Dreaming in urban areas

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 14:46 -- damien
Activism and audience in urban aboriginal art

The last six months have seen unprecedented interest in the work of traditional and urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, particularly in Sydney. By way of example, one could cite the selection of Judy Watson, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Emily Kame Kngwarreye to represent Australia at the 1997 Venice Biennale, exhibitions by Rea at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, Destiny Deacon at The Performance Space, Clinton Nain at Hogarth Galleries, Rover Thomas at Sherman Galleries Hargrave, Native Title Now at S.H. Ervin Gallery, Black Humour at Canberra Contemporary Artspace, Native TitleYirrkala Bark Paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art, What is Aboriginal Art? at the lvan Dougherty Gallery, Ngawarra at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as well as a special Aboriginal art issue of Art and Australia.2

Much of the current interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is directly related to the Festival of the Dreaming, the first of four cultural festivals scheduled to take place in the lead up to the 2000 Olympics. Nonetheless, this interest is encouraging, particularly with respect to the work of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, as it was only a few years ago that Roberta Sykes noted that the rise and exponential increase in 'black' urban artists and art forms in Australia, many of which are highly didactic and political, were still uncomfortable for most non-Aboriginal Australians.3

These sentiments were echoed by Djon Mundine in 1994 when writing about the first Tyerabarrbowaryaou, I Shall Never become A White Man exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.4 What, exactly, is the origin of this discomfort? Is it a form of collective guilt about the past? Or does it mark a nervous acknowledgment of the failure of Australian society to redress structural problems of racism, social, political and economic inequality which currently are presented so outspokenly in much of this work? Or, on another level, is there something about the work itself which elicits such a response?

What I would like to offer here is the beginning of an analysis of the complex relationship between ideas of activism and the role and position of the non-Aboriginal viewer (understood as an abstract collective by construct rather than an individual flesh and blood entity) in the work of contemporary urban-based Aboriginal artists. Examining the work of a number of the artists included in recent survey exhibitions and festivals such as True Colours: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists Raise the Flag (1994), Blakness: Blak City Culture! (1994), Native Title Now (1996/97), Abstracts: New Aboriginalities (1996) Black Humour (1997) and The Festival of the Dreaming (1997), it is possible to identify at least two common characteristics. The main characteristic of the work of a number of the artists included in these exhibitions is, as Hetti Perkins notes in her introduction to Blakness: Blak City Culture!, an organic basis within collective histories of displacement and dispossession.5 Another characteristic, strangely obvious yet hitherto unexamined, is a direct involvement of the non-Aboriginal viewer as a critically engaged participant in the work. This is not to say - by way of an initial qualification - that the work of these artists does not reflect the specific context or engage with the community from which it emerges. Nor is it to argue that such a practice is exclusive to their work alone. What it does suggest is a simultaneous acknowledgment of the non-Aboriginal viewer's implication within a history that, one might argue following the Afro-American cultural theorist Cornel West, 'one cannot not know’.6 Is this demand reasonable? Does not an acknowledgment of this history limit a non-Aboriginal response to either anonymous expressions of solidarity or further accusations of racism? If so, would this not tend to close off the possibility of constructing spaces for some kind of meaningful dialogue and thus of positive intervention?

 

To answer these questions we must turn to an examination of the work. In particular, I would like to explore the way in which the images and installations of a number of urban Aboriginal artists - specifically Rea, Michael Riley, Brook Andrew, Gordon Hookey and Clinton Nain - seek to enmesh non-Aboriginal viewers in a space of competing social, cultural and historical representations as a metaphor for the unequal power structures marking relations between Australians. How is this carried out? It is carried out through a repositioning of the non-Aboriginal viewer. Constantly making the viewer aware of themselves, each of these artists cleverly shifts the focus of their work away from a direct consideration of Aboriginality, as an object of fear, fascination and fetishisation, to a more provocative interrogation of how non-Aboriginal Australians see (or do not see) themselves in relation to these cultures. Something of the logic of this process is captured by Gerardo Mosquera. To quote Mosquera:

 

lntercultural involvement consists not only of accepting the Other in an attempt to understand him or her and to enrich myself with his or her diversity. lt also implies that the Other does the same with me, problematising my self-awareness. 7

 

