Making Legible: The Art in the Politics and the Politics in the Art of Australian Aboriginal Painting


by Robyn Ferrell

Paintings are the moon and stars in a dark sky for Australian Aboriginal communities. The economic success of this art holds out an almost utopic prospect of a cultural renaissance. Yet poverty, violence and third-world living standards in its remote communities remain the present reality.

The extraordinary story of Aboriginal acrylic painting, which is simultaneously a contemporary style event and a reinvention of a long-standing sacred art, is made more poignant by the trouble revealed there and the ‘intervention’ declared to meet it. The question is: will Aboriginal art help make Indigenous ways of life viable, as it has promised? Or will it just make investors and art dealers rich?

Aboriginal art is moving toward a significant location in fine art – some are calling it the last great new art movement of the twentieth century. Prices at auction internationally for museum quality paintings suggested that this art is moving out of the artefact niche and into full membership of contemporary art. At a 2007 Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne, a canvas by an Aboriginal artist fetched a record A$2.4 million. And, when France opened the much-vaunted Musée du quai Branly to house that nation’s colonial collections, it featured the art of Australian Aboriginal artists not only in the collection but incorporated as contemporary elements in the internationally lauded Enzo Piano building.

Aboriginal culture has been more commonly known through anthropologists’ translation, and the art sold with attached ‘Dreaming’ stories thought essential to its appreciation. But increasingly it is possible to delight in this art purely for its visuality, for the joy of its colour and the vivacity of its line. It has moved from the museum to the coffee table: open an issue of House & Garden or Vogue Living and you will find the art increasingly on designer walls.

Aboriginal artists are used to their designs serving economic ends. Traditionally embedded in ritual and ceremonies, they signify to others in the Aboriginal world rights over country and resources.

But contemporary Aboriginal art is also forming inside the Western art scene, and is as much a product of it as it is of the Dreaming. The synthesis of Aboriginal Dreaming practices with Western economic realities is the genius of Aboriginal acrylic art.

This can lead to anxieties in the market place, where a certain desire for ‘authenticity’ still demands a traditional art and resists the view of it as contemporary, insisting that the artists know nothing of the wider art tradition, and paint from their own culture. At least in the case of major painters in this style, this now seems unrealistic and a hindrance to critical appreciation. As Howard Morphy, a leading anthropological writer on this art, has argued, batik designs were as much a part of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s heritage as the body designs that influence her later paintings.

An image is no less subject to ‘copyright’ in Indigenous as it is in European law. But today, while customary law in the art may be acknowledged, it is not observed. Anyone anywhere can ‘own’ a Dreaming image, although they may never seek or be given the knowledge it represents.

The publicising of the designs flies in the face of traditional contexts, but for the purposes of the contemporary acrylic painting, display and dissemination is the point. Sale of the canvasses is the desired end; the circulation of the images a way of claiming traditional title over land. Economic survival and land rights  remain the dominating conditions of Aboriginal Australia.

Aboriginal acrylic painting ‘begins’ in the seventies at Papunya, a desert settlement in the Northern Territory where several tribal groups were corralled in miserable conditions. The painting was a rebel act by Pintupi male elders, taken to protect their country, and driven to put aside the secrecy of their law to do so. Previously, their designs would have been the preserve of the initiated, painted on the body or on ceremonial ground. These traditions were known and practiced by the artists, who had received a ‘classical’ cultural education from their Elders.

When women, too, took up painting in the 1980s, they soon became expert practitioners of their own styles. One of the best known, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, came from a remarkable group in the Utopia community, 240k north-east of Alice Springs. For some in the European world, it would be a utopia in which one becomes an artist in order to make a living. As Vivien Johnson described it in 1994:

In a population of seven hundred people, of whom more than half are young children, there are more than a hundred practising artists at Lajamanu, a statistic indicating a degree of artistic ferment that few places outside of New York could boast.

It has been remarked that the resistance by other Aboriginal groups like the Warlpiri people, to the revealing of sacred marks to the uninitiated, allowed Papunya a fifteen years’ start on the others to ‘win market share’. This strange crossover, of sacred law, political necessity and marketing opportunity, continues in the Art Centre movement.

Today, Papunya Tula is a company that has had sufficient earnings to buy a dialysis machine for the community. Several other art centres have a significant turnover from sales, among them Warlayirti Art Centre at Balgo in the Western Tanami Desert, and Mangkaja at Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberleys of northern West Australia. But a report undertaken by Desart, the association of Aboriginal Art Centres, in 1999 noted that many Art Centres struggle to develop markets, meet existing demand and quality control requirements because of the difficult social setting in which they work.

