'My Country' but 'not my style'

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:31 -- eyeline

Not my style?
Man! the world will end
And you will complain.
I want to do
The things I have not done.
Not just taste the nectar of Gods
But drown in it too.
Shed my grass-root skin.
As woman!
Eat herbs;
Chew grass
Stuff myself
Of the bitter and the sweet,
   that thing,
      that thing,

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘Not My Style’, 1966.1


Not My Style

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993) was one of Australia’s greatest poets—a Minjerribah (Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island) woman, visual artist and fervent political activist for Australian Indigenous rights, social justice and conservationism. Her leadership in Indigenous self-determination helped forge the Brisbane Aboriginal and Islander Council and the National Tribal Council in the late 1960s. After decades of tireless national and international political campaigns, Oodgeroo galvanised national attention to the ongoing impact of colonisation of the Indigenous population when she returned her MBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1988 in protest against Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations of two hundred years of so-called ‘settlement’. From this point Australia Day became synonymous with Invasion Day and the nation developed an heightened self-consciousness about how the entire population can ‘still call Australia home’.

The recent exhibition at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art titled ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ showcased art dating from 1979 that extends this politics of belonging to the present day, but is also grounded in the sentiments of Oodgeroo’s ‘Not My Style’. The essence of Oodgeroo’s poetry drew on her cultural knowledge of why Minjerribah was home, and why this entity of ‘home’ was pivotal to her social, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. But the artist activist refused to regard this cultural belonging as an identity straightjacket or a limitation to whom she could be. ‘Not My Style’ embodies what the cultural theorist Patrick Colm Hogan calls an ‘emancipatory vision’ of cultural identity, particularly in regards to colonised peoples who are conditioned by the dialectical tension of a forced modification of culture and a responding reification of culture.2 More simply, this means that cultural identity is always evolving and only becomes ‘fixed’ under crisis, such as the crisis of colonisation. The impact of colonisation and assimilation in Australia almost obliterated Indigenous cultures and part of the response, the survival, is to shore up and ‘fix’ their point of difference to dominating forces. This is the dialectic—the culture ever evolving and transforming must sustain an identity politics that ‘fixes’ a point of difference as a form of empowerment. When Oodgeroo speaks of shedding her ‘grass-roots skin’ she invokes her human right to engage in a life of contradiction, making mistakes and believing that you can be whatever it is you desire—but her grass roots sense of self, simultaneously, and almost paradoxically, remains the concrete reason why she calls Minjerribah home.

‘My Country’ was replete with stories of the evolving ‘emancipatory visions’ of Indigenous Australians. The exhibition surveyed contemporary Indigenous art from across Australia, spanning all media, from woven fibre work to a new digital video projection by Warwick Thornton. Colliding cultures come to the fore in the earliest work included in the exhibition, Trevor Nickolls’ iconic From Dreamtime 2 Machinetime (1979) where the dominating Machinetime subverts but does not annihilate the Dreamtime. The inverted lower Machinetime half of this image features a quasi-Xray style detailing the internal structures and organs of a body. At first glance the elements do seem very mechanical compared to the organic paradigm of the upper Dreamtime half, but closer inspection reveals that the Machinetime body remains utterly informed by Indigenous iconography—the circles and u-shapes of Central Desert semiotics and the patterned and linear dotting of traditional body painting. Lying deep within the Machinetime experience of Indigenous Australians Nickolls reveals the residual Indigenous coding of how his kinfolk see the world, and how their sense of belonging adapts to changing contexts.

The aforementioned Patrick Colm Hogan refers to this deep-rooted cultural coding as the internalisation of identity, or in other words the ways by which we inherently draw on culturally coded associations, metaphors, analogies and esoteric summations to make sense of everyday events. For Hogan, cultural identity is split into ‘practical identity’ in terms of how we behave according to conventional social practices and ‘reflective identity’ in terms of how we achieve a sense of self-understanding.3 These two identities co-exist in all of us, but for those living under cultural domination a ‘split’ occurs where the ‘practicalities’ of survival within the mainstream become manifestly incongruent with one’s reflective self-understanding. Much of the art in ‘My Country’ that deals specifically with an Indigenous sense of place in Australia’s colonial history, involves an incongruent aesthetic that registers this ‘split’. Artworks by Fiona Foley, Genevieve Grieves, Darren Siwes, Michael Riley, Dianne Jones, and Brenda L. Croft entertain the incongruity of how Indigenous people experience life within an alien mindset of ‘my country’—the externally determined split between ‘practical’ and ‘reflective’ identities.

