Raymond Zada, Racebook, 2012, Giclée print on Hahnemühle FineArt photo rag paper, winner of the Telstra Work on Paper Award, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, 2012. Image courtesy the artist

The (white) elephant in the room: Criticising Aboriginal art

Does Aboriginal art exist in a critical vacuum? 

Yirawala, Mimih or sorcery figure, c. 1963, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Founding Donor's Fund, 1984. © The estate of the artist, represented by the Aboriginal Artists Agency

A common complaint is that there's not enough critical writing on Indigenous Australian art, due largely to an aesthetic and spiritual impasse, and to political correctness gone mad. I agree with this but only insomuch as there is not enough critical writing on the arts as a whole, in the context of the dwindling of related newspaper columns and TV broadcast time and the preference for pithy profile and promotional pieces in the glossier albeit more popular art mags. There is still a mass of critical writing going on in print and online and even just within Australia but this writing, largely manifest through niche publishing and academic agencies, does not generally reach a mass readership.

So in this specialised mass of art critical writing, and visual arts criticism in particular, is Indigenous Australian art overlooked? What sort of writing has it generated? And what limits might critical disengagement from it suggest in view of a broader cultural and national politic? This article does not attempt a literature review, as others have done[1]; far from it. It is written more as a series of observations from someone in the “field” (arts publishing) who has heard this question, or complaint, in relation to Aboriginal art over many years, by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal commentators alike. The recurrence of the complaint raises interesting questions in itself but its actual nub – criticality and race – first needs some unpicking.

Criticality & race

The bold appearance of these two words – race and criticality – together is enough to send critical and cultural theorists into a spin, compounded by the sense that race marks its own critical division. In a broad Australian context, the very discussion of race, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous Australians, is almost a provocation, the subject seemingly too emotionally charged, too divisive for rational, level-headed discussion, and fuelled as always by mainstream media pressure-points, stereotyping Aboriginality with stories of crime, deprivation, anti-social behaviour and authenticity. It is this last conundrum – “authenticity” – which appears to be a major stumbling block for serious critical engagement, and which is often the level at which mainstream debate is pitched: from the extreme antics of journalist Andrew Bolt in publishing his own list of “inauthentic” Indigenous Australians to the scandalous headlines of fraud, misappropriation and exploitation in Aboriginal art. If race is a largely unexamined issue in the nation’s broader cultural psyche, then what hope is there really for critical debate within Australia about the art of Indigenous Australians?

The notion of “criticality” is a curious one. With regard to the complaint, the paucity of criticism of Aboriginal art, “criticality” is generally a question about the quality of engagement through written and verbal means; through newspaper reviews, magazine articles, academic papers, and various public, digital and online forums; indeed a broad sweep of platforms overall. One could say, at any one time, that critical writing or speaking about Aboriginal art is somewhat lost in the bigger picture here but it does also depend on where you look, and on your parameters for “criticality”.

Any Indigenous Australian writing on art (whether Indigenous Australian, or other art) must certainly count as a vital critical position in this regard. This was certainly an important tenet of Artlink’s Blak on Blak issue (30:1, 2010), and championed much earlier by Indigenous curators such as Brenda L. Croft (with, for example, the catalogue for her Beyond the Pale: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art of 2000) and on a regular basis by Djon Mundine: the catalogue for his current exhibition Bungaree, The First Australian carries essays by himself (“Bungaree’s Circumcision of Australia”), artist Fiona Foley and historian John Maynard, and detailed statements by each of its fifteen Indigenous artists.

Some Indigenous writers such as Mundine and Foley have been among the most vociferous critics within and of Aboriginal art; of the art’s misappropriation and misrepresentation, its nationalist paradox and over-commercialisation. Foley recently spoke (as did Mundine) at a forum “Identity: lancing the boil“ (March 2013) at the Sydney Opera House, on the widespread shortage of Aboriginal monuments throughout Australia, and the opportunity this represents for public artwork commissions to engage Aboriginal artists, their histories and communities. Mundine’s art critical writing is prolific by any measure, and as likely to draw from popular cinema, novels, and broader literature as it does from his own considered take on contemporary art and/or contemporary Aboriginal (specifically Koori) art and culture.

When we published Fiona Foley’s article “When the circus came to town“ in Art Monthly Australia (no. 245, November 2011), I received an email complaint from a reader, an artist, about my editorial decision to run it. The article, I thought, was a coherently argued piece about the ethical use of historic cultural and ancestral material, framed by her involvement with Brook Andrew’s 2011 Jumping Castle War Memorial installation at the Biennale of Sydney. That Foley should have issues with Andrew’s installation is certainly not remarkable; this is a contemporary art arena after all, and, as a biennale, meant to be a prime critical platform. That Foley should frame her criticism from her own Batdjala perspective was also entirely reasonable, perhaps unavoidable, given that her initial dealings with Andrew on the matter of his Biennale work related to the body cast of a Batdjala/Fraser Island descendant, “Boni”, which Andrew had come across while researching a museum collection in Europe.

I was surprised to get this artist’s email. It didn’t particularly matter that it came from an artist except that it also seemed at odds with how I understand this person’s art work. Their complaint was that Foley’s article was too personal an attack on Andrew, that such criticism served no purpose other than to wound, and that I’d been irresponsible for publishing it. That may be so for some elements of the article, though Foley does make her case through direct quotes from Andrew about the work, and through other documented research; it’s not some loosely-fired attack made in an enraged moment. The fact is, Foley does make a case, which the reader may accept or find fault with; she’s certainly entitled to make one, and if she’s forceful and direct in her exchange, then all the better – we know how and where she stands. The article was indeed much broader in scope than Andrew’s work or his Biennale installation. Here was some highly critical writing from a strong Batdjala perspective, a leading contemporary artist in her own right, on the Pandora’s box of artists, Aboriginal or not, dealing with cultural heritage and historic collections. This, I think, is something to celebrate, not discourage, and Foley’s article also received quite the opposite feedback. In the battleground of ideologies that make up contemporary art, questions of personality and personal cost can be sharply overdrawn, and yet the ‘personal’ can effectively mean everything. This is what makes Foley’s article so poignant for me, as she laid bare her own ethical journey in dealing with the remarkable rediscovery and tragic story of Boni’s life (at least what can be gleaned from scant historical sources), and of his poignant mystery to her as an otherwise unknown Batdjala forebear.[2]

If you can’t stand the heat

Not surprisingly, Aboriginal commentators, including artists, have taken to social media to voice their critical concerns. Richard Bell has used Facebook to challenge emerging Melbourne-based artist Lucas Grogan’s flagrant disregard for Aboriginal copyright. The wider debate this generated has had direct repercussions with at least one artist resigning in protest from the Melbourne gallery that represents Grogan, and Grogan himself is reputed to have had some sort of “breakdown“. This is unfortunate, if true, but so, indeed more so, is the flagrant disregard for Aboriginal copyright, particularly when enacted consciously, as in Grogan’s case, and with an apparent hunger (at least initially) for any publicity which his ‘transgressions’ could garner.

Bell’s latest Facebook campaign has been in response to Del Kathryn Barton’s recent Archibald-winning portrait hugo of famed Sydney-based actor Hugo Weaving, set against a field of Central/Western Desert-like dotting. I haven’t seen this painting in the flesh, as Bell has, but it seems like a valid question – not about who owns the dot as a basic mark or pattern-making unit, but about whether its cultural appearance and affiliation to certain forms of Aboriginal art can be seen in the overall affect/effect and conceptual underpinning of Barton’s painting. Barton’s solo exhibition Satellite Fade-Out (2011) did after all announce or maybe reaffirm her interest in the ethereal, cosmological realm; the actual painting for this show was so intensive (in a relatively short time-frame) it required a team of assistants, carefully dotting and adding detail under Barton’s instruction. Does she consciously allude to Aboriginal cosmologies through her dense dotting tracts? To ask the question does not discredit one artform or one artist over another. It may be that the likeness is purely incidental or decorative on Barton’s part, which might raise other questions or concerns, in light of the precarious moral ground upon which “decorative” applications of Aboriginal (or Aboriginal-inspired) iconography have traditionally been exploited by the dominant culture – and no doubt part of Bell’s pointed prompting in the first place.

It’s an intercultural thing

It is ironic that Bell’s concerns described above relate directly to the work of so-called “remote-area“ Aboriginal artists (from Arnhem Land and Central/Western Desert communities) as Bell’s voice has often been critically cast in opposition to these artists, in his descriptions of the “Ooga Booga” function of their art as spiritual exotica for white consumers, a view variously echoed in the statements and work of Bell’s fellow proppaNOW artists Vernon Ah Kee, Bianca Beetson and Gordon Hookey, among others. Both Bell and Ah Kee have been criticised for failing to recognise the agency of remote-area artists, of their levels of control, negotiation and ongoing engagement with a broader arts industry: from participation on regional or national boards and in international exchanges to involvement at the local council/cultural level. Ah Kee and Bell may well argue, as they have, that this doesn’t change the dynamic – it’s still a white system dominated by white values and needs that essentially drive the market. And, they would argue, they’re not dismissing this work as “Ooga Booga” themselves, although this has been confused with their readiness to expose particular artforms as symptomatic of an a-critical or critically challenged sector. In these two Facebook campaigns, at least, Bell shows that he is willing to test these “Ooga Booga” claims on the work of non-Indigenous artists which might be seen (however overtly or covertly) to reinforce this paradigm – of white desire (and demand) for “spiritual exotica” and cultural valency.

