Sonny Assu, Chief Speaker, 2011. Courtesy of the artist

Toward Indigenous Criticism: The Ah Kee paradox

Métis artist, curator and academic David Garneau explores the current situation of indigenous art through increasing global links and connections. 

Dana Claxton, Paint Up
Dana Claxton, Paint Up, 2010. Courtesy the artist

In the last issue of Artlink INDIGENOUS (32:2) Vernon Ah Kee laments the “dearth of criticism of Aboriginal art”[1] and suggests that the reason “no-one had ever criticised his work” was because “they were afraid”. Stephanie Radok, who recorded his comments, goes on to promise that these issues “will be seriously addressed” in the next edition of the journal. Well, here we are!

Many Indigenous artists in the territory now known as Canada, where I am from, echo Ah Kee. They reckon that the lack of critical engagement is the barrier that keeps their art in a bubble at the edge of the artworld pond. However, there is great anxiety that bursting this protective sphere would lead to assimilation, a shift from Aboriginal art to mere art, from Aboriginal artist to mere artist. In order to unlock the Ah Kee paradox and face the fear we need to understand the difference between Aboriginal and Indigenous art and then map Indigenous art’s changing relation to the dominant artworld.

A new category of Aboriginal person has come to prominence in the last quarter century. These people work among and between the mainstream and the abject, the recognised and the rejected. While still “othered” by the dominant culture these vertical invaders have gathered enough Western tools  along with their own equipment – to challenge the colonial imaginary from within the settlers’ own institutions and through their own treasured means. But these folks also stun observers with their bi-cultural erudition, dazzle with their formal inventiveness, unsettle with their civil and “savage” critiques, and generally disturb the ethnographic gaze with their impure plurality. Perceived by some settlers as living keys to their redemption and future, these enigmas are sought after for their words and works. But because of their perplexing and seemingly fragile status they are often held in protective custody, are rarely subject to criticism, and are therefore kept from a more complete dialogue with power – including their own.

In Canada, few like the word “Aboriginal”. People prefer to be identified by their tribal affiliation or by the catch-all First Nations, Métis or Inuit. The word “Indigenous” is a seeming synonym that actually designates a supplement, a new consciousness and disposition. In the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ sense, the word “Indigenous” recognises the existence of individual Aboriginal groups prior to invasion and that they now have special status within their colonised territories. But the term also describes a shared, international condition. “Indigenous” has come to signify global collective consciousness among First Peoples. To identify as Indigenous rather than, say, Gurindji alone or First Nations alone, is to claim that in addition to local belonging you have filiations with similarly positioned persons internationally. This expanded sense of belonging – of understanding the global forces that shape Aboriginal peoples and exploit their territories – has led to a new mode of social being and inter-national collaborations among people who see themselves as Indigenous.

The past decade has seen a rise in the number and depth of Indigenous cultural exchanges between Canada and Australia. Not only have recent Sydney Biennales included many Aboriginal artists from Canada, the last one featured a Cree co-curator, Gerald McMaster. There are new Indigenous artist-in-residency exchanges between Parramatta (Sydney) and Darling Foundry (Montreal), the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. 2010 saw the first international exhibition of Indigenous contemporary art curated by Indigenous people, Close Encounters: the Next 500 Years in Winnipeg, Canada. And in 2011 Stop(the)Gap/Mind(the)gap: International Indigenous art in motion, was shown at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide, South Australia. And this May Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art showing works by 81 artists opened at the National Gallery of Canada. All these exhibitions were curated by Indigenous people and are manifestations of the rapid growth of Indigenous consciousness and action.

Australian members of this cohort are familiar to Artlink INDIGENOUS  readers. They include but are certainly not limited to Djon Mundine, Hetti Perkins, Brenda L. Croft, Jonathan Jones, Tess Allas, Fiona Foley, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Bennett, Christian Thompson, Destiny Deacon, and Brook Andrew. Canadian Indigenous curators and artists include Lee-Ann Martin, Gerald McMaster, Greg Hill, Candice Hopkins, Steve Loft, Dana Claxton, Rebecca Belmore, Edward Poitras, Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman, Nadia Myre, Maria Hupfield and more. All are international travellers, exhibitors and speakers. Nearly all are university-educated and most know of each other’s work, have met or even worked together, compared experiences and strategies. They participate in an Indigenous discourse that includes their local Aboriginal cultures but is not confined by them. Similarly, while Indigenous exhibitions are part of the dominant artworld they are not fully contained by it. The Indigenous art world is a third space, a current between and among Aboriginal and mainstream art worlds.

Rebecca Belmore, Ayum-ee-aawach oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother
Rebecca Belmore, Ayum-ee-aawach oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother, 1991, 1992, 1996, 2008, sound installation, various locations In Canada and USA, wood, megaphone. Banff Centre Permanent Collection. Courtesy the artist

Non-Indigenous folks recognise that something is going on, that these people are not exactly “Aborigines” or “Indians” in the familiar, comprehensible sense. However, when Rex Butler, Ian McLean and Imants Tillers write about “post-Aboriginal art” and Ian North of “Star Aboriginality”[2] they are not referring to artists of the sort I am writing about here. They mean contemporary desert-based artists rather than urban-located ones. This category of artists is the primary subject of How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art edited by Ian McLean.[3] While the disingenuous title of this terrific but incomplete book credits “Aborigines” with this innovation, the contents build the case that non-Aboriginal artists, anthropologists, art historians, dealers and other go-betweens collaborated with “Aborigines” to co-invent the idea of contemporary art.

What is instructive about the book is that it delineates two projects. Its primary subject, “Aborigine” [sic] art, and its reception by settlers (non-Aboriginal others) are well articulated. The Indigenous is permitted space here and there (through limited texts by Ah Kee, Bell, Perkins, Croft, etc.) but their project remains undigested. Vernon Ah Kee articulates the difference between these groups this way: “The only authentic Aboriginal people in this country are the urban Aboriginal people. They’re the only ones that behave autonomously. We’re the only ones whose lives aren’t wholly and solely determined by white construction ... Now what happens in the deserts and remote communities is that people create art and they try to live their lives in a way that correlates to this romanticised idea, and it’s a white construction”.[4]

Ah Kee is being provocative. Aboriginality is a spectrum through which flows the being and meanings of a people. No one is immune to colonisation, and agency has many forms (including the perpetuation of culture through customary practices). Nevertheless, in order to understand individual works of art and individual practices, it is important to read them within their intentional and unintentional contexts. The discourse that informed Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s mesmerising paintings, for example, is not identical to what makes Tony Albert do what he does. These are different but related projects.

The primary narrative of the McLean anthology is how members of the dominant (non-Aboriginal) art and anthropology worlds saw something of themselves (and not) in Aboriginal art. Some perceived an opportunity to warm up formalist painting with a dash of exotic spice. The shock was how well the art was accepted by consumers at home and abroad – to the point of eclipsing non-Aboriginal Australian art. In addition, because the works can be seen as a puzzling mix of cultural artefact and contemporary art, a seemingly innocent formalism formed outside of the Western tradition yet that could reinvigorate Modernism, and because they might include less-than-innocent collaborations, they were difficult to critique. They did not belong to existing categories and theories, and their makers did not write about their work as Westernised artists are trained to do.

Ah Kee’s theory is that however popular these productions are – they are manufactured and contained within the dominant system without critically engaging with it. They “do not speak for themselves” and do not resist or disturb the status quo. While the thoughts and ideas of customary-based Aboriginal artists are occasionally transmitted in fragments through non-Aboriginal authors, they do not participate in that discourse in the sustained and challenging ways that Indigenous artists and curators do. An indication of this difference is that Ah Kee and Bell write about Aboriginal art but Aboriginal artists do not write about Ah Kee and Bell. The Indigenous includes but exceeds the Aboriginal. The critical stream rarely flows in the other direction. While Aboriginal art and Indigenous art are both art their intentions and receptions are different.

To present yourself as an Aboriginal artist is not only to acknowledge your ancestry but also to declare a relationship between your creative production and your home culture. You are claiming Aboriginality as part of the content of both your self and your art. So, when Gordon Bennett rejects this public label he is not denying his heritage or even that it might inform his art. He is refusing the idea that it does so necessarily, that it must. Aboriginal artists who honour this designation produce works that are at once works of culture and works of art. To work as an Aboriginal artist – in the sense that I have been describing here – may seem to confine you to following local protocol, to make for example Ligwlida’xw art that however modernised is still recognisably Ligwlida’xw (a Canadian example is Sonny Assu). Aboriginal artists who wish to be recognised as artists first are clearly trying to step beyond these styles, associations, meanings and responsibilities. It may be that they want to burst the Aboriginal bubble and swim in the mainstream, to assimilate. But, more often, they want to operate in the Indigenous art world, one that includes but exceeds the local Aboriginal sphere that participates in but also resists the mainstream art world. They want to engage the world without abandoning their Aboriginality; to express an Indigenous world-view rather than simply or chiefly illustrate their particular culture.

Sonny Assu, There is Hope, If We Rise
Sonny Assu, There Is Hope, If We Rise #1–12, 2013. Courtesy the artist

Published critical attention almost exclusively occurs within the dominant art world. There, works of art are considered to contribute to the larger socio-political, emotional and intellectual debates of the day. Critical art writing deciphers, conveys, evaluates and wrestles with the ideas and attitudes thought to be expressed by the work. In fact and in deed, not every object labelled ‘art’ is a candidate for such treatment. Commercial landscape paintings sold in shops that also do framing are rarely subject to published criticism. Artworks fall outside of professional criticism if they have nothing to contribute to the larger discussions. They may attract notices and profile articles in newspapers but rarely do they elicit criticism from ‘reputable’ art magazines. Only works that innovate the form and add something to the art discourse, or are expected to and don’t deliver, are the proper subjects of critical writing. Works of art that imitate already digested styles (this includes most art), children’s art, the products of art therapy, all can be subjects of appreciation or not, but not criticism.

Acres of Aboriginal art belong in this category. Much of this work is not reviewed in the way that non-Aboriginal ‘high’ art is reviewed because it is not recognised as being part of that discourse. And it may indeed not be. There may be critical things to say about the category as a whole, as a phenomenon, a market force, but few critics single out individual works for deep consideration. If they do and the arguments are convincing that work is clearly in a different category than its seeming companions. In the rare occasions that this is attempted, the reviewer usually resorts to an aesthetic appreciation. The work is valued for its formal reasons above other (cultural/Aboriginal) considerations. An alternative to this critical approach is an Indigenous criticism, where the work is critically engaged with as art from both the dominant art world’s various points of view and from Aboriginal and Indigenous perspectives. This is the sort of thing the work of Vernon Ah Kee seems to invite, as does that of Richard Bell. In Bell’s Theorem he explains that Indigenous art is not reducible to the terms of the dominant culture art world: “Why can’t an Art movement arise and be separate from but equal to Western Art – within its own aesthetic, its own voices, its own infrastructure, etc?”[5] This idea is echoed by Hetti Perkins in her call for not only an Indigenous textual space but also a national Institution, an autonomous Centre of Indigenous art operated by Indigenous people (what I have elsewhere referred to as sovereign Indigenous display territories).[6]

Criticism is the dynamic force that develops, reinforces and plays a little with the dominant art system’s hierarchy and circuits of meaning and value. There is virtually no such attention paid to Aboriginal art when it fails to engage mainstream discourse, or does so but in terms the dominant cannot recognise or prefers not to deal with (because it could challenge its internal hierarchy and networks of meaning). The paradox, then, is that by identifying and working as an Aboriginal artist you may be able to swim in the big pond but only if you swim as the other fish do. Alternatively, you could stay in your bubble, an exotic specimen, and beyond critical attention. But if you want to engage the world from an Indigenous point of view while not being confined to your specific culture’s perspective alone, you need to swim both in the pond and through the bubble, you need a third space, the Indigenous current.

As I sketched earlier, the Indigenous is currently being expressed by jet-setting Aboriginal artists and curators and by a few inter-national Indigenous exhibitions curated by Indigenous people. The next step in our cultural maturation is the critical turn. I think that what Vernon Ah Kee seeks is not acceptance from the dominant art world as it is currently composed but critical engagement as an intellectual and artistic equal but from a parallel discourse. Criticism from within the Indigenous art world has barely begun – that is, the published version. Our networks are teeming with critical commentary but it barely surfaces in print. This is small “c” criticism and it tends to be personal and can be less than constructive. Big “C” criticism is public and shared with the intention to make things better.

It is one thing to critique the colonial-capitalist-racist-patriarchy you find yourself born into; it is quite another thing to call-out your cousin in public. If this is the fear Ah Kee is talking about it is not something to be overcome but negotiated. Indigenous criticism is not about adopting the critical habits of the dominant system and forcing a rough translation on your colleagues. You have to build a multi-cultural toolbox – and that takes a great deal of time and work. You need to develop a critical approach that does not humiliate your colleagues or breach other Aboriginal protocols for being a proper human being. While the best critics are initially going to be Indigenous, they will not always be. One goal of the Indigenous is to Indigenise. It is not simply to fight racism and stand for land and equal rights – though that work is essential – the project is to promote Indigenous ways of being and knowing that are better for our mutual continuance on this planet than the ways that currently rule us. Therefore, anyone who can combine the best of Western critical approaches and Aboriginal worldviews to produce an Indigenous criticism is ready to contribute to the work of Indigenous artists and curators.

Rebecca Belmore, Fringe, 2007
Rebecca Belmore, Fringe, 2007, transparency in lightbox. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Henry Robideau and Donna H. Hagerman


  1. ^ Vernon Ah Kee quoted by Stephanie Radok in ‘Making History’, Artlink INDIGENOUS, 32:2, 2012, p. 31.
  2. ^ Imants Tillers and Ian North, conversation, ‘Post-Aboriginality’ (2001) in Ian McLean (ed), How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art, Institute of Modern Art, Power Publications, Sydney, 2012, p. 320–1, p. 329.
  3. ^ The title references Eric Michaels’ The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia (1986).
  4. ^ Vernon Ah Kee in Ian McLean (ed.), op cit, p. 329. (Originally from Archie Moore, ‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint: A Conversation with ProppaNow’, Machine 1, 4. 2006.) 
  5. ^ Richard Bell, Richard Bell: Positivity, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2007, p. 26–32.
  6. ^ Hetti Perkins and Daniel Browning, ‘A Place of Our Own’, Artlink INDIGENOUS, 32:2, 2012, p. 46–48. I make a similar case in an unpublished keynote: ‘Indian to Indigenous: Temporary Pavilions to Sovereign Display Territories’, Aboriginal Curatorial Conference, Revisioning the Indians of Canada Pavilion: Ahzhekewada [Let us look back], Ontario College of Art and Design University, Toronto, Oct. 15, 2011.

Thank you to Brenda L. Croft, Stephanie Radok, Margaret Farmer and Ian McLean for their helpful comments on this text and to Tess Allas, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee and Tanya Hartnett for conversations that initiated these thoughts.