The catalogue essay by My Country’s curator, Bruce McLean, articulates a different kind of split that he calls a ‘critical dichotomy’ between different mindsets in the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians make the claim of ‘my country’. McLean describes how artists in My Country ‘present their own claims, countering existing ideas about history, place and society in contemporary Australia’.4 It is interesting that these visual counter-narratives do not always engage an incongruent aesthetic. We can see this particularly in Michael Cook’s Civilised (2012) photomedia series featuring Indigenous Australians attired in colonial European clothing and situated at the literal point of first contact where waves meet the sand of Australian coastlines. Michael Cook’s figures certainly appear incongruent with conventional historical accounts of first contact, but within themselves each figure is an individual exuding empowerment rather than victimisation. Even the figure of a prone woman appears to hover above the water rather than being submerged by waves. Here the Indigenous ‘practical identity’ of survival absorbs the transformations of colonialism and stands heroically dominant against the grey, ambiguous horizon—these figures are strong in their sense of self; their ‘reflective identity’.

Aspects of counter-claim remain a coherent theme throughout the exhibition, but it is perhaps Oodgeroo’s sense of ‘emancipatory vision’ that overrides this postcolonial imperative to ‘out’ hegemony. The Hermannsburg potters tell their version of Mission history in hand-made pots decorated with figurative imagery that is unique to this Central Desert Aranda community. Pottery is not a traditional technique in Aboriginal cultures but Hermannsburg artists have made it their own. The quirky figurative characters that adorn the lids define a sense of self-understanding that defies any anthropological categorisation. No one told Hermannsburg potters what is traditional in modern times—they made it up themselves and then asserted it as a sense of self. Albert Namatjira paved the way for his Hermannsburg community when he took up watercolour painting in the 1930s as a new Aranda tradition—he emancipated their vision into a new sense of self just as Oodgeroo shed her grass-roots skin to ‘Emerge!/ a poet, a writer, a musician’. Hermannsburg ‘styles’ have evolved through and remained inclusive of: ritual body and ground painting; watercolour landscapes; Aranda iconographic canvas painting; earthenware painted pots and murals; and figurative canvas painting, among other numerous ‘styles’. In the territory of ‘emancipatory visions’, Hermannsburg has ruled for many decades!


Defining Australian Indigenous Art

There is something of a debate about defining Australian Indigenous art occurring amid all of this ‘emancipatory vision’ that is perhaps a by-product of any relationship between art and cultural identity. In ideological terms this is the postcolonial effort to differentiate and distinguish indigenous identity from mainstream assimilation buffering up against the postmodern embrace of fluidity and contingency. Questions about whether Australian Indigenous art is a coherent genre or art movement, or how the term relates to the myriad cultures and histories informing the art, is well nigh impossible to articulate, just as it would be impossible to define Australian art or any other contemporary form of national canon. The Australian Indigenous nation is one of political necessity rather than cultural inheritance, as it draws together hundreds of nations that regarded themselves as distinct as the nation-states of Europe. Does the definition matter? Who cares? Does the term mean anything at all beyond a citation of race? Leading artists such as Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt have rejected the category of Aboriginal artist outright—signaling the category’s tendency towards stereotyping and pigeonholing. (Gordon Bennett did agree to the inclusion of two of his paintings that were central to the theme of My Country—If Banjo Patterson was Black (1995) and Notes to Basquiat: Aboriginality (1998)). However events such as the annual National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Telstra Art Awards bring these questions to a head because, obviously, one must be Indigenous to enter the competition and because the competition itself invokes an issue of aesthetic judgment—a decision about what is good, better, best. But what are the criteria? What standards apply a level playing field to all Indigenous art across diverse urban and regional communities?