Some workers in these centres feel that their commercial competitors – the private dealers and ‘carpet-baggers’ who pay the artists directly to paint for them – are a bigger threat to their future than the social problems that have brought UN condemnation.

Treating Art Centres solely as businesses involves a paradox around the value of ‘culture’. The problems in the remote communities and the success of the art come from the same source: from the critical role the culture has in making people whole, and conversely, the devastating effects of weakening it. All of us, not only Aboriginal people, derive values and a sense of identity from the bonds, relations and obligations that come with culture. If this is torn apart over a prolonged period of time, any group will struggle to keep hold of the practices of how to treat each other.

Two official reports, on the art industry and on child abuse in communities, came down within weeks of each other in 2007 and together they demonstrate the point. The ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report found that child sexual abuse is rife in Aboriginal communities ‘largely because of the breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society’. And the Senate Inquiry into Aboriginal Art found that ‘carpet-bagging’, the highly damaging and disrespectful practice in which artists are paid poorly for piece-work, threatens the reputation of the $250 million export industry.

The Northern Territory inquiry reported that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children ‘is serious, widespread and often unreported.’ It goes unreported because frequently it is the child, and not the perpetrator, who is removed. Fears of a return to the ‘stolen generations’ era: the decades-long policy of removing children of mixed race from their Aboriginal families – recur to prevent family members from inviting scrutiny. As the report concluded, ‘much of the violence and sexual abuse occurring in Territory communities is a reflection of past, current and continuing social problems which have developed over many decades.’

The Australian Federal Government in response, formed a ‘national emergency committee’, passed legislation to allow the strengthening of intervention in remote communities including the quarantining of welfare payments, and allocated significant funds for improved housing and health care. That there was an emergency was not news to those involved with these remote communities, who have observed the shameful conditions in health, education and living standards for years. But it seemed too much to hope that something might finally be going to be done about it.

People who have spent time in the settlements report terrible and routine violence. They liken conditions to those in refugee camps, and this is signified in the eight-foot cyclone fences around houses to prevent home invasion. Murder and payback are said to be rife, with spears and star pickets commonly used as weapons. Those in Alice Springs also tell of young girls being dropped back to camp by white men at the end of a day, some as young as six or seven years old.
The violence intrudes on the art. There are stories of grandchildren who extort grandma’s ‘painting money’ from her on the grounds they are ‘family’, and of other relatives forcing elderly artists to paint for the carpetbaggers.

The interventions divided the wider Australian community, but there was bipartisan parliamentary support for intervention measures amid criticism of the calculated nature of some actions appearing to use the pretext to wind back the autonomy of land-rights-based settlements. Some called it genocide by another name, the latest in an ongoing war against the original inhabitants waged since European settlement.

It was a hard call. ‘Self-determination’ implies that a group is of one mind. But few communities enfranchise their children, and their interests and those of their parents may not always coincide. Violence and sexual abuse against women and children speak to fracturing within groups, in which the stronger attack the weaker without compunction. Self-determination can be hard in such a divided house. This is the experience of family law in the wider community; witness the general failure to come to terms with levels of domestic violence and child abuse in Western jurisdictions.

Aboriginal groups are fractured, since different members in it suffer differently in the post-colonial world, and each has lost different things. Dispossessed of cultural prestige and authority, some in the communities have a heavy responsibility, managing family relations in the time of the breakdown of custom.
‘There is no cultural defence to rape’, the Federal Treasurer told parliament at the time of the Intervention. But some Indigenous women see this assertion of gender politics, on the right or on the left, as contaminated by racism. They resent the assumption that white politicians (or feminists, for that matter) can speak on behalf of Indigenous women about their relations with Indigenous men, however problematic they may appear. And, perhaps more to the point, they suspect the impulse that makes this violence, too, the fault of Indigenous people, along with their unemployment, poor health and living conditions. Picking on Indigenous men for the violence blames the victim yet again and lets the white community off the hook yet again.

It certainly seems as though the government’s initiatives were on the model of assimilation. The aim was to uphold the criminal law, not customary law, and to install white community standards of appropriate sexual activity and child rearing in the settlements. Moves to abolish land permits continued the disbanding of traditional Aboriginal connection to country that has characterised much of the last century.

While the reports of child abuse provided the cue to declare that self-determination wasn’t working, it is arguably the history of assimilation that went before that set up much of the dysfunction with which the communities now struggle. The ‘stolen generations’ dismembered families, and the ‘sit down’ money paid by governments to Aboriginal groups who were prepared to move from traditional lands to settlements, discouraged the crucial cultural task of ‘taking care of country’. These groups were not given much in exchange except grief, poverty and alcohol. Alcohol is the slow-release poison still acting in these communities as an effect of assimilation, as the report on child sexual abuse attests.

