The Fine Art of Being Aboriginal

When I first started writing for Quadrant, I was primarily interested in the global warming scam, but my contributions covered the whole range of politics and current affairs.  Recently, though, I seem to have typecast myself as, predominantly, a commentator on Aboriginal issues.  That is not because I harbour any particular animus towards Aboriginal people; however, I have lately wondered if I have become a bit obsessive about this – finding offence in every public expression of Aboriginal ‘culture’ and victimhood. 

On reflection, I think not.  I have become a keyboard warrior pushing back against what Gary Johns calls ‘Aboriginal colonisation’ – the phenomenon of having Aboriginal memes constantly shoved down our collective throat to the extent that they are changing our public discourse. The most obvious example is the ubiquitous acknowledgement of traditional owners and elders.  It has become as common an opening as once was ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. 

I have touched on this here and here. As I said therein, our nation, a British nation based upon British traditions and institutions, owes nothing whatsoever to indigenous or Aboriginal tradition or heritage.  Yet it is being brown-washed with a superficial ochre-tinged veneer of wokeness and virtue signalling that suggests we are essentially an Aboriginal nation.

Recently I became aware of more of this nonsense at the NSW Art Gallery, which was:

proud to announce that cross-cultural Wiradjuri woman Karla Dickens, one of Australia’s most exciting artists, has been invited to create a new contemporary work for the Gallery’s iconic entrance.

Dickens’ preliminary concept for the empty niche on the sandstone facade, ‘To see or not to see’ 2019, is a powerful exploration of her female and Aboriginal identity and the continuing legacy of colonialism. It has been on display at the Gallery in the exhibition ‘Dora Ohlfsen and the facade commission’, which explored the story of the empty niche and its original design by artist Dora Ohlfsen.

Dickens said of her concept, ‘The work is about women and invisibility, something just as much an issue today as it was in Dora Ohlfsen’s time. The year of her commission in 1913 was the year my grandmother Myrtle was born. She and her family were constantly hiding or being hidden, forced to mask their indigeneity. The issues she faced continue as the legacy of Aboriginal women today, and it’s important to me, and to my mob from northern New South Wales, to have this chance to speak.’

Launching in 2021 to coincide with the Gallery’s 150th anniversary celebrations, the work will be one of the first visitors encounter as they cross the threshold into the Gallery.

Here is one of what appears to be one of six elements in the work.

I daresay the irony that Dickens’ work is flanked by the names Canova, Goujon, Giotto and Raphael et al is lost upon the curators of the Gallery. You might care to know a little more about Karla:

Karla Dickens describes herself as a menopausal woman pushing 50, with plenty to say and nothing to lose. She is too busy working and going to the tip to be bothered by what people are saying (or not saying) about her. Karla proudly reminds us she’s a mum and her daughter Ginger motivates Karla to work hard for very little money. She’s been a solidly practising artist since finishing her Bachelor degree at the National Art School in Darlinghurst in 2000. Historically, the work ethic has always been an important part of Aboriginal life. Something she recognised in her own family and always understood to be a fact of life for Aboriginal people.

I thought Ian Hamm claiming on NITV Insight that ‘You don’t get much for being a blackfella’ was the height of chutzpah, but Karla’s thoughts on the intrinsic work ethic of Aboriginal life could top that I reckon. Below, another of her Karla’s masterpieces, Clown Nation, featuring a young Pauline Hanson as its centrepiece:

As if that episode wasn’t enough, my resolve to continue was strengthened recently by my own experiences with ABC Classic FM, to which I have been listening for more years than I care to remember.

These days I only listen to it when I am in the car and, over the past couple of weeks, I have been struck by the fact that almost every time I tune in, the first thing I hear is a didgeredoo or clicking sticks or a mournful chant.  The main offender is Russell Torrance on Breakfast from 6.00am to 10.00am weekdays.  Russell, who hails from the UK and came here in 2007, never fails to let us know from which Aboriginal country his offerings are being broadcast.

Below is a breakdown of the Aboriginal items that appeared in the week 14 – 18 November.


