Aboriginal art: Australia’s hidden legacy

10 Mins read

A trip to Australia visiting its various exciting cities along the coast and taking in all they have to offer – coffee, fashion, great beaches and great food – you could all too easily return home with feigned ignorance to the history of the country and its indigenous culture of Australian Aboriginals.

From the late eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, Indigenous Australians were massacred in enormous numbers during colonisation. Citizens have often denied this part of the country’s history, but many others undeniably know it to be true.

Australian historian, Lyndall Ryan realised many of her peers were still incredulous about the past, so she began a vast research project to map the site of every Australian colonial frontier massacre.

The New York Times reported that five years later and with Ryan’s research grant depleted, the project is still nowhere near finished. Yet, it still shows more than two hundred massacres on the map and, so far, has surprisingly been well received, despite highlighting the shocking history of the country.

May 2018 saw the 51st anniversary of the Australian ‘citizenship’ referendum. This was the referendum of 1967, which won a landslide of 90% of votes in favour of including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia’s census. Dog, cats and pigs were counted in Australia before Aboriginals; it is unfathomable how this was changed only half a century ago.

Following the referendum, there was a level of expectation that the quality of life for indigenous people would see an improvement, but many think it was just the beginning. There is a lack of policy within Australian politics which aboriginals benefit from, but on the other hand, it is claimed that aboriginals will not seek healthcare due to institutional racism, amongst many other things.

Just a month ago the Australian government almost passed a motion, which was defeated by only three votes, supporting the far-right slogan, ‘it’s okay to be white’ – which has been used previously by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazis.

The motion was put forward by the leader of the Australian anti-immigration One Nation party, Pauline Hanson. It condemned ‘anti-white racism’, highlighting the deplorable resurgence of injustices toward those who are not white citizens and demonstrating racism pervading in parliament. The motion received supporting votes from 23 others, including Nigel Scullion, Aboriginal Affairs minister.

Pauline Hanson talking

Pauline Hanson, leader of the Australian One Nation Party [Wikimedia:JFish92]

To receive benefits from the government now, recipients must participate in compliance activities to obtain money. Sonya Holt works within the Community Development Program and is the Supervisor for women who are receiving benefits, in the Kalkarindji community, a small township in the Northern Territory about 400 miles south of Darwin.

“The women must come each day from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. These women vary greatly in age and ability. A large percentage of participants are illiterate, have poor English comprehension and struggle with simple tasks that are outside of their cultural knowledge base. English is not the first language here,” Sonya tells us.

“They have an extensive kinship system and are very connected to those of their skin group,” Sonya speaks fondly of the women she works with, highlighting the importance of their culture alongside their everyday wellbeing. She and her team also provide breakfast and often lunch, as they are so remote, food is costly, and they are not able to grow anything.

“The older women have great stories of the past and share with me a vast knowledge of Bush medicine, Bushtucker and cultural mythology and superstitions.” Sonya highlights the importance of their traditions within their lifestyle, where using plants, fruits, seeds, leaves and flowers – for food and health – Bush medicine and Bushtucker, has been vital to their lifestyle for an estimated 60,000 years.

aboriginal artist sat at table drawing

Yanyuwa and Garrwa artist Nancy McDinny working on her Munjimunjingu Manma (seafood bush tucker) print at Magpie Goose textile design workshop in Katherine in 2017 [Instagram:Magpie Goose]

Problems with violence and alcohol are prevalent, and often issues can arise, but they are entrenched in their way of life, Sonya tells Artefact. She says violence is used to solve issues within communities, and while they still operate under Bush law, people are also being held accountable under the modern law, leaving both sides in a difficult middle place.

These are in the process of being changed to better support women and children, “many women are happy with the demise of some very brutal bush laws, as they talk with horror at some of the very severe punishments they endured growing up,” Sonya explains.

“We are in a dry camp, meaning stringent alcohol laws; however, there is a lot of black market alcohol and drugs floating around the community with often devastating consequences. Their DNA does not tolerate high levels of alcohol or drugs, and as a result, the local safe house is regularly filled with terrified women and children. Violence is just way too prevalent here.”

Last year, it was these issues which Reggie Yates was heavily criticised for presenting in his BBC Three documentary. He documented the indigenous residents of Wilcannia, in a bid to explore addiction and institutionalised racism. But there was a heavy focus on their lifestyle habits of drinking.

The residents recognised alcohol abuse was a problem within their community but felt as though the production of the documentary also failed to identify positive steps the community were taking to address some of the issues.