Better housing, education, and health support, especially for addiction, are obviously needed if these communities are to do better. Perhaps if these become a reality, then the self-esteem and hope for the future that people need, in order to care about the next generation, can be found.

The self-certainty of Western perspectives can become unsettled when you start to explore Aboriginal country and its art. Ironically, you start to see what ethnographers have called the ‘Western eye’, the gaze that commonly goes uninterrupted and unanalysed in regarding the cultures of others. You can see this at Yulara, for example, the resort at the famous rock in Central Australia, with a $43 million a year turnover, leased from the Indigenous community at Mutijulu. All the tourists flock at sunset, like the devout to a shrine, to see the Rock. Uluru is a ‘family place’ for the Aboriginal people, says our guide, with six sacred sites around it, some for men and boys, some for women. The traditional owners, the Anangu people, request that tourists not to climb the rock, but more than half do anyway.

A movie in the cultural centre shows an Elder woman dancing a traditional dance with breasts painted up. The audience of ordinary Aussie lads snicker and mumble obscenities to each other. They have happened on one of their sacred sites, the breast; they can’t help jeering, because this is the way to do ‘men’s business’ in Western culture. Their girlfriends sit watching the film in embarrassed silence, also in keeping with the custom.

The desert around Uluru, even if only seen from a minibus as you leave the resort, is daunting. It’s intimidating to think you could only survive there at $400 a day. The arid country is implacable, and tourists have no chance against it – the heat alone, and the scarcity of surface water. The more you learn of how a culture has endured in the harsh exacting conditions, the more you must admire its rigour and precision. Repetition is its essence, making an eye for detail and pattern the basis of survival. Everything is legible to those who know the signs, even though to the untrained eye the country might seem monotonous, and its forms of life seem inarticulate and mute.

The people who live there, and their ancestors, traditionally have slept on the ground and walked the distances that survival mandates – where to get foods in certain seasons, where water. And the things about getting by in that world are known through memories of treks and songs imprinted on the body by immersion in ‘country’. A rigorous, strenuous, literal body of knowledge.

Despite the rough and ready look of these outback places, there is there a freedom and expansiveness that many might envy. After all, ordinary first-world values can sometimes seem spiritually pauce. And struggling with substances that numb the void is not the preserve of Aboriginal Australia.

Wider Australia might expect Aboriginal people to give up on their culture and move into town (a committee recommendation declared that Indigenous Australians should be ‘employed in the private sector’ by 2010.) But it is not acknowledged what is being asked, in requiring indigenous others to live like the West. Taking away other people’s ways of life is not only a human rights issue, it is a breach of democracy. It indicts a nation that it would ask some of its citizens to sacrifice this much of themselves.

But there is no model in the white world for economic and cultural renewal through sacred art, so perhaps it is unsurprising that the cultural possibilities for Aboriginal Australia are regarded with scepticism and even scorn. Artists are not valued highly elsewhere in the First World and this can even create some resentment toward the success of Indigenous art in other art circles. Spiritual satisfaction and aesthetic value is primarily seen as a private concern, as an individual responsibility – and sometimes, perhaps, as a luxury that ordinary economics cannot afford.

It is unlikely that government policy will come to terms with an Aboriginal world-view, in which art and culture are communal property for which everyone is responsible for labouring and in which all share the return. It would take a remarkable sea change for policy priorities to shift eyes from the prize of mineral wealth locked up in Aboriginal lands. It would take an epiphany to recognise the cultural variety as something that might enrich Australia as much as the resources boom has.

Marketable art is about reception not production. For investors and gallery-goers Aboriginal art has two standout features to give it value; it is beautiful and it is scarce. On these two criteria, the painting has a big future.

In the midst of the travesties and tragedy of remote communities, it is a small miracle that anything is left of Aboriginal culture at all. But if the art is that miracle, it is because of the healing that ‘painting up country’ brings about. The success of the art shows that some Aboriginal people are rebuilding value by reviving their cultural life and, where required, reinventing it.

This suggests it is genuinely sacred art, and anthropologists such as Jennifer Biddle argue that the painting is a way of Aboriginal people making country, of creating the link with the world of Dreaming in the present, and not merely of showing it.

Seen from the air, the country is differentiated only by colour and contrasts in tone. There are few other features across the terrain around a circular horizon. The worn serrations of occasional mountain ranges, red and green, and the startling white and brown circles of salt lakes, are laid out like huge Aboriginal acrylic paintings. By an inspiring alchemy of grief and fortitude, the outback has become the Art-back, a place where suffering, tradition and dispossession come back as the beauty and joy of colour on canvas.

Images courtesy of the author.

About the Author:

Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.