Monday 14 Nov

Assiginaak, Barbara: Mnidoonskaa, Ntam Ginjigan (An Abundance of Insects, Book One): I. Water striders [02’26]
Allen, Steve | Barton, William: Heartbeat [07’55]

Tuesday 15 Nov

Howard, Luke: Passions Of All Kinds [05’11]
Gifford, Brenda: Plover Bird [03’15]
Mizrahi, Netanela | Guwanbal Gurruwiwi: Ku Kuk [02’16]
Gurrumul: Ŋarrpiya (Octopus) [06’09]

Wednesday 16 Nov

Ngulmiya: Bandhay [05’54]
Cheetham, Deborah: Pecan Summer: Prelude (Dreamtime) [02’53]
Barton, William | Tognetti, Richard | Burbrook de Vere, Piers: Ritual [01’29]

Thursday 17 Nov

Gifford, Brenda: Dhugawara B song [02’19]
Mizrahi, Netanela | Guwanbal Gurruwiwi: Miyapunu [06’43]
Chance, Alice: So Strong [03’04]
Henry, James: The Rains [03’46]
Sainsbury, Christopher: Djagamara [04’22]

Friday 18 Nov

Assiginaak, Barbara: Mnidoonskaa, Ntam Ginjigan (An Abundance of Insects, Book One): I. Water striders [02’26]
Allen, Steve | Barton, William: Heartbeat [07’55]
Ngulmiya: Dhararri [05’10]
Kleinig, Hilary: Great White Bird [04’12]
Barton, William | Serret, Véronique: Runs Deep / Dreamtime Dawning #3 [04’11]

I wondered if last week was some sort of Aboriginal Music Week — an addition, perhaps, to the 13 existing events of importance to Aboriginal people that we celebrate annually. So, I checked the previous week.  No, Russell managed to give us 14 Aboriginal pieces in four days of the previous week (The programme for Friday, November 11 has disappeared down the memory hole.)

That seems a somewhat disproportionate Aboriginal representation – albeit that most of the pieces are fairly short – in what is purportedly a showcase of classical music which spans six or so centuries and many nations.

Russell is not alone, although he is the most determined to push what seems to me to be more a political agenda than a cultural one.  There is also the Lunchtime Concert, hosted by Genevieve Lang, Mairie Nicholson and Alice Keath.  Here is last week’s Aboriginal contribution to this two-hour show.


Buckskin, Jack: Pudnanthi Padninthi [03’38

Wednesday 16 Nov

Deborah Cheetham: Long time living here
Deborah Cheetham: Galnya Yakarrumdja
Deborah Cheetham: Long Journey Boonwurrung
Deborah Cheetham: Wominjeka Elements 2
Deborah Cheetham: Wominjeka Birrarunga
Deborah Cheetham: Nganga Yinga
Deborah Cheetham: Bunjil Ngalingu
Deborah Cheetham: Wooroongt Bik
Deborah Cheetham: Yarran Ngarnga Yinga
Barton, William | Cislowska, Tamara-Anna: Chant of the Earth [03’22]

Thursday 17 Nov

Sheppard, Elizabeth: Burradowi (Women’s Song to the Eels) [02’54]

Friday 18 Nov 

This concert showcased Songs from the Heart.  According to the ABC website it is:

a new a capella cantata created by First Nations composers Elizabeth Sheppard and Sonya Holowell, in collaboration with The Song Company led by Antony Pitts.

The work is a musical and poetic response in five parts to the words and themes of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Antony Pitts, by way of background, is an English composer and musician who became artistic director of the Song Company in 2016.  I caught only the tail end of one of his comments during the concert, to the effect that although he had been here only a short time he lamented the wrongs done to Aboriginal people, or words to that effect, and he called out the hypocrisy of acknowledging traditional owners etc when we had no intention of handing any of it back.  I would have thought that, being here since 2016, he might just have heard of Mabo?  I think Pauline Hanson could be recruited to give the appropriate advice to Maestro Pitts.  Here is the concert.]