Reggie Yates with aboriginal resident

Reggie Yates with a Wilcannia resident [Twitter:@amilliondoubts]

Communities like these can often struggle with feeling lost in the middle of society and their way of life. No longer practising ceremony, Sonya tells us how her community is a “long way from adapting yet too far forward to go back in some instances.

“They still hunt their food when they can out of necessity and also steal a lot of cattle to survive. I get so frustrated about how to help I end up asking them what they want and try to get them to see new ways of being, such as positive thinking because they seem lost.”

Speaking with great excitement, Sonya tells me how she recently helped a 52-year-old lady get a job for the first time in her life. She has raised five children and seven grandchildren and is now working in the local crèche while being trained in childcare. “She is just so thrilled to have a real job for the first time, and I love that even though she was scared she went for it anyway and she just feels really good about herself which I love.”

With the privilege of travelling around Australia, to the Northern Territory and some of the much more rural towns in Australia, it became all too clear that there is a thin veneer of acceptability within the cities towards indigenous people.

“Privilege in life provides a buffer to the kinds of racialised discrimination, prejudice and hate speech that daily infects the lives of people of colour in Australia,” Guardian writer Jack Latimore wrote in a recent article.

The prevalent divide between two groups of people, perhaps came as a shock to us, coming from a country where indigenous communities don’t exist, as we are a hugely culturally diverse nation.

Historically speaking this has stemmed all the way from the Norman French invading Anglo-Saxon Britain and in 1948 when the passenger ship, Empire Windrush, made its way to the UK with around 500 emigrants from the West Indies. Just two examples of immigration into a western country. These large waves of migration, are not something which Australia has experienced.

aboriginal artist with his print

Borroloola artist Stewart Hoosan with Wattle Tree and Honey Bird [Instagram:Magpie Goose]

Katherine, some 200 miles south-east of Darwin, is the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory, but still only has a population of six thousand, in comparison to London’s eight million. There is not the largest choice of places to tourists to stay.

So, staying in an Airbnb owned by, Maggie and Laura, co-founders of Magpie Goose was a great discovery, both for the bright and colourful house which they own and the fantastic business which they run.

Magpie Goose is a fashion social enterprise, creating clothing with “an opportunity for the world to connect with and celebrate Aboriginal people, stories and culture through fashion; while also creating economic opportunities for Aboriginal people in remote communities.”

While Maggie declined to comment on the broader social/political situation regarding aboriginal communities and their link to art, it could be said that it is evident the work they are doing is indeed a positive step forward for many people.

They create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people, holding textile design workshops which provide both “skill development and income generation opportunities”, as well as licensing artists designs and giving widespread exposure.

Earlier this year, they set up Fashion Futures initiative, an education and training programme aiming to build self-confidence and ambitions for young Aboriginal women, using the platform of art and fashion.  They also believe that “the clothes provide an opportunity for people to connect with, learn about and celebrate Aboriginal cultures”, as outlined on their website, and they believe that “Magpie Goose is a powerful platform to showcase and share these designs and stories.”

brightly coloured aboriginal art with artist

Keturah Zimran with her Puli Puli – rock design [Instagram:Magpie Goose]

Furthermore, one of the most important things they do is purchase textiles from remote Aboriginal art centres. As outlined on their site, they explain how the centres are places for artists to work, to access supplies and to make money through their art. Art centres are a vital source of employment in communities and in remote Australia, where jobs are often scarce, income earned by one employee or artist usually goes on to support an extended family network.

Aboriginal art is now worth vast amounts of money in Australia, thank to it being sold on street corners in the form of boomerangs, fridge magnets, tea towels, T-shirts and various other pieces of paraphernalia which appeal to tourists. But this profit is not being shared in a representative manner to its artists and is merely for the capital gain of others.

As a result, these art centres are hugely important, as are galleries which showcase and appropriately support the artists.

Rebecca Hossack’s gallery in Fitzrovia was the first gallery in Europe to exhibit Australian aboriginal paintings. She continues to do so with this year being its 30th anniversary. As well as running her gallery she also lectures internationally on aboriginal art and works closely with many of the most prominent national museums, such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Rebecca Hossack in front of large coloured canvas

Rebecca Hossack in her gallery [Rachel Hagan]

Rebecca’s gallery is a welcoming haven just minutes away from the bustle of Tottenham Court Road. With a spiral staircase winding through the gallery and staff who all have energy that seems to reflect the vibrancy of the colours within the paintings on the walls. The interview felt like a conversation with an old friend, and ill of any of the austere connations usually attached to an interview.