Jeremy Eccles’ review of the 30th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2013 in a previous issue of Eyeline delved into this matter in response to a series of articles written by The Australian’s leading artswriter, Nicolas Rothwell, in August 2013.5 Rothwell explored what drives Indigenous art production today and where it is going, lamenting what he regards as the ‘fatal journey’ of Indigenous art towards institutionalised commodification and a conflation of what he called ‘traditional regional’ and ‘contemporary urban’ Indigenous art. Rothwell considered these as incommensurate schools of art, and his definitions are interesting in the light of Oodgeroo’s sentiments in ‘Not My Style’. Rothwell writes,

What is indigenous art of traditional accent? It is work made without great conscious awareness of the structures and the systems of the art world, its symbols come from ceremony and religious beliefs, it encodes both knowledge and love of landscape. And what is contemporary Indigenous art? It is self-conscious, set in a nostalgic relation to tradition, involved with history and the processes of colonial dispossession; it is an art of identity, it has a political edge, it is locked in tacit power struggle with its mainstream audience.6

In one sense Rothwell’s entry into this contentious terrain is admirable in its provocation, but as soon as the utterance of definitions appears it begins to dissolve in Oodgeroo’s image of the bitter/sweet flux of life. One wonders how the distinction works for The Aboriginal Memorial (1988), a work of two hundred hollow log coffins created by Yolngu artists from the remote Arnhem Land community of Ramingining as a simultaneous expression of cultural and ceremonial continuity and political protest against the impact of two hundred years of European ‘settlement’? Rothwell might want to argue that this work found its defining inspiration through Djon Mundine, one of the leading figures in the ‘culture institution’ Rothwell criticizes in his first article in August 2013. Mundine is of Banjulung heritage from New South Wales northern rivers district and worked as arts coordinator at Ramingining’s Bula’bula Arts at the time that the Memorial was conceived. Numerous accounts of the production of the Memorial document that Mundine certainly inspired, engineered and facilitated the passage of these two hundred poles from a remote northern community to their ultimate destination at the nation’s capital, but this in no way diminishes the political and cultural integrity of the artists themselves. In September 2013 I visited Yolngu artists from the remote Arnhem Land community of Ramingining whilst the community celebrated the 25th anniversary of creating the Aboriginal Memorial. Twenty-five hollow log coffins were installed in a newly created meeting place near the art centre, and Djon Mundine was invited to join the celebrations although he had no involvement in the production of this new work of twenty-five poles. In a public address at the installation on the day following the celebration Bobby Bunnunggurr, one of the artists involved in creating the original Aboriginal Memorial and a leading cultural figure in the community, made a clear statement about the political intentions of the poles to demand rights, autonomy and meaningful equality. The poles derive from that very font of ceremony and religious beliefs that Rothwell sees as defining the ‘traditional regional’ school of art, but at the same time the artists clearly regard it as an ‘art of identity…(with) political edge, (and) locked in tacit power struggle with its mainstream audience’. One could easily apply this argument to Ron Yunkaporta’s Thuuth thaa’ munth (Law Poles) (2002-03) that was included in My Country and references both Wik-Ngathan traditional ceremony and the landmark Wik Peoples vs The State of Queensland Native Title case decided in 1996. The heart of any Australian Indigenous sense of belonging is much more complex and multi-faceted than a ‘love of landscape’, as the My Country exhibition demonstrated. Distinctions between these two so-called schools collapse almost at every point because of these complexities.

Not surprisingly, it is Indigenous curators like Bruce McLean who are fashioning the terrain where we can appreciate the interwoven and often dialectical ‘practical’ and ‘reflective’ identities of Indigenous Australians represented in the visual arts. Exhibitions such as My Country demonstrate how political solidarity, cultural multiplicity, and social diversity constitute Australian Indigenous experience in ways that weave a mosaic of Indigenous histories, spirituality, and politics, into narratives that speak of a shared but different past, present and future. Brenda Croft’s ‘Culture Warriors National Indigenous Art Triennial’ (2007); Carly Lane’s follow up ‘unDisclosed 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ (2012); the series of Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibitions curated by Hetti Perkins including ‘One Sun One Moon’ (2007), ‘Living Black’ (2008) ‘Country, culture, community’ (2009), and her ‘art+soul’ television series and exhibition (2010/11). These exhibitions negate Rothwell’s premise of incommensurability between regional and urban art in their considered celebration of the multi-dimensional histories and aspirations of Indigenous experience.

