Is it time we stopped talking about Aboriginal art? - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Carrie Miller asks whether the term Aboriginal art still has meaning and whether it’s time we gave up making a special point of calling work Indigenous or Aboriginal. The market is maturing and with it, the belief that first and foremost art made by Indigenous Australian should just be called contemporary Australian.

When acclaimed contemporary artist Richard Bell was awarded the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2003, it was a controversial win both on aesthetic and political grounds. One aspect of the winning painting that created a stir was the text: Aboriginal Art – It’s A White Thing.

While this phrase could be interpreted in a number of ways, one way of understanding it is as a slogan for the way in which art made by Indigenous people has been commodified in particular ways by the predominantly non-Indigenous visual arts industry, specifically the commercial art world.

Some have gone so far as to contend that the use of adjectives such as Aboriginal and Indigenous as ways of categorising art is an intrinsically racist practice. This view is not without merit. Even if the terms are not intended as explicit racial slurs, they may still effectively function to reinforce the way that Aboriginality is constructed as other, as in perpetual dichotomy to the Western norm.

This conjuring into being of the Aboriginal other in relation to white European Australian art seems to be more of a function of the generalised and institutionalised racism that colonisation instantiated rather than an overt and explicit racism on the part of individuals operating in the art world now. Nevertheless, using categories like Aboriginal or Indigenous, if only as seemingly benign ethnographic classifications, have real effects in the present, allowing past practices to persist through a lack of confrontation with them.

The term Aboriginal art has long been a distinct category of art not only at the point of sale, but in terms of how it is framed within art historical scholarship and by institutional curatorial practices. Art made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is often labelled Aboriginal or Indigenous as if this is assumed to be an essential category of difference in the way genre has traditionally been, for example, distinguishing painting from sculpture.

In more recent times, however, in the same way contemporary artists refuse to be categorised in terms of genre, there has been a questioning of the labelling of art as Aboriginal. Debate centres around whether this practice of identifying art by Indigenous Australians as culturally distinctive is a positive thing – a celebration of their unique cultural history – or a negative one, a way of further ghettoising artists because of their minority group status. While there is no single view that can be attributed to artists who happen to be Indigenous, there does seem to be a tendency for such artists to no longer want to be characterised simply in terms of their ethnicity.

In the early 1990s this issue was given a public airing when Australia’s most successful international artist Tracey Moffatt refused to be curated into exhibitions that were exclusively Aboriginal. Since then, a number of contemporary artists who are Indigenous have affirmed Moffatt’s position and have struggled to be seen as artists in the same way as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The problem is complicated by the assumptions people unconsciously bring to their perception of Aboriginal art. The notion of Aboriginal art immediately brings to mind dot paintings made by artists from rural and remote communities using traditional materials that have specific spiritual meaning and tell the stories of a particular people.

The emergence of art from urban areas by people who ethnically and culturally identify as Indigenous, but who engage in more recognisably Western or, more appropriately perhaps, global art practises, has forced the arts community to question conventional notions of what Aboriginal art is. But there remains a dichotomy between traditional, remote community art centre produced art and the work of contemporary urban Indigenous artists, primarily because of the desire of Westerners (and some Indigenous people) to hang onto romantic ideas about what constitutes authentic Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginality is not an immutable, natural, ahistorical category of ethnicity but rather a culturally and politically invested one. It is an idea that non-Indigenous Australia has projected onto the country’s original inhabitants for specific sociopolitical ends. As a result, many Aboriginal activists have employed the term as a form of political identity. And while this has been the case for some artists, not all see their identities as inherently political. In a similar vein to much of the art made by women from the 1970s onwards being categorised as feminist, it is assumed that Indigenous artists are automatically concerned with their own Aboriginality as a primary source of difference. But is this always and necessarily the case? Not according to contemporary artists such as Richard Bell: “I don’t make art that looks like it comes from the desert and nor does it look like it comes from Arnhem Land. I don’t set out to make Aboriginal art. In my opinion, I make art in much the same manner and for much the same reasons as most contemporary artists from around the world.”

There are signs that, in relation to visual art at least, the non-Indigenous community is developing a more sophisticated understanding of the inherent pluralism of Indigenous art practice, as well as the fact that defining artists in terms of their ethnicity is not necessarily the most interesting way of thinking about art. Melbourne gallery owner Beverly Knight was recently quoted in The Australian as saying that “the market is starting to mature, with collectors regarding the art as contemporary Australian first and Aboriginal second”.

On the other hand, while it’s clear that without the gaze of Western European colonisers and their descendants, the notion of Aboriginal art is an empty and meaningless concept, for as long as there is a value to be placed on it, it will at the very least remain a marketing term for commercial purposes.

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