 Songs from the Heart, part 1:

Sheppard: Cross Country
Sheppard: Kaouwi Two Children Cooee
Sheppard and Neale: As I Walk
Holowell: Never Extinguished

Songs from the Heart, part 2:

Sheppard: Kaouwi ex Cordis — Gathering; The First Sovereign Nations; Sovereignty
Holowell: We Here

Songs from the Heart, part 3:

Sheppard: Ngaala Maaman (The Noongar Prayer)
Sheppard: Noonakoort Karnya Respect
Holowell: This is the torment of our powerlessness

Songs from the Heart, part 4:

Sheppard: Kaouwi ex Cordis – Miyaldjan Teardrops; Australia’s Nationhood; A Rightful Place; Enshrinement
Holowell: Like You Can
Sheppard: Kaouwi ex Cordis – Makaratta; A Better Future

Songs from the Heart, part 5:

Holowell: A Way
Sheppard and Neale: Keep Guard of our Dreams
Sheppard: Koorlangka Children
Sheppard: Land of Sunshine
Holowell: Become Like Children
Barton, William: Until We Win in C major [06’48]
Clapham, Rhyan: Pitara Yaan Muruwariki (pitched) [05’39]

On November 11, Lunchtime Concert gave us No More Sugar, No More Tea (approx. 30 minutes) described by the ABC website as occupying:

a unique space — not quite opera, not quite theatre, but deeply informed by its writer/composer and natural storyteller Richard Frankland’s Indigenous heritage, as well as co-composer Biddy Connor’s direct melodic style.

Drawing on letters exchanged between Indigenous women and their husbands and sons on the frontlines of the First World War, No More Sugar, No More Tea is a compelling narrative of disappointment, resilience, and what makes us human.

This appears to be the only musical acknowledgement of Remembrance Day. No Vaughan Williams and no Frederick Septimus Kelly, an Australian composer killed at the Somme. 

I am not saying this music is bad – some of it is quite good – but what I am saying is that, firstly, it owes vastly more to Western music than it does to Aboriginal tradition and, secondly, it reeks of both tokenism and propaganda.

38 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Being Aboriginal

  • NarelleG says:

    I have long since stopped listening to Coffs Coast ABC because of 95% aboriginal content.
    Breakfast with Fiona Poole is rank with aboriginal [gumbayngirr] tokenism.
    The same ABC person who lied about Jacinta Price on air with boycotting her speaking tour in 2019.

  • March says:

    Aboriginal Broadcasting Corporation

  • Tony Thomas says:

    Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts nowadays start with not just an “Acknowledgement of Country” but the orchestra accompanies the spoken words with syrupy harmonies. About 18 months ago the MSO’s shtick was to have a woman string player stand up and recite some words in a purported Aboriginal language, which sounded like, “Gumbaya waddiya polawola muckinbudin” all pronounced slowly like Western words. While she spoke the words the orchestra again played syrupy music. I long for the day when someone in audience (braver than me) will shout at the end of these nonsenses, “How ridiculous!’

    • NarelleG says:

      @ Tony Thomas – I have been looking for a word…..thankyou

      “While she spoke the words the orchestra again played syrupy music.”

      ‘I long for the day when someone in audience (braver than me) will shout at the end of these nonsenses, “How ridiculous!’”

      Be the brave soldier that you are Tony.\.
      I refuse to attend ack of country and arrive late or not at all.
      The community bus is painted on the outside with squiggles and dots – I refuse to travel in it and have told them so.

      I was asked once what I have against ack of country – “It’s against my religion.’

  • STD says:

    Annoying – The Anally retentive Broadcasting Commission.

  • lbloveday says:

    My introduction to ‘Aboriginal colonisation’ was in a Catholic Cathedral, 20+ years ago.
    In 2001, my daughter attended St Columba College, a joint venture developed and supported by the Anglican & Catholic Churches of Adelaide. They held their Junior School (R-5) Prayer and Presentation at St Francis Xavier’s Catholic Cathedral.
    On entering, the most obvious feature was a man sitting on the floor playing a didgeridoo. When settled we were subjected to an explanation of the “Rainbow Serpent”.
    During the evening all the children were instructed to sing the five-verse song “Jesus our Brother”, the start of which was printed in the programme as:
    1. Jesus our brother, so it is said,
    Was humbly born in an old bush shed;
    And all of God’s creatures stood round his bed,
    Jesus our brother, in the old bush shed.
    2. “We”, said the roos, so tall and red,;
    We showed them the way to the old bush shed,
    We showed them where Jesus could lay his head:”
    “We”, said the roos, so tall and red.”
    3. “We”, said the emus, the fish and the snakes,
    The poor punctuation is irrelevant compared to the performance of a misrepresentation of one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity in a Catholic Cathedral by young children from a Christian school.

    • NarelleG says:

      Oh my gosh – 20 YEARS AGO!!!
      ‘My introduction to ‘Aboriginal colonisation’ was in a Catholic Cathedral, 20+ years ago.’

      • DougD says:

        If the Catholic Church can include a talk to children about the Rainbow Serpent in its service, I’m sure the Anglicans can beat that. I respectfully invite the next General Synod to consider declaring an annual Celebration of Aboriginal Couture Day. Worshippers will be asked to attend in red loin cloths. A la Melbourne University Professor Uncle Bruce Pascoe.

    • DougD says:

      Isn’t the sex-specific “brother” inappropriate and problematic in the verse lbloveday mentions? Shouldn’t it be changed lest it cause harm?

    • lbloveday says:

      Further, she wrote in an assignment that “Aborigines had some amazing inventions like the waddy”.
      While others had to make do with rifles, swords, cannons…..

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Some years ago, after the ABC Classic Scotsman had discovered non-urban Australia by driving to Darwin and back (good on him) and then commenced his campaign to change the Australia he had chosen to live in, I sent ABC Classic a message asking their Scotsman if he could recommend an entity, mostly likely publicly owned, in the UK which could provide for my wherewithal while I prosecuted my campaign on behalf of the ancient Britons, as I had recently decided to identify as one of the survivors of Alt Clud. After all I had driven past Dumbarton Rock in the rain and mist several times. I’m still waiting for some guidance.

  • Tony Tea says:

    I can’t speak for indigenous Victorians, as I don’t know any. But growing up in WA I can say with confidence that all my indigenous friends would be laughing themselves silly at white folks falling over each other to brandish the current formalities.

  • john.singer says:

    I began to make a comment on this fine article by Peter O’Brien but it has inspired me to write another article. Thanks Peter.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Look at the heading photo. Which ones need to have their gap closed.

  • rosross says:

    And every single person in that photo is more Anglo-European than Aboriginal in ancestry and you can bet, NOT ONE OF THEM grew up in an Aboriginal community.

    The only thing which makes them Aboriginal is delusion.

    Is the argument that 1% Aboriginal ancestry will remove the ‘evil’ stain of 99% Anglo-European ancestry? That smacks of racist eugenics.

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Mr. O’B the problem is that all you fine and well meaning people are preaching to the converted and one way of resolving that is simply to vote “NO” whenever our head traveller returns from whatever his latest junket is and holds the referendum. A feather would belt us into the grandstand if a greenie, a teal, or probably a Labor voter, ever looked at this site but one of those bumper stickers Ms Hackett puts out is seen by all judging by mostly positive comments I have received about the ones on our vehicle.

  • Biggles says:

    Peter. You are a good bloke. Might I suggest that you keep a few CDs of your favourite music in your car and stop beating yourself up over some crazed scotsman on Their ABoC.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Biggles, it’s not the music as such. I have been listening to classical music all my life and discovering how little of it I really know. Listening to one’s favourite pieces is great but you tend to get into a musical rut. Classic FM has been a source of new discoveries for me for many years. And that’s just the old established composers. For example, I’ve never really gotten into Vaughan Williams despite repeated urgings from my brother. But recently I heard a piece playing on ABC that really caught my attention and I thought to myself ‘that has to be an English composer and if I’m right about that, it is probably Vaughan Williams’. I was right – it was his 5th symphony. That caused me to sit down and listen seriously as a result of which I am coming to more appreciate his work.
      And, as I say, some of the ‘Aboriginal’ composers produce some good stuff.
      It’s just the constant propaganda that irritates me. And Martin Buzzacott seems pretty immune.