Rebecca at six feet tall, with extremely long white hair and swathes of colourful loose fitting clothes bounded around the gallery detailing the meanings behind many of the paintings, walking from room to room taking in all the pieces, as well as, often pausing so that she could instruct her assistants on where to place certain woven wall-hangings.

“I always make the analogy that the stories of the art are like reading Homer or The Illiyad and The Odessey, off by heart, because I could tell you the story and it would be so simple, but the real story is like an iceberg underneath. A profound story and yet it is distilled into a few lines and dots.”

“Since I was nine years old just had this obsession with it [aboriginal art]. At that time, in the 80s, people in London were hung up with conceptual art, and I thought that works to an audience, a conception, minimalist art. But it’s so much more and it has so much more spirit than the intellects.” Rebecca details her initial reaction as to why she felt opening a gallery in London was necessary to fill the gap in the market which she felt there was.

“There is a lot of implication of power, and there is a lot of sanctimoniousness around many people who sell the art, and it makes me sick,” Rebecca explains how often it is a hard realm, and sadly, sometimes, the motivation of people needs to be questioned.

“There was an ignorance with the way it was received at the start and a dismissiveness. Richard Cook, from The Times, who was the leading art critic, said, ‘Oh they have stupid names like Cliff Koala,’ it was so patronising and so wrong.” It wasn’t an easy start with the gallery opening, as people often had very narrow minds. Rebecca felt that it wasn’t until the contemporary art movement, that people started to regard indigenous art.

rebecca hossack with group of artists

Rebecca Hossack with a group of aboriginal artists [Rebecca Hossack]

“The transposition of eternal femoral things on to permanent portable things like acrylic on canvas, instead of, ochre on bodies; made the wider world sit up and take notice.” This combined with the pictures leading the shores of Australia and quietly leading in galleries and houses all over the world, in turn, sparked an interest.

Pausing in between questions to welcome a new member to her team, Rebecca’s positive and colourful lifestyle comes across as extremely important in all aspects of her life. The group of us were engaged in conversation, which was altogether highly important to Rebecca: “What socks were we wearing?” Only for her to be aghast at my plain white pair; expressing the importance of colour, right down to socks.

When I asked Rebecca if she felt there had been a change over the years with people’s awareness regarding the history of indigenous Australians, she explained to me how “the knowledge of the people writing about it has changed a lot, and people are a lot more aware of the context. Most people I know have never met an aboriginal and would never want to; it is so extraordinary because it is such an amazing culture”

“And what people also fail to realise is that Aboriginal Australia is like Europe, it is not a homogenous nation”. Rebecca details the different tribes and some of her experiences of the thousands of miles she has travelled across the Northern Territory to go and spend time with all of these people. All of whom are people of, essentially, different nations.

They have different languages, different physical appearances, different cultures and different ways of making art. Rebecca explains, for example, “a Yolngu man from North-East-Arnhem Land, would not be able to talk to a Pitjantjatjara man from central Australia.”

Despite this they have an extensive kinship, Rebecca explains how the one thing that unites them all is their love and reverence for all the land; and that is often expressed through their art.

“Even Germaine Greer, said to me, ‘I like the original art’ and I said, what do you mean the original art? And she goes, ‘the real art, the ochre on the bark. And I said, that is no more real than the acrylic on canvas it just comes from a different country, and that is like saying you like Dutch still-lives as opposed to David Hockney; that’s a different country.” Rebecca explains, with annoyance in her voice, how the ignorance of many people does not only lie in a lack of understanding towards the culture, but also to the art itself.

With galleries such as Rebecca’s still thriving and offering a profound exposure for indigenous artists, and communities taking place in activities in order to better their way of life, we are hopefully seeing a step forward for aboriginal Australians and the future of the country as a whole.





Featured image from Magpie Goose via Instagram.

Related posts

Barbara Kruger’s exhibition tries to appeal to the 21st century and fails

4 Mins read
The Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You exhibition at Serpentine South was her first solo show in the UK in 20 years.

Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby opens the doors of her home

2 Mins read
On display at the National Portrait Gallery, the Nigerian artist’s work extends a special invitation to visitors. What happens when we accept it?

Artist Titus Kaphar reflects on forgotten moments in history

2 Mins read
The painting Seeing Through Time, on show at The Time is Always Now at The National Portrait Gallery, creates an important conversation between the past and present.