Integrity and Appropriation

Dr. Victoria King

I feel a great debt towards the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre people of Utopia who generously made me welcome and introduced me to profound experiences which I could not have had in any other place. I arrived in Australia from England at the end of 1993 as an artist who was a ‘painterly painter’. My modernist roots extended back through Abstract Expressionism to the early Renaissance. My artistic inspirations were more varied than most of my colleagues and peers for I greatly appreciated and collected tribal artefacts from Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Tibet. I recognized their visual and ritual power, and at the same time lamented the lack of such a potent combination in my own art and culture. I was only vaguely aware of the complexities of the exotic, the art/object conundrum, in my search for ways to empower my art and life. Art was my personal path creatively, philosophically, and spiritually. The more I learn about Australian Aboriginal art and culture and its ancient, traditional knowledge, the more deeply I respect and feel passionately about it. It is congruent, authentic, powerful, and stunning. More and more Aboriginal artists are emerging with visual vitality and acumen producing canvases as remarkable as the artists themselves. Refreshingly free of the artistic ego that stalks much of Western art, the Aboriginal artists I have met have the rare combination of pride in their culture and artwork, robust senses of humour, humility, dignity, and grounded ways of being on their land. Like so many indigenous people, they also continue to suffer from a multitude of present and past injustices.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Aboriginal art is its celebration of gesture over the increasingly technological and cerebral inclinations within the western art world. Proponents of modernism and post-modernism justify the propensity of artists to pillage glibly and randomly through every art movement and culture that has ever existed. There is a thinly disguised arrogance of intellectual attitudes and language within our culture. Quietly, in small remote settlements and urban backwaters, Australian Aboriginal artists and communities have been effecting a quiet, small revolution. Their guardianship of country and traditional knowledge combined with an intuitively direct and sensitive handling of acrylics are a potent combination that marries content and surface. The artwork provides income and self-esteem for the artists, as well as being a channel for the continuation of traditional knowledge within their communities. But the artworks also have the capacity to touch the hearts of the rest of the world. Something quite unique has happened and continues to flourish within the contemporary Australian Aboriginal art movement. It has taken the art/object out of the realm of the ethnographic and souvenir, and put their artists into an international arena where their signature styles have the potential to challenge how we see art and the land, and our roles in the world.

Western interest in Aboriginal art began long ago with early explorers and missionaries collecting (often stealing) artefacts, and decorated wooden coolamons, spears and ritual objects which found their way into personal and public collections. Like the Sepik River sculptures of Papua New Guinea or the Dogon masks of Africa, the work reached a small but international audience of anthropologists, artists, and enthusiasts. Picasso as a young man with his characteristic flamboyance stole African sculptures from the Musee de l'Homme in Paris under the swirling folds of his long coat and used them for inspiration for his 1907 seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The 1960’s brought a seemingly innocent desire to participate in the newly accessible global world-village, and a widespread fervour developed for adorning white walls with tribal and sacred art. Ritual artefacts were turned into commodities and interior decorations which quickly lost connection with their purpose and places of origin, and fed an assumption that to own was to know or to understand.

For centuries, appropriation has been a tool of western artists. Picasso’s ‘borrowing’ of the visual language of African art fast-tracked him out of the inherent sentimentality most visible within his Rose and Blue Periods. He recognised his glib hand needed an edge and took the visual form of tribal art, ignoring the shamanistic purpose for which it was made. Most western artists participate in this borrowing in some form or another as we stretch the boundaries of who we are artistically and intellectually. In England, in the early 1970’s, the late painter Howard Hodgkin adopted the universality of the dotted brush stroke, unaware of the simultaneous beginnings of an acrylic painting movement at the Aboriginal settlement of Papunya in the centre of Australia. He limited his mark-making repertoire to that one gesture with masterful results. Hodgkin was greatly inspired by Indian miniatures which he avidly collected. I have often wondered if he would have created his same signature artworks if he had lived in Australia. Would his conscience have intervened sensing a political incorrectness in their similarity to contemporary Aboriginal artworks? I delight in Hodgkin’s paintings, and travel far to see his tiny jewel-like icons of secularism. Yet because of the actions of Australian’s colonial forefathers, I believe that contemporary non-indigenous artists have a debt of accountability to traditional Aboriginal artists. Extraordinary contemporary art by Aboriginal artists is continually emerging, changing, and developing in exciting new ways. We need to take responsibility and be sensitive to a larger picture. Each country has its own often painful national history. The past and present treatment of Australian Aboriginals is shocking and should not allow any group or individual personal immunity to shirk that responsibility under the banner of a celebration of artistic license and individuality.

