developed great symbolic richness from the world. The word used is non-acquisitive rather than non-materialistic because the feeling for materials is such a rich and sensuous part of Aboriginal art in which spirit and matter are not separated.

Indigenous artwork always has a firm integrity of purpose whether it is asserting ancestral rights to country (Emily Kngwarreye), reviewing the history of oppression (Fiona Foley), reclaiming lost traditions (Yvonne Koolmatrie) or making new ones (Darren Siwes). Various forms of Aboriginal contemporary art cut across and into category boundaries such as naïve art, abstract art, kitsch, outsider art, decorative art and craft and cheerfully confound conventional notions of decorum and taste. It includes written harangues such as those by Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah Kee or Harry Wedge; narratives of family history and everyday life such as paintings by Ian Abdullah or Julie Dowling; investigations of the history of oppression such as those by Gordon Bennett or Julie Gough; massacre stories, creation stories, stories about Dreamings, stories derived from ground painting and body painting, pattern-making derived from the landscape, re-workings of traditional stories, reclamation of social cohesiveness purposes for art and so on. To put all these works under the rubric of art is to open and ventilate that category. Overall there is permissiveness, openness, unpredictability, around Aboriginal art. To be Aboriginal is, culturally, to be 'origin-al', and to be valued.

Yet even though it is always primarily about Aboriginality, or Aboriginal history or Aboriginal life experience, all Aboriginal art is also about communication across and between cultures, that possibility, and that achievement. Aboriginal academic and activist Marcia Langton wrote: 'Aboriginal art expresses the possibility of human intimacy with landscapes. This is the key to its power: it makes available a rich tradition of human ethics and relationships with place and other species to a worldwide audience.'
Rather than a fishing rod maybe we can see the boomerang as a bridge between cultures. But rather than a bridge on which Indigenous people cross over to enter Western civilization, or vice versa, it is a place where ideas and respect flow back and forth across the bridge of culture. One implicit meaning of Aboriginal art is that cross-cultural communication is possible and that art is the place that it happens.