'Aboriginal Art: It's A White Thing'

What constitutes Aboriginal art? Is it simply an art style, or is it about the artist who makes the work? Traditional Aboriginal art has for many thousands of years been a way for the Indigenous people of Australia to record and tell their history, dream-time and culture. Traditional Indigenous works often are comprised of dot patterns which form animals, plants, and landscapes. Contemporary Aboriginal art, also popularly painted with the dot technique, has recently become much sought-after as a globally recognised commercial art form. However, this shift in context and cultural significance presents an array of issues: is the commercialisation of Aboriginal art augmenting or exploiting Aboriginal culture? Who has the right to work in this style? When does a pattern of dots cease being a technique and become the theft of everything the Indigenous people value? 

Many non-Indigenous artists take care to respect Aboriginal culture and symbology. There are many others, however, who make use of these images without a thought for what they mean to the Indigenous people. Imants Tillers is an artist famous not only for his ‘tiled’ paintings, but also for his long association with appropriation. The most notable occurrence of Indigenous appropriation is his painting The Nine Shots (1985), which stimulated controversy when he was accused of using sacred imagery from Indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara’s painting Five Dreamings (1984). While Tillers says he did not believe he had done anything wrong by making reference to Indigenous art in his work, he was censured for appropriating symbols and imagery sacred to the Aboriginal culture without an elder’s permission. Nelson and Tillers were encouraged to collaborate on an artwork to settle their differences, thus creating the artwork Hymn to the Night (2011-12), which incorporates both Tillers’ iconic style and Nelson’s Aboriginal symbolism.1 

In response to Tillers’ appropriations of Albert Namatjira’s artworks, Indigenous artist Richard Bell created a series of paintings appropriating Tillers’ own style and sporting slogans such as ‘Pay the rent’ and ‘Not yours to lose’, expressing his outrage at Tillers’ blatant use of sacred Indigenous symbols. Tillers is not the only artist to make use of this imagery, simply because Aboriginal art has become a popular and commercial success. The unique art style, sporting imagery from dreamtime stories and tacked-on ‘deep, spiritual meanings’, has spurred heated discussion on Aboriginal art—discussion, which Bell wryly notes, has little involvement from Aboriginal artists themselves. Bell sees this approach not as a way for the Aboriginal culture to expand, but as the exploitation of both the culture and the art form. ‘Aboriginal art: it’s a white thing’, he says.2

Commercialisation of Indigenous art has created a new category for ‘Aboriginal art’, with the problem being that most of the art is no longer controlled by Indigenous people. It is the dealers, the art centres, and the art experts who earn both the money and the fame in this industry. Aboriginal art is no longer about their own cultural agency, but rather is a ‘white’ framework almost completely driven by commercialism and lacking significant Aboriginal voice. The dot paintings on boomerangs in tourist centres are an example of this; painted by groups of people who have no understanding of what they are painting, and then reproduced again and again.3 

It could be said that the increasing popularity of Aboriginal art is valuable for the Indigenous people. Seven Brisbane-based Indigenous artists, including Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey and Veron Ah Kee, have formed a group known as ProppaNOW, with the aim to give Indigenous artists a voice within contemporary society. Acknowledging the fact that Aboriginal art is no longer what it used to be, ProppaNOW have turned their focus to the present and to the future. ‘We don’t make art about what happened in the Dreaming. We don’t make art about what happened in the Creation Time. We make art about now’, says Hookey.4 

The characteristic Indigenous technique of dot painting to tell a story is globally recognised and sought after. Arguably, some non-Indigenous artists use the style respectfully, by seeking permission to use Indigenous symbols; others misuse sacred Aboriginal symbology through disregard of its ‘true’ cultural significance. Commercial success has prompted commercialisation where mass production of Aboriginal style artworks has created an industry which exploits Indigenous culture. So, what is Aboriginal art? Ultimately, it’s up to us. 

 

Imants Tillers and Michael Nelson Jagamara, Hymn to the night, 2012. Acrylic on 165 canvas boards, 277 x 532cm. Courtesy Fireworks Gallery, Brisbane. 

notes: 

1. Cormack, B., ‘The Ethics of Cultural Borrowing’, The Australian, 18 December 2012. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/visual-arts/the-ethics-of-cultural-...
2. Bell, R., ‘Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing’, 2002. Retrieved from http://www.kooriweb.org/bell/theorum.html
3. ‘Why dots belong in the desert’, Australian Studies Centre, 16 March 2012. Retrieved from http://australiastudiescentre.wordpress.com/tag/Aboriginal/
4. Neale, M., ‘Learning to be proppa: Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW’, Artlink, No.30, Vol.1, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.artlink.com.au/articles/3359/