My proposal is that the viewing of Aboriginal art can be interpeted across five phases.
From the beginning of time up to the end of World War II Aboriginal art was seen both in Australia and internationally as “Primitive Art” made by Stone Age people, of limited technology and intellect. Ironically this is seen and displayed with positive pride by the new nation. Aboriginal art objects, weapons and utensils are included in some survey shows of Australian art but only to extend the general history of Australian art to give it an intellectual and historical credibility to match that of the colonising power.
Australian artists (notably Margaret Preston) would try to use Aboriginal art iconography, colours and compositions to realise an Australian national art style distinct from European traditions. This never really took off. At odds with this adulation, at the same time as these events, massacres of Aboriginal people were still taking place across Australia through the 1920s. Where Aboriginal art was included in national survey exhibitions it was to extend the history of Australian art to make it comparable with other art histories.
Bark paintings from Arnhem Land are collected in the 1950s by a Fine Art institution – the Art Gallery of New South Wales – and their qualities as “Art” are debated by Anthropology and Fine Art professionals alike. Only the fact that they are a portable dominant recognisable artform (painting) similar to Western painting that could be hung on a wall allows this cross-over to be discussed at all.
The people of the desert regions of Central Australia take to painting in a Western sense in the early 1970s inspired by compositions previously painted on the ground or on their bodies for ritual purposes onto fine Western canvases with acrylic paints. Originally dismissed as tourist art the “Dot and Circle” school has become the most important painting movement in Australia in the 20th century. This spreads through the desert and into the north-west Kimberly region where the school of Rover Thomas establishes itself.
There is the fact of the chief visual device being “pointillist” areas of colour dotting that audiences subconsciously referenced to the School of French expressionism of the late 1800s and American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s which had arrived in Australia in the mid 1960s. The Australian abstract expressionist exhibition, The Field (repesenting two women and 38 men at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968) provided an atmosphere for the examination and acceptance of the Aboriginal painting movement over the next ten years.
In 1984 the Koori84 exhibition in Sydney launches the so-called “Urban” Aboriginal art movement. These are Aboriginal people who have been through the most extreme form of British colonisation and now largely live in urban centres of the southern and eastern-seaboard cities. They have been exposed to Western art schools and use Western materials, references and concepts as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) historical records and iconography to describe their own Aboriginal backgrounds and present-day circumstances.
Their work is directly and highly political, also denied artist recognition and ATSI authenticity in Sydney: Michael Riley, Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Bronwyn Bancroft, Ephemia Bostock, Brenda L. Croft, Arone Raymond Meeks, Jeffrey Samuels, Fernanda Martins, and Avril Quaill (from the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Ko-operative) in1987. Out of this appears the photographer and film-maker Tracey Moffatt who becomes the most successful Australian artist of any colour or background of all time. The more political artwork of this group fits in with postcolonial debates in Europe and the Americas concerning history and identity: Edward Said had published his major work, Orientalism, in 1978 and Homi K. Bhabha had begun to publish quite regularly by the early 1980s.
In 2003 artist Richard Bell won the Telstra-Presents National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award with his questioning painting Scientia e Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem). The synthetic polymer painting on canvas carried the emblematic words “Aboriginal Art, It’s a White Thing”. In this he posed the question: Is Aboriginal art defined by the market demand and/or white academics? Have we lost control of our artistic expression and have we ceased talking to ourselves through art?
In recent years the most serious Australian intellectual and academic debates were between white Australian academic historians on the truth of the history of massacres of Aboriginal people in what is called “The History Wars”. Aboriginal people have little or no voice in this debate. The debate of what is authentic Aboriginal art and where it belongs in Western art history takes place between the great academic houses of Anthropology and Fine Arts – again, with little or no Aboriginal voice.
By the 1990s, a number of Aboriginal artists and academics have become serious curators, art writers and commentators (there are at least 50 curators). This last phase is the most important, it is where Aboriginal people define themselves, their art, and the direction they want to take. Are they the next line of “house niggers” or do they go beyond being “trained monkeys” who can process paperwork and hang a show with space and style for other people? The more important question – being in positions of power and decision-making – is do they have a “Blak” historical consciousness? And do they challenge the “dominant voice” discussion taking place between the white Western colonial academic houses of Anthropology and Fine Art History in defining themselves, their history, and their art?
This text is based on a presentation at the National Conference of the Australian Studies Association of Japan at the Osaka National Museum of Ethnology, 2004.
Djon Mundine OAM is an independent Indigenous curator based in Brisbane.