The Australian Aboriginal art movement is one of the most exciting international phenomena to occur in our increasingly cynical world. Out of horrific historical persecution and continuing hardship, deprivation, and political ill-will and neglect, their art is a celebration of their remarkable ancient culture. Their artworks affirm humanity and survival in each powerful stroke, and communicate life, spirit, and an authentic, congruent, grounded spirituality. There are many cultures with ancient oral and visual traditions, mainly third world countries where artisans continue the work of their forebears with little contemporary stylistic interpretation. Sadly, the original fineness of line, pattern or symbolism is rarely maintained under conditions of mass production, and tourists buy such work as souvenirs, a piece of ‘otherness’ from anonymous artists. A collusion occurs which keeps the culture static, an exotic theme park for foreign visitors. Yet exceptions arise. Within Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures, some artisans continue to pass down their skills and artistry weaving rugs, repairing temple statuary, and creating fine ceramic work as acts of religious service for the glory of Shiva, the Buddha, or Allah. But the artist as an individual is usually unknown outside their particular community; their reward is a spiritual one. In Australia, many exceptional Aboriginal artists are recognised nationally and internationally, and some receive the acclaim and financial recognition they deserve.

There is now a large market in small, easily transportable Aboriginal dot paintings, wooden sculptures, boomerangs, and didgeridoos. Many Aboriginal artists support themselves making inexpensive dotted artworks that represent their Dreamings for galleries that sell them as souvenirs for tourists to take back to their homes in faraway countries. Galleries stock work within all price ranges, from painted seed pod bead necklaces and small canvases by younger, less well-known artists to paintings and sculptures by artists whose work and reputations command price tags of many thousands of dollars. There are some shops where souvenirs with a look of Aboriginality have a Made in Taiwan attribution on the reverse, and a few non-Aboriginal profiteers have made money by ‘dotting’. Sadly, there will always be an industry for fake artworks internationally due to the lure of profit.

From the very beginnings of the acrylic painting movement at Papunya in 1971 when Aboriginal men painted their sacred Dreamings onto canvas boards, the act of making artworks has been a teaching tool as ancient stories and knowledge are passed on to younger generations to perpetuate the wisdom and survival knowledge held within mythical Dreamtime creation stories. They are also a gift to the larger non-indigenous community, for the aesthetic beauty of the work is not separate from the sacred, a congruence rarely seen in the world today. The artists continue to share their stories and profits are divided within their extended families, actions which speak loudly whether we understand the language or the symbolism conveyed. There is tremendous grassroots work being done throughout Australia within Aboriginal communities by indigenous and non-indigenous people, not only in the field of art, but in education and health. The work takes a huge toil, and there is a staggeringly high rate of personal burnout. Enthusiasm is precarious in the face of government cuts which jeopardize decades of tireless, selfless efforts.

Australia holds a powerful mirror for us all in providing clues for our own authenticity. I wish to make a plea for a recognition of the efforts being made by small numbers of ordinary people of just how much needs to be done by politicians, and the complexity of the issues at stake. I wish for more generosity of heart and ethical action amongst us all. For non-indigenous artists, let us celebrate the beauty, vitality, painterliness, and innovation of Aboriginal artists, and not appropriate the appearance of their remarkable artworks. Too much has already been taken from them.

Photograph of the late Gloria Petyarre painting her Grass Dreaming, 2000.

© Photograph and text copyright Victoria King 2022