Indeed, these exhibitions flow with the same spirit of creative emergence as Oodgeroo’s poem, and we are perhaps on the brink of a new dimension of innovative Indigenous curatorship. Djon Mundine recently curated a quite groundbreaking exhibition titled ‘Buyuhyn-Wana, The Transformative Persona’ at Lismore Regional Gallery in New South Wales (31 August – 13 October, 2013). The exhibition brought together works from Robert Bleakley’s collection of Tibetan, Indian and Pacific and Arnhem Land traditions (Bleakley was the first Director of Sotheby’s Australia) along with contemporary Australian screen-based works—all alluding to ideas of transformation. Ritual objects, mystical apparatuses, and masks used to facilitate spiritual or metaphysical transformation in Tibetan, Indian and Pacific cultures were juxtaposed with screenings by Indigenous artists Fiona Foley, Bindi Cole, Daniel Boyd and Nicole Foreshew together with a work by non-Indigenous artist Angelica Mesiti. Whilst almost all of the artworks in this exhibition derived from deeply held convictions about cultural identity or heritage, it was fascinating how these very distinct identities dissolved in viewing the works together. Mundine orchestrated a conversation between diverse objects and imagery across history and cultures about the very thing that Oodgeroo invokes—the transformative persona within all of us as creative human beings. All of the artworks retained their essence of cultural heritage, but they also ‘emerged’ in the context of artistic dialogue into something that came frighteningly close to a universal human condition.

But let’s not go there… 

Michael Cook, Civilised #2, 2012. Inkjet print on paper, 100 x 87cm. Edition of 8. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane. 

Warwick Thornton, Stranded, 2011. 3D digital video, 11.06min, colour, sound, 16.9 widescreen, ed 1/5. Commissioned by the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Courtesy of QAGOMA. 

Noreen Ngala Hudson, Potter, Hermannsburg Potters Pottery Workshop Australia. Pot: Eeritja (Eagles), 1997. Earthernware, hand-built terracotta clay with underglaze colours and applied decoration. Gift of Daphne Morgan through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation, 2005. Collection Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Mosern Art. Courtesy QAGOMA.

Gordon Bennett, If Banjo Paterson was black, 1995. Installation view. Synthetic polymer paint, composition board and glass mirrors on plywood and canvas. Purchased 1995. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Photograph Natasha Harth. Courtesy QAGOMA. 


1. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘Not My Style’, The Dawn is at Hand, first published by Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1966. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo/not-my-style-0719009 accessed 10 March 2014.

2. Patrick Colm Hogan, Colonialism and Cultural Identity, Crisis of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa and the Caribbean, SUNY Press, New York, 2000.

3. Ibid., pp.9-10.

4. Bruce McLean, ‘The land is mine/This land is me’, My Country, I still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Southbank, Brisbane, 2013, p.14.

5. Jeremy Eccles ‘The 30th National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2013’, Eyeline, Contemporary Visual Arts, No.80, pp.86-90. Nicolas Rothwell articles published in The Australian in August 2013: ‘Fragile picture of future’, 9 August; ‘Dilemma of difference in indigenous art awards’, 13 August; ‘Indigenous merry-go-round keeps spinning’, 31 August.

6. Ibid, ‘Dilemma of difference in indigenous art awards’, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/opinion/dilemma-of-difference-in-indigenous-art-awards/story-fn9n9z9n-1226695723611 accessed 13 August 2013.

My Country, I Still Call Australia Home/Contemporary art from Black Australia, an exhibition of works from the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art Collection, was on view at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art,
1 June to 7 October 2013. A component of the exhibition is showing at Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand until
17 August 2014.

Dr Sally Butler is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland.