Aboriginal Art and Australian Society: Hope and Disenchantment

Aboriginal Art and Australian Society: Hope and Disenchantment

by Laura Fisher

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Overview

This book is an investigation of the way the Aboriginal art phenomenon has been entangled with Australian society’s negotiation of Indigenous people’s status within the nation. Through critical reflection on Aboriginal art’s idiosyncrasies as a fine arts movement, its vexed relationship with money, and its mediation of the politics of identity and recognition, this study illuminates the mutability of Aboriginal art’s meanings in different settings. It reveals that this mutability is a consequence of the fact that a range of governmental, activist and civil society projects have appropriated the art’s vitality and metonymic power in national public culture, and that Aboriginal art is as much a phenomenon of visual and commercial culture as it is an art movement. Throughout these examinations, Fisher traces the utopian and dystopian currents of thought that have crystallised around the Aboriginal art movement and which manifest the ethical conundrums that underpin the settler state condition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085330
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 05/30/2016
Series: Anthem Studies in Australian Literature and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Laura Fisher is a sociologist and art historian based in Sydney, Australia. She is pursuing a range of research interests around art in the public domain, visionary outdoor environments, the cultural economy and Aboriginal art. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.

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Aboriginal Art and Australian Society

Hope and Disenchantment


By Laura Fisher

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2016 Laura Fisher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-533-0



CHAPTER 1

NEW INTERCULTURAL RELATIONSHIPS IN THE POST-ASSIMILATION ERA


The Aboriginal art phenomenon has been shaped by a range of cultural and Indigenous governance approaches that reflect the changing status of Aboriginal heritage, subjectivity and culture in Australian public life. In this chapter, I focus on the political events and legislative reforms that brought Aboriginal culture into being in Australian public life and came to anchor citizens' understandings of what it comprised. Fred Myers has aptly pointed out that Aboriginal fine art has been constituted by an intercultural process of 'culture making' through 'historically and institutionally specific mediations [...] of art, of Aboriginal administration, of governmentality' (2002, 351; see also Merlan 1998). In what follows I hope to shed light on the dialectic nature of this process. Not only has Aboriginal art acquired meaning and value as fine art through this process of culture making but it has also galvanized, through its circulation as a positive aesthetic signifier of Aboriginality, wider processes of culture making in the context of social and political negotiations of the settler state condition.


1.1 Cultural Trauma in Australian Public Culture

To begin, the history reviewed in this section can be appraised through the lens of cultural trauma, a concept theorised by cultural sociologists such as Jeffrey Alexander (2003) and Ron Eyerman (2004) to elucidate the lasting social ramifications of the Holocaust, the September 11 attacks and the history of slavery in the United States. The concept is usefully summarised by Alexander when he writes that 'it is by constructing cultural traumas that social groups, national societies, and sometimes even entire civilisations not only cognitively identify the existence and source of human suffering but "take on board" some significant responsibility in it' (2003, 85). The cultural dimension rests in the memorialising narratives and other representations that constitute this shared sense of victimisation in relation to a devastating event or process, representations that are created and disseminated within the arenas of the mass media, academia, policy, religion and the arts, for example. Together these mediations identify the victims, define the nature of the unjust act, present the victims' experiences in a way that corresponds to principles acceptable to the wider population and attribute responsibility for the past injustices to the state and particular social groups. Alexander suggests that eventually 'the heightened and powerfully affecting discourse of trauma disappears, [and] the "lessons" of the trauma become objectified' in a range of commemorative institutional, material and ritual forms (103).

The idea of cultural trauma is a useful one for comprehending the way Australia's history has been reconceptualised in the 40-year period that can be roughly traced from the 1967 Referendum to the 2008 National Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples. During this time, a narrative of loss, suffering and injustice evolved that encompassed many kinds of Aboriginal victimisation dating back to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770 and the First Fleet in 1788. This narrative melds several histories: experiences of frontier conflict; land dispossession; missionisation and institutionalisation; entrenched poverty and ill health; the fragmentation of families; violence and death in the criminal justice system; racism; loss of language and so on (Atkinson 2002; Haebich 2000; Johnston 1991a; Reynolds 1999; 'National Inquiry' 1997). Over the last several decades, all of these histories have been illuminated through a range of cultural representations and public dialogues.

