The Problem of Aboriginal Art

The federal government’s inquiry into various matters relating to Aboriginal art will avail nothing unless and until there is—first—general agreement on what actually characterises Aboriginal art. It is a towering problem because, as the recent withdrawals from the Telstra Aboriginal Art Award indicate, not even the indigenous arts community itself is clear on that. It will avail nothing if white theorists or bureaucrats proceed as if everyone agreed on the issue. There is no agreement, because the issue has never been discussed.

The most silently eloquent indication of the problem is the separation—in the latest edition of the prestigious New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art—of Aboriginal art into a totally different section from the rest of Australian art. This was a very significant act indeed, but—surprisingly—it has inspired little discussion. Although no rationale for this sequestering is given, the clear implication is that Aboriginal “art” may not be “art”—or, at least, not “art” in the same sense that the work of Sidney Nolan, Jeffrey Smart and Fred Williams is.

Sebastian Smee (in the Australian, November 27, 2006) and Robert Nelson (the Age, December 9, 2006) both gave the matter some attention, but neither suggested an adequate solution to the dilemma. Smee characterised McCulloch’s attitude as “symptomatic of [an economic] bubble mentality … But things are bound to look different when the hype and cupidity die down …” Nelson took Smee to task for his negativity and suspected him of wishing to place Western control over the genre. While recognising the damage the market may be doing to the genre and the artists concerned, Nelson recommended that—instead—we should “look at Aboriginal art in a humbler, more curious spirit, and work out what we can learn from it and how to assist its growth”. He seems to be unaware that many of us have been doing this for many, many years—and it has achieved nothing!

While both writers observed that Aboriginal art has not had any effect on Western-tradition art either in Australia or abroad, only Nelson commented: “Why would it?” And herein lies the solution to the dilemma. Rather than it being a broad social issue—as some maintain—it may be that it is a purely aesthetic matter: a matter of what art actually is and whether Aboriginal “art” is “art” in the sense the West means by the term, and has done since at least the nineteenth century. 

What discussion there is of Aboriginal art rarely mentions the root problem. That is the disjunction that exists between Aboriginal tradition, as it is applied to visual expression, which proscribes—and even punishes—innovation and individual expression, and the fact that these are the very characteristics of art in the modern Western world.

The most frank admission of this issue has come from statements by Banduk Marika, a daughter of a prominent Yirrkala family, although they have universally been ignored by the art world—both white and black. She has often said that while in some of her art she is free to represent what and how she wishes, in some of it she must clear the imagery and colours with her elders. While it is not, at present, clear to what extent this restriction on individual creativeness is universal in indigenous visual expression, it clearly is a matter that requires extensive examination.

It is almost exclusively a problem for Australia alone to solve. Although there have been considerable and significant exhibitions of Aboriginal art in Europe and America, they have been in ethnographic—rather than art—museums. There was a great stink in Germany in 1994 when an Australian dealer wanted to show Aboriginal works in the contemporary art fair, Art Cologne. Permission was refused on the grounds that Aboriginal art is “folk art”, and it is a longstanding policy of Art Cologne not to exhibit folk art. However, at a time when many in Germany were coming to terms with the country’s Nazi past, some condemned the judgment as “racist”. Eventually the work was admitted, but only after much public discussion in Germany—although not here—and after high-level diplomatic intervention. It seems that Europe has decided on the question; we now really need to have the debate in Australia.

The solution to the problem depends, first, upon understanding the characteristics of modern Western art and, second, whether—or to what extent—Aboriginal art concurs with these characteristics. If it turns out that Aboriginal art deserves to be considered as its own generic, and not art in the sense that the West uses that term, it would indeed be hegemony to call it “art”.

And we have to recognise that Aboriginal art is not a homogeneous thing. There are vast differences between the ground drawings of the Centre, the bark paintings of the North, the Bradshaw paintings and the Flinders Ranges rock engravings. And, of course, many Aboriginal artists have worked in the broader European tradition since the pioneering work of Albert Namatjira.

It is true that not even Western art theory can agree on what art is. But we can get a clear understanding of what the term means in the modern West by by-passing the theorists’ controversies and looking instead at the actual works of great modernists like Picasso, Matisse and Dali. Although their work was immensely varied, it had one common denominator: it asserted the right of the artist to individual self-expression. And it is this criterion that must eliminate those varieties of Aboriginal art that spurn—or seek to limit—innovation and individual expression.

A significant complication here is that the term art is commonly used as an honorific as well as a descriptor of a field of human expression. So, to say that something is “not art” is a denigration. But, it is clear that some totally legitimate visual expressions are not art: news photographs and maps, for example. It may be that at least some Aboriginal art is more equivalent to these things than to Impressionist paintings.

What limited critical discussion there is of Aboriginal art is usually restricted to relating the work’s “story”. While the story seems to be always the artist’s motivation, this attitude is the equivalent of limiting discussion of Picasso’s Guernica to the telling of the destruction of the city by German bombers in 1936. Criticism of Western works of art goes much deeper and broader than this. But criticism of Aboriginal work never does. And this is in spite of the fact that Aboriginal artists and curators occasionally make an impassioned appeal for the works of indigenous painters and sculptors to be discussed in similar terms and according to similar criteria to those used for Western art. It never happens.

Abstraction is another characteristic of Western modernism and, even though—in the pictures of Kandinsky, Mondrian and the Constructivists—much more is intended than the mere pattern of coloured shapes that presents to our eyes, they have no narrative intent. On the other hand, while many Aboriginal works appear “abstract” because they are innocent of any understanding of perspective, their raison d’être is purely to tell the artist’s “story”. It is a narrative art—for those who can read it. The use of common materials blinds the innocent to this significant fact.

These are all aesthetically very weighty matters—not to mention their political and economic implications. It is high time the Australian art world—both black and white—discussed the problem openly and sought a resolution.

Donald Richardson is a practising artist, art educator and art historian-theorist. He was formerly the Superintendent of Studies (Visual Art) in the Education Department of South Australia.

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