Certainly, a crowning moment in Bell’s artistic and critical career came with his win in the 2002 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, with the painting Scientia E Metaphysica that was launched complete with a manifesto: Bell’s Theorem (a sixteen-page booklet), which unleashed its own political storm of sorts in accounting for his reasons behind this work’s defining text/statement – “Black art: it’s a white thing”. The magnitude of Bell’s critical platform was and has been immense; his theorem is widely sourced and cited, and is itself the subject of varying critiques, with Bell also now presenting Colour Theory, a series on Aboriginal art, for NITV. For academic/anthropologist Jon Altman, in his 2005 Kenneth Myer Lecture – “Brokering Aboriginal Art: A Critical Perspective on Marketing, Institutions and the State” in Melbourne, Bell’s demarcation of the Aboriginal art industry as strictly white or black ignores much of the reality on the ground, of a large-scale network of government-subsidised, community-controlled art centres – some with remarkably long histories – operating through a combination of black and white agency, and thus more representative of an “intercultural” rather than “a white thing”.[3]

Divining in the desert

Perhaps it is the anthropologists, more than the art critics or art historians, who have been proved better equipped to deal with the “intercultural” parameters of Aboriginal art and its critical register. It is anthropologists such as Fred Myers, Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, John von Sturmer, sociologist Vivien Johnson and Jon Altman, who have expounded in detail their specialist, intercultural knowledge of Aboriginal art and culture: Myers on Pintupi aesthetics; Taylor on Western Arnhem Land schools of painting; Morphy on East Arnhem Land Yolngu aesthetics; and Johnson on the Papunya movement. Others have followed in their wake, such as Margie West, Christine Nicholls, Jennifer Biddle, and indeed Aboriginal anthropologists including Marcia Langton, Gary Lee, and Franchesca Cubillo. Is this collective critical voice considered when the art world laments a critical vacuum in the face of Aboriginal art? Does this lament likewise consider the writings from those working at the cultural interface? Art advisors and former art advisors (including Mundine) who write lengthy catalogue essays, articles, and book chapters, from this all-important intercultural perspective, as witnesses and contributing agents to a particular artform or art centre’s immediate and broader socio-political milieu.

In responding to Bell’s Theorem, art theorist and artist Adam Geczy takes issue with, among other things, Bell’s manifesto solution to “ditch the pretence of spirituality that consigns the [Aboriginal] art to ethnography” and demand that Aboriginal art be seen as “among the world’s best examples of Abstract Expressionism”. This “plays loose”, according to Geczy, “with spiritual content that many Aboriginal artists hold dear”, as well as with “an historical [Greenbergian] moment”.[4]  But Bell needn’t be taken so literally here, especially as an artist whose own paintings blatantly parody and muddy the boundaries with their complicit and critical nod to key 20th century movements in Western art, such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, or Postmodernism. Bell does not suggest that Aboriginal artists ever needed to identify a work as Abstract Expressionist before this specific art historical term or movement was coined. Rather, he sees qualities in Aboriginal art which match his considered view on Abstract Expressionism, of its central tenets (which do, arguably, posit a fundamentally spiritual dimension or affect). Why not then test the analogy further and propose that Aboriginal painting too may be seen to rub shoulders with Western icons of Abstract Expressionism? Bell is certainly not the first to foreground this analogy; it peppers numerous writings on the work of Rover Thomas, and Emily Kngwarreye in particular (both for and against this analogy), and it seems a perfectly valid critical, formalist counterpoint.

An “intercultural” approach could define any non-Aboriginal writing, such as this article, on Aboriginal art. No doubt it forms the bulk of writing on the subject but is its critical tone somewhat compromised, too pallid? Again, it depends where you look. I was part of a verbal exchange at last year’s Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in which Stephanie Radok, the co-editor of this issue, was taken to task by a fair-goer (a white woman who had visited Central Desert communities) over comments Radok had made in a Hermannsburg watercolour exhibition review published in Artlink’s “Diaspora” issue. Radok drew a comparison in this review with the work of Sunday painters, suggesting that Hermannsburg’s adoption of the watercolour medium was not a critical benchmark in and of itself, and that she found some of this work, by its nature (to her, the reviewer) and medium, akin to the otherwise unknown work of amateur Sunday painters. She wrote: “I would suggest that the same passion that makes Aboriginal people paint their country, their surroundings again and again in the style they have inherited from Albert who learnt it from Rex Battarbee who was imitating Hans Heysen is like the passion of the non-Aboriginal painters who paint landscapes again and again in borrowed and inherited methods.”[5]  Perhaps Radok’s analogy was also a call for curators to seek out the artists from the amateurs among this overlooked demographic. This fair-goer however would have none of it, her sense of protection and moral outrage so at odds with Radok’s apparent cultural snub as to kill off any grounds for rational debate.