One of the dictums of the final Declaration of Reconciliation is 'As we walk the journey of healing, one part of the nation apologises and expresses its sorrow and sincere regret for the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apologies and forgives' (quoted in Gordon 2001, 135). This statement is suggestive of the way these histories coalesce and foreground the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide. However, it is important to point out that Australia's cultural trauma narrative has been very much entwined with a broader civic project of revisioning Australia as a culturally sophisticated and progressive nation (Merlan 1998). As will be elaborated later, this interrelatedness helped form the meanings that have accrued to Aboriginal art over the course of its emergence as a contemporary art movement. The following historical account lays the groundwork for this argument.


1.2 The End of Assimilation and the Rise of Aboriginal Culture

Since the mid-twentieth century, efforts to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and forge a respected place for Indigenous Australians within the nation have taken many forms. In the 1920s and 1930s, the assimilation policy was viewed by many to be a progressive corrective to the formerly held belief that the Aboriginal population would simply die out; however, by the 1950s and 1960s, it was subject to greater scrutiny and criticism (Broome 2010). Assimilation was increasingly recognised to be founded on spurious racial classifications and fundamentally injurious to human dignity, a viewpoint inspired in large part by the international decolonisation movements and emerging human rights discourses of the post–World War II era. For example, as Jane Lyndon points out, the horrific photographic evidence of the cruelty of the Nazi regime that entered Australian newspapers in 1945 sensitised the public to race-based oppression and suffering (2012, particularly chapter 4). Indigenous activists and humanitarians were very effective in drawing analogies between the experience of the Jews and Aboriginal people's abject circumstances on missions, reserves and in police custody and helped to stimulate a reappraisal of Indigenous cultural, political and citizenship rights in Australia (Attwood 2005, 20–22; Sanders 2002). This shift in social attitudes drove the successful campaign for the 1967 Referendum, which led to the amendment of two sections of the constitution so that Aboriginal people would be counted in the census and Aboriginal affairs would become a federal (rather than state and territory) responsibility. When Gough Whitlam was elected as Labor prime minister in 1972, the policy of assimilation was explicitly terminated in favour of self-determination, and Indigenous affairs governance radically reconfigured through a variety of policy platforms. These changes took place against the background of Britain's decline as the foundation of Australian nationalism after World War II. At the same time, the '50s, '60s and '70s witnessed the maturation of Australian anthropology, archaeology and prehistory as scholarly fields within universities and museums across the country. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) was established as a statuory authority in 1964. These fields of research were a tributary to the Whitlam government's 'new nationalism' in the early 1970s and the associated ideal of building civic pride in the 'National Estate' (Curran 2004). The activities of researchers in these disciplines and institutions helped to crystallise an image of the natural and cultural patrimony of the nation, and as a consequence, Aboriginal history, sites and art became interwoven with nationalistic impressions of the country that focused on its landscapes and ancient heritage.

At the same time, the politics of contemporary Aboriginal identity – now interpreted through the lens of self-determination – altered the status of Aboriginal heritage from being a matter of historical and scientific inquiry to being meaningful in the cultural present. Alongside other Indigenous groups around the world, Indigenous Australians articulated a particular language of historicity to anchor their collective visions of resurgence in the political and cultural spheres (Clifford 2013, 23–35). They unraveled normative constructions of the nation's history that presumed the diminution of Aboriginal society and articulated alternative narratives of cultural transmission and survival within which the concept of heritage was central. Through these means, they were able to assert a collective right to inhabit the present on their own terms. As artist Julie Gough put it, Indigenous Australians have been 'regenerating the means to make our own future in our own country' (2006, 13; see also Ginsburg 1994). The growing body of evidence of the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of the continent would become, and remains, a powerful signifier of Aboriginal rights (Ireland 2002; Russell 2001, 86–91).

The formation of the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973 was a defining moment in the history of the Aboriginal art movement; however, the values enshrined within it were prefigured in the years immediately prior to Whitlam's election through the work of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. This council had been established as an advisory body by the Holt Liberal Government following the success of the 1967 Referendum. The three men who were elected to the council were H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs (as chair), Bill Stanner and the diplomat and public servant Barrie Dexter. All three were progressives, informed about minority rights movements elsewhere and sympathetic to Aboriginal people's struggles for land rights and the retention of their culture. At that time, Coombs was the governor of the Commonwealth Bank (the highest economic post then). He was also the founding head of the Australia Council for the Arts when it was formed in 1968 and the chair of its Aboriginal Arts Committee, and in these roles (and within the council) he argued strongly for the protection of Aboriginal heritage and the support of Aboriginal art practices (Rowse 2000a). In his view, art was a keystone of contemporary Aboriginal culture because it could conserve and revive the interconnections between ceremony, sacred sites and land custodianship (Davis 2007, 282–85). Coombs was instrumental in the first official acknowledgement of an infringement of Aboriginal copyright in 1966, when he compensated and honoured the artist David Malangi after one of his bark painting designs was reproduced on the Australian one dollar note (Johnson 1996). He also helped to arrange an exhibition of bark paintings in Britain, which was curated by the newly formed Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies as part of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival (Rowse 2001). William Stanner, an esteemed anthropologist who was instrumental in the founding of the Institute and who had also served as a journalist and public servant, was a strident critic of assimilation. He gained a profile beyond academic circles through his influential 1968 Boyer Lectures 'After the Dreaming', in which he explained the reasons for Aboriginal disadvantage and refutedprevailing understandings of Aboriginal subjectivity that essentialised their powerlessness and anomie. He argued for the recognition of the distinctiveness of Aboriginal culture and appealed for a more honest and less self-serving account of Australian frontier history (Stanner 1968). Stanner's writings continue to have currency, because they seem to presage the ethical consciousness of late twentieth century Australian society. Melinda Hinkson attributes the ongoing interest in his work to the fact that 'he provides us with a picture of Aboriginal social life that is unusually multifaceted, that documents and weighs up contradictory forces, while resisting the urge to generalize or reach some final point of judgement in accounting for that life' (2010a, 87; Stanner 2009).

Due to Holt's untimely death in 1967, the Council for Aboriginal Affairs was never made a statutory body as initially envisaged. The subsequent Gorton government was indifferent to Aboriginal rights, and the McMahon Liberal government that succeeded it marginalised the council, leaving it without a charter or formal set of responsibilities. However, Dexter, Stanner and Coombs still had access to Commonwealth funding, and they endured this hostile climate and formulated policies nevertheless. They travelled the country consulting with Indigenous groups and numerous government agencies at the state and federal level on Aboriginal health, housing, education, employment, the arts and other areas and advocated for Aboriginal land rights (Dexter 2008).

As Tim Rowse (2000b) has pointed out, as the council assessed how Aboriginal affairs might be governed humanely and effectively, it became clear that two divergent senses of Aboriginal difference needed to be comprehended. On the one hand there was the undesirable difference associated with inequality and social exclusion, and on the other, the set of cultural differences that had endured since colonisation and were understood to form the basis of Aboriginal people's 'positive self-consciousness' (29). The latter was a striking departure from the assimilationist understanding of Aboriginal culture as anachronistic to contemporary Australian life and an impediment to Aboriginal people's integration into Australian society. As Rowse writes: 'Assimilation was a program of inclusion of indigenous Australians and it presumed and urged their ultimate sameness' (11, 17; see also Goot and Rowse 2007, ch. 1, Hollingsworth 2006). Up to this point, even progressive humanitarians had not usually looked beyond the objective of Aboriginal people achieving equal citizenship rights.

In the subsequent decade an extraordinary reversal of this view took place. From the sympathetic realisation that Aboriginal people were not submitting to the assimilation project arose the conviction that Aboriginal difference should be respected and that Aboriginal people's advancement depended on their ability to make choices based on a sense of pride in their identity. Aboriginal culture came to be embraced within official discourses as the basis for a right to self-determination and to one's traditional lands, and even as something that Australian society as a whole could enjoy and cherish. Further, it was seen to be the patrimony of any person 'of Aboriginal and Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Islander and is so accepted by the community with which he or she is associated', entailing that there was no discrimination between so-called full or part Aboriginal people as before. Dexter, Coombs and Stanner, left with a remarkable degree of autonomy to follow their convictions as representatives of the Commonwealth government, ensured that an embryonic Aboriginal policy platform grounded in these ideas was laid out for the Whitlam government to consolidate when it was elected in 1972.

As Peter Sutton states, 'By the late 1970s, "culture" was central to the new verbal currency of Indigenous liberation politics' (2009, 63), and this unquestionably created the scaffolding for the Aboriginal art movement to attain the symbolic gravity it came to have in national public culture. In this respect it was of some consequence that Dexter, Coombs and Stanner were erudite men who admired Aboriginal cultural traditions. Given the tangibility of art for the positive configuration of culture that was now being disseminated, it is not surprising that art became a stage for Whitlam's self-determination policy. Five months into Whitlam's term, the Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) was launched by the National Seminar on Aboriginal Arts in 1973, a week-long series of talks and discussions involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and overseas guests, accompanied by several exhibitions, performances and film screenings (Aboriginal Arts Board 1973). Whitlam opened the seminar, and his speech situated Aboriginal affairs at the centre of his government's agenda:

[I]f there is one ambition we place above all others, if there is one achievement for which I hope we will be remembered, if there is one cause for which I hope future historians will salute us, it is this: that the government I lead removed a stain from our national honour and gave justice and equality to the Aboriginal people. (1973, 4)


Whitlam declared that Aboriginal people's difference, in terms of their cultural heritage and customs, would be respected and encouraged to flourish. His speech articulated the core principal of self-determination – Aboriginal people would be empowered 'to make their own decisions about their way of life within the Australian community' – and highlighted the board's exclusively Aboriginal membership and direct access to financial resources as testaments to this (4). The arts were essential to the exercise of self-determination, he argued, because they ensured the preservation and adaptation of cultural traditions and had the power to instil an emotional awareness of Aboriginal-people's plight within non-Indigenous Australians. He also saw the arts as an avenue for the expression of protest by those Aboriginal people living in towns and cities who suffered from 'isolation, [...] prejudice, and a multitude of social and economic handicaps' (6).


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Aboriginal Art and Australian Society by Laura Fisher. Copyright © 2016 Laura Fisher. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; Part I: Governance, Nationhood and Civil Society; Chapter 1: New Intercultural Relationships in the Post-Assimilation Era; Chapter 2: Aboriginal People Mobilising Aboriginal Art; Chapter 3: Understanding Aboriginal Art Subsidy; Chapter 4: The State Mobilising Aboriginal Art; Chapter 5: ‘Aboriginal culture’ at the Nexus of Justice, Recognition and Redemption; Part II: Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the 1980s; Chapter 6: The Emergence of Aboriginal Art in the 1980s; Part III: Negotiating Difference; Chapter 7: Negotiation Aboriginal Difference; Chapter 8: The Art/Anthropology Binary; Part IV: Aboriginal Art, Money and the Market; Chapter 9: Ethics and Exploitation in the Aboriginal Art Market; Chapter 10: ‘Aboriginal Mass Culture’ and the Cultural Industries; Conclusion.

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'Like any tightrope walker, Laura Fisher has a finely attuned sense of balance. Her clear-sighted analysis of the historical record takes her beyond the moral high ground and ideological posturing that for decades have stifled intelligent discussion of the mixed blessings of Aboriginal art’s success. This book should be essential reading for anyone to whom Indigenous art is more than a just a pretty picture.' —Vivien Johnson, former NewSouth Global Professor, University of New South Wales and author of 'Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists'


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