  • loweprof says:

    Simple solution. We can all invent an aboriginal ancestor, identity as aboriginal, and demand all the benefits of First Nation membership.

  • Paul W says:

    I am the same as you, Peter. I understand fully the concept of the fake nation, a nation invented for the purpose of getting money and attention, and so I, correctly identifying Aboriginal nationalism as exactly that, refuse to support it.
    Yet I too wonder if I am being a bit harsh, for I can’t fault a culture for existing. So I spend a stupid amount of time reading about Aboriginal culture. But time after time I return to the same facts.
    The facts are that despite the big brouhaha about them in Australia, the Australian Aborigines are as obscure as the Aborigines of Taiwan: and when did you last hear of them? The British were ignorant and sometimes violent, but they were only somewhat ignorant and somewhat violent. Contrary to the modern claims, they correctly understood what they had found: a relic of prehistory of the same kind that had existed in Europe and Asia thousands of years ago. The only difference is that Australia was settled 250 years ago and not 2,000+. But prehistoric societies have no modern relevance and that is why Australia was kainotic – a completely fresh society built without reference to indigenous societies. Where Aboriginal concepts were found useful they were adapted – names, bushfires, bush tucker. Trivial things.
    The Aboriginal nationalists want to connect Australia to a very long heritage. While that heritage has good things – such as physical activity – in it, it is also good for Australia to be a fresh society. It will eventually fail, because it is exclusively a product of the Australian intelligentsia. The question is when and how.

  • Daffy says:

    Peter, you are too hard on yourself; your persistent bravery in truth telling is necessary for Aboriginal Australians to be freed from the patronizing mendacity of the city chattering classes.

  • wdr says:

    Race War has replaced Class War- and above all, anti-white racism.

  • rosross says:

    It is a scam. Wave the Aboriginal flag and you get leg’s up, more funding, better jobs, more money and lots more glory and kudos. All a joke.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Peter, i have been posting for months about the indigenous takeover of ABC Classic fm.! And again that the Insufferable blow-in Torrance being the main offender! He smugly and blithely reels off gannigal country or kuarna country as if it’s always been, and this rubbish on the taxpayer’s dime. There are enough aboriginal stations between SBS and ABC to leave classical music alone, but no, the stealthy push for the “voice” and worship of a stone age culture completely anathema to a violin or piano is all pervasive, and infuriating to this listener.

  • lbloveday says:

    Today’s The Australian article (paywalled):
    Just a couple of non-random excerpts:
    MINING on an “industrial scale” to quarry grindstones used to mill grass seeds and native grain, dating back more than 2000 years. More than 73,000 pits are estimated to be involved, dotted across fields so immense their scope can only be gauged from space through satellite imagery.
    “Taken together, these sandstone quarries approach a seemingly industrial scale of pro­duction, incorporating thousands of quarry pits and representing the manufacture of thousands of grindstones … indicating a process that likely generated a significant excess for redistribution through an extensive trade network,”

  • Peter OBrien says:

    It seems I may have been over critical of Russell. I found out today that November is apparently Oz Music Month at the ABC. Will check with him again next month.

    • 27hugo27 says:

      No Peter, you are not too harsh. Torrance has been smugly annoying re indigenous content and geography all year. Nice gig for someone from a real historically relevant culture to come over and lecture on local matters at taxpayer expense.

  • Jessie says:

    Peter, regarding ABC FM Classic, I too have tuned out after many years of enjoyable listening and learning.
    Many thanks for your scholarly and truly interesting work over the years Peter. Very much appreciated and often posted on to friends.

    Here in the NT it is Picnic Day
    The happy gatherings illustrated in link I hope may cheer you up.

    and here are photo(s) the article forgot to include in its preamble ……

Leave a Reply