One controversial example of this process is the work of Gordon Hookey, in particular a painting titled Bully Min Bin Luck Hup Habrid Jinny Plag (1996) depicting a vicious feral pig wearing a police hat with two large guns held in his front trotters. In the background to this image, behind large prison bars, Hookey has placed an Aboriginal flag to symbolise confinement and control. Swimming in and around the flag, strangely ethereal spirits float towards the heavens. The social and political message is clear: in a manner not dissimilar to the work of other Aboriginal artists like Robert Campbell Jnr, the work makes reference to police culpability in the appalling rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The reproduction of part of this work on the invitation for the exhibition Native Title Now, at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide (March 1996) drew a swift response. A few days after the exhibition opening, a letter addressed to the Director of Tandanya arrived from the President of the Police Association of South Australia making a formal complaint against the Institute for its use of Hookey's painting on the invitation. Members of the Police Association had found the invitation inflammatory and immature. The production and dissemination of such imagery, the President went on to warn, could only lead to a deterioration of relations between Aboriginal communities and the police force. The implication being that Aboriginal people had only themselves to blame for police racism and antagonism. To be fair, there is no doubt that Hookey's painting is provocative and inflammatory. Yet isn't that the whole point of the work? What is the purpose and validity of a muted response to an issue as odious and confronting as Aboriginal deaths in custody? Finally, does not the very fact of the complaint, irrespective of its merits, indicate the success of the work in forcing a public acknowledgment of the problem?

Another attempt to problematise the selfawareness of non-Aboriginal viewers can be found in the work of Michael Riley. In a series of colour photographs titled They Call Me Niiggarr (1995), reminiscent of early works by Gordon Bennett, Riley explores the multi-level operations of racism within social practices. Juxtaposing text and images, this work consists of ten identical portraits overlayed with derogatory names used to describe Aboriginal people. The juxtaposition between text and image is presented as a natural identification. As much about humour as a desire to dismantle prejudice, Riley's playful use of names such as 'golliwog', 'samba' and even 'vegemite' suggests an awareness of the ways in which language mediates all our claims to and views about the world. It also suggests an awareness that racism comes in many forms from the direct and patently evil kind to quiet assumptions which are rarely voiced but deeply felt. It is these quiet assumptions which are the subject of Riley's photographic posters. Each of the images, for instance, is characterised by a tan colour wash. This element suggests that the subject is being viewed through a filter or screen. Transfixed by a moment of moral or ethical embarrassment, the idea is that the apparent identification between text and image is dismantled in front of and by the audience itself.

Rea's installation Eye/I'mma Blak Piece (1996/97) examines the way in which Aboriginal people have long been perceived in terms of banal cultural clichés. This work consists of a series of square mirrors organised in a grid on the floor of two partitioned rooms. In the middle of each mirror Rea has placed a glass bottle filled with (in one room) yellow and (in the other) red liquid to symbolise urine and blood. In front of the mirrors stand kitsch Aboriginal garden gnomes while on panels attached to the wall behind the figures Rea has inscribed the words 'This Is My Blood' and 'This Is My Body'. On a wall opposite the two rooms are four computer-generated photographs. The first three depict a headless torso wearing a floral 'mission' dress. Around the neck of the figures hang, in succession, tribal beads, a string of pearls and a crucifix to symbolise stages of assimilation. The final work contains an image of the artist focusing a camera towards an assumed spectator, surrounded by four black torsos wearing beads painted in the Aboriginal colours. This work attempts to disrupt the traditional inequality existing between the subject and object of the photographic gaze. Viewing the artist in the process of viewing us, the spectator is forced to confront his or her gaze as the subject of aesthetic scrutiny. Although it is a history of looking that is being interrogated here, in particular fantasies of otherness, Rea's criticism can be extended to include histories of genocide practised against Aboriginal people. Shifting between the layers of meaning inhabiting the work, viewers are fixed by feelings of surveillance and complicity. This serves as an apt metaphor for Rea's art as a whole, which enmeshes viewers in a space of competing representations.

A related interrogation of the relationship between ideas of Aboriginality and its audience characterises the work of Brook Andrew. In a recent series of works titled More White Man's Kitsch 1788-? (1995), for instance, Andrew draws directly upon one of the most popular objects of coca-colonialism's hall of kitsch memorabilia: tea-towel imagery of Aborigines. Employing two-hundred tea-towels to reflect upon two centuries of marginalisation and the reduction of Aboriginal art and culture to a kind of kitsch decorativism, this work captures a series of clichéd sites of white Australia's image of and engagement with Aboriginal cultures. Screen-printed across the tea-towels is an eclectic mélange of popular Australiana, from a Kookaburra on a branch to the Australia Day date of January 26th, a map of Australia as a chartered territory to the Australian and Aboriginal flags, a native flower to a black jacky or marbuck, images culled mostly from other tea-towels collected by the artist. Where have we seen these images before? Everywhere: they are constantly used to reinforce a collective Australian self-image and historical perspective which, by virtue of its exceptions and exclusions, paints a degraded picture of Aboriginal people. All that changes on the tea-towels is the year. This aspect of the work suggests a didactic commentary on a one-sided (like tea-towels) version of national culture and history, the way in which ideas of national identity in Australia have largely been built upon and around the doctrine of terra nullius, and the reification of Aboriginal cultures as unchanging and traditional. Such projections have long been integral to the processes of domination, in particular as a means of denying humanity and thus negating claims to sovereignty and autonomy.