Radok’s criticism of the Hermannsburg watercolour movement is mild. Its fierce negation, by the fair-goer at Cairns Indigneous Art Fair and by the view that suggests there are no critical perspectives on Aboriginal art, points to a frustration that Radok, Geczy, Croft, Nicolas Rothwell, John McDonald and many others, including Mundine, Foley, Ah Kee, Bell and Daniel Browning, have expressed, with a broader national politic that appears unable to countenance the very subject. “Let’s be polite about Aboriginal art”, states one of Ah Kee’s etchings (shown concurrently with last year’s CIAF), or as Geczy asserts: “Put Aboriginal art on your wall but don’t invite an Aborigine to dinner”.[4]  Both Ah Kee and Foley have been less than mild in their rebuttals of this cultural blind-spot, this “conceptual desert”. Foley titled a paper she once presented “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, rattling off the problems she found with the quality of painting from the Lockhart River Art Gang, in particular, and with the ProppaNOW collective, against the grain of incessant market valorisation of such work.

If Aboriginal art and its attendant industry is an “intercultural thing”, what is it that makes Aboriginal art “Aboriginal”? Is it in the way a sand painting becomes a dotted acrylic-on-canvas work, or the way that cross-hatched lines and abstract geometries might indicate an artist’s clan affiliation? Is it in the political and cultural intent of a work, or simply by virtue of the ethnicity and socialisation of the work’s creator? And where does the question of spiritual content lie in this spectrum? How do we critically divine a work of spiritual significance from the outside of a work’s immediate spiritual context and tradition? Is this a judgment that only the artists themselves and anthropologists such as Myers and Taylor are qualified to make? And should it, as Bell’s Theorem purports, really matter?

In accepting the Australia Council Visual Arts Award in March 2012, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Queensland-born/Sydney-based artist Tracey Moffatt spoke about artists living “on the edge” and working with “the mystical” – all very sincere and noble and creative but not the sort of qualities, Moffatt quipped, to move a bank manager when an artist seeks a loan. Moffatt was honoured as an important Australian artist whose work on issues of “race”, in particular, had led to a major international career. Notably, the way in which Moffatt and her work was introduced at this function played down any sense of “Aboriginality”, perhaps in keeping with how the artist has largely chosen to identify her own practice – as a (contemporary) artist, first and foremost – and for which she is often criticised. “How can she have it both ways?” is the implicit complaint, but why not, and what other option does she really have when any critical framework for Aboriginal art in Australia is so seriously crippled (or overlooked), and mired in broader nationalist tensions? At one point, in conversation, Moffatt remarked that in getting her sister to help “colour in” work for an upcoming exhibition, isn’t she just like [the late] Emily [Kngwarreye], in the way that Aboriginal artists might be assisted by family members in the creation of a work?

Not so much an appeal for recognition as a playful riposte to racial, indeed racist, expectations from a dominant culture which likes to call the shots in terms of exactly how and when Aboriginality is performed, and yet can barely articulate or even admit to a critical language around this.

Karla Dickens, Initiated, 2012
Karla Dickens, Initiated, 2012, oiil and mixed media on canvas, 
© The artist, courtesy Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney.


  1. ^ Ian McLean and John Stanton, for example, led an ARC research project (2002–05) through the University of Western Australia, “The Reception of Aboriginal Art in the Twentieth Century”, which analysed Indigenous Australian art coverage in journals up to 2000, with Artlink leading the way (13% Indigenous art-related content in the period 1995–2000).
  2. ^ See Daniel Browning’s related coverage of this story (including commentary by Foley and Andrew) in “Cast Among Strangers”, Awaye!, ABC Radio National, 5 November 2011. 
  3. ^ Professor Jon Altman, 'Brokering Aboriginal art: A Critical "Perspective on Marketing, Institutions and the State", Kenneth Myer, Lecture in Arts & Entertainment Management, Deakin University, Thursday 7 April, 2005, Bunjilaka Gallery, Melbourne Museum; p. 1.
  4. a, b Adam Geczy, “The Air-Conditioned Desert: curating Aboriginal art”, Art Monthly Australia, , June 2012, no. 250, pp. 44–46.
  5. ^ Stephanie Radok, “Hermannsburg: Echoes in the landscape”, Artlink Diaspora, 31:1, 2011, p. 93.

This paper by Maurice O’Riordan was presented at Black 2 Blak, a forum for Indigenous Australian speakers/curators/artists on Indigenous Australian art, hosted by Campbelltown Arts Centre and convened by Djon Mundine OAM.