The most common source of ideas or imagery for the work of Clinton Nain are the myths and paraphernalia of Australian popular culture. Like Andrew, he seeks out objects which reflect clichéd sites of white Australia's image of and engagement with Aboriginal cultures. This has included everything from plastic kangaroos to cornflakes' boxes, candy wrappers to bleach bottles. In general, these objects are removed by Nain from their initial context then cleverly rearranged to communicate a different story. A good example was the multi-media installation Trap (1994) exploring changes in Aboriginal lives and culture since European settlement. One of the most evocative components of this installation was hundreds of black garbage bags filled with crumpled newspaper. These resembled huge volcanic rocks in a direct allusion to the ancient rock fish-traps made by the traditional inhabitants of Murray lsland - Nain's maternal ancestors. This work offered both a homage to these huge stone structures rising from the breaking surf as well as a commentary on the transformation of the landscape through tourism and pollution.

Conflict over the use and occupation of space is a constant theme throughout Nain's work. An installation titled Play Set (1997), which was derived from a plastic 'Wild West Cowboys and Indians Set' picked-up by the artist during a shopping expedition to the flea markets in South Melbourne, offers an allegory for the decimation and dispossession of the Indigenous population of Australia. Inspired by haunting memories of Westerns seen on television as a child, this work consists of fourteen unprimed canvases covered in plastic figures of 'cowboys and Indians' locked in battle. Stickers of animals depicted running from a wave of impending destruction have been added to the scene. Other symbols of the changing landscape (fences) as well as fragments of a disappearing culture (tee-pees and totem poles) also find their way onto the grey and barren canvases. This is effectively a children's game about the massacre of the indigenous population of the United States. Yet Play Set also refers to the way in which history repeats itself. Across continents, cultures and centuries, indigenous people have been cast aside like play things or toys.

Laying bare the visual conditions of the production of cultural clichés as well as discriminatory icons, images and ideas, the works of Hookey, Rea, Riley, Andrew and Nain manipulate the role and position of the non-Aboriginal viewer in order to make visible the mechanisms of cross-cultural fear, fascination and fetishisation. At the same time their work, along with that of other contemporary urban based Aboriginal artists such as Destiny Deacon and Richard Bell, attempts to subvert these structures by putting a mirror in the face of the audience so that what it sees is not an Other but itself. In Deacon's and Rea's work this involves a confrontation with the gaze (fascination). In Hockey's, Bell's and Riley's work an archaeology of unacknowledged racial prejudices and anxieties (fear). In Nain's and Andrew's work an exploration of the role and construction of myths of Aboriginality in the Australian psyche (fetishisation). In each case the viewer is forced to see their own prejudices and projections enacted then thrown back upon them for contemplation. Yet is such a strategy successful and/or politically progressive? Considering the current vogue for urban Aboriginal art and its ongoing incorporation into mainstream institutions, collections and art festivals, this issue is more complex and is difficult to judge.

notes: 

1. I would like to thank Jodie Chester from Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative (Sydney) and Rosie Potter from Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute (Adelaide) for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

2. Art and Australia, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1997.

3. Roberta Sykes, 'Non-Citizens in Our Own Country: The Social and Cultural Background of Rural and Urban Aboriginal Artists', Art Monthly, No. 30, May 1990, p. 6. This increase has occurred largely since the exhibition Koori Art '84 curated by Tim Johnson at Artspace, Sydney. For an assessment of this exhibition see Vivien Johnson, 'Into the Urbane: Urban Aboriginal Art in the Australian Art Context', Art Monthly, No. 30, May 1990, pp. 20-23.

4. Djon Mundine, 'You Can Be The President, I'd Rather Be The Pope', Tyerabarrbowaryaou 11, I Shall Never Become a White Man, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1994, p. 3.

5. Hetti Perkins, 'Introduction', Blakness: Blak City Culture!, exhibition catalogue, ACCA, Melbourne, 1994, p. 5.

6. Cornel West in an interview with Anders Stephanson, Art and Philosophy, Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1991, p. 161.

7. Gerardo Mosquera, 'The Marco Polo Syndrome, Some Problems Around Art and Eurocentrism', Third Text, No. 21, Winter 1992-93, p. 41.

Benjamin Genocchio lectures in art history and theory at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga.