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Contemporary Aboriginal Art As Political Activism

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

Political activism vocalises the voices of minorities as shown through contemporary Aboriginal art. Issues vocalised by Indigenous Australians included genocide, racism, and scientific eugenics. Yhonnie Scarce’s Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood used evocative symbolism in her installation to expose the audience to the issue of scientific eugenic practices. Rusty Peters’ Chinaman’s Garden Massacre used traditional Aboriginal artmaking processes to pay homage to those massacred in East Kimberly.


Untitled by Emily Kame Kngawarreye targeted the issue of mining through a hybrid approach between traditional Aboriginal art techniques with Abstraction. The motive of creating a dialogue between white Australians and Aboriginals was demonstrated in Johnathan Jones’ Lean to promote equality. Ultimately, contemporary Aboriginal political activist art provoked conversation, change and awareness of societal issues.

Indigenous Activism Through Art

Context

The invasion of European settlers in 1788 lead to conflicts between them and Aboriginals. British settlers attacked Aboriginals to gather land and resources for pastoral and farming purposes. An example of a conflict included the violence in East Kimberly which resulted in the burning and murder of Aboriginal people. Further injustices Aboriginals experienced were scientific eugenic practises in the 1900s such as the investigation of the brain capacity and cranium size to add to racist agendas.


This along with other issues such as The Stolen Generations lead to activism from Aboriginal people. They aimed at civil equality, land rights, the end of protectionism while improving the social position of Aboriginals. These actions resulted in the creation of the 1967 Referendum which included Aboriginals in the census and created laws to end discrimination. Resultantly, the injustices experienced by Aboriginal people became the focal point for numerous Aboriginal contemporary artworks.

Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood

Figure 1: Yhonnie Scarce, Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood, 2013-2014, Blown glass and found objects, size variable. 19th Biennale of Sydney, Images taken from Kylie Neagle at Art Gallery of New South Wales Gallery.

Figure 1: Yhonnie Scarce, Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood, 2013-2014, Blown glass and found objects, size variable. 19th Biennale of Sydney, Images taken from Kylie Neagle at Art Gallery of New South Wales Gallery.

Contemporary Aboriginal art was fundamentally a political act that asserted equality between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginal Australians. For instance, Scarce’s Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood was a political statement focusing on the scientific eugenic practices to weaken Aboriginal traits. The installation consisted of flawed dark brown glass bush plumbs situated in a sterile laboratory. The plumbs symbolised the wild and foreign perception of Aboriginal people as fauna before the 1967 Referendum.


Clamps nipped the plums which referred to racist views on the Aboriginal people such as the portrayal of being scientific monstrosities, which excused the mass murders of indigenous people. Views as this which Scarce addressed were used as excuses for cultural genocide which consisted of invasion of land, bringing the indigenous to near extinction, conquest, destruction of religious systems and classifying them as vermin.


The installation confronts this scientific racism which seemed to overshadow the beauty of the plumbs which become symbolic of authentic nature. Thus, the Weak in Colour, Strong in Blood was an installation that confronted and exposed the numerous layers of racism which led Aboriginals to be viewed as specimens rather than human beings.

Chinaman’s Garden Massacre

Figure 2: Rusty Peters, Chinaman’s Garden Massacre, 2000, Natural pigments on linen, size 150x 180.2 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Reproduced from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/13.2001/

Figure 2: Rusty Peters, Chinaman’s Garden Massacre, 2000, Natural pigments on linen, size 150x 180.2 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Reproduced from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/13.2001/

Genocide was a prominent topic within Contemporary Aboriginal art as artists brought awareness to the atrocities in Australian history. Peters’ Chinaman’s Garden Massacre was a simplistic painting that used a traditional colour palette of natural blacks, browns and white. Further traditional approaches were shown by the fine dotting and materials used, which demonstrated how traditional approaches were taken from contemporary Aboriginal artists to make an activist statement.


This was seen in Peters’ subtle and highly symbolic approach to exposing the audience to the suffering in East Kimberly in the 50 years of the arrival of European settlers. Massacres occurred due to settlers and colonial police who embodied ideals of mixed expansionism, a fetish for cultivation, racism and resentment for indigenous land use whilst theorizing “indigenous survivors were not really people at all” (Chirot 2008).


While targeting this period in history, Peters also drew from personal experience as his uncle witnessed this massacre. The gum trees standing beside each other in the image was a reference to the trees infants were hit against. Three concentric circles between the trees symbolised the infant bodies which were burnt. Colonialism was also signified by the small pastoral house in the foreground, which in an imposing manner, highlighted the colonialist desire to destroy the indigenous race.

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By exposing the audience to this dark period in history, Peters voiced the suffering Aboriginal people have endured. Artworks such as this makes a statement about Aboriginal history, recognition of land, contributing to the fight for acceptance and understanding. Hence, using symbolism and traditional methods, Peters’ brand of activism used subtlety to showcase the suffering Aboriginals endured due to racism.

Untitled

Figure 3: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1994, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, size 190 x 56.7 cm. Private collection. Reproduced from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/567.1994.a-c/

Figure 3: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1994, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, size 190 x 56.7 cm. Private collection. Reproduced from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/567.1994.a-c/

The topic of land was investigated through contemporary Aboriginal artworks such as Untitled. Works such as this highlighted the Aboriginal connection to the land as produced and publicly released. Concerns of the land consisted of the damage towards it through means such as the mining of local resources. The issue of land, its ownership and the exploitation of resources dated back to British settlers who confiscated land, took grass and destroyed native fauna.


The artist brought awareness to this issue by creating a dialogue between Western and Aboriginal cultures. The artist applied ceremonial body painting onto canvas for Western consumption and the protection of her culture. A pallet of earthy tones such as brown, red, black, and purple was used in horizontal lines across 6 panels, linking to body painting. The unevenness of the lines created a link to Abstraction, creating a bridge between Western and Aboriginal cultures.


The act of conforming towards retro styles of postmodernism was to gain power in the postcolonial world, which also created a form of mimesis which was the miming Western culture to appeal to society. Additionally, in other forms of mimesis such as tourism, art, culture and understanding provided Aboriginals with economic benefits while assisting in preserving their culture. However, this method had limits to the extent of dot paintings providing a cliché representation of indigenous identity.


Through this method, contemporary Aboriginal art showcased the evolution of Aboriginal culture while using methods such as the movement of lines to demonstrate the Aboriginal connection to the land. Subsequently, Kngawarreye mixed traditional Aboriginal styles with Western styles such as Abstraction to bring awareness to the destruction of land as a form of activism.

Lean To

Figure 4: Johnathan Jones, Lean to, 2012, MDF wood, tarpaulin, fluorescent lights, size 360 (h) x 1750 (w) x 85.0 (d) cm. Artist’s personal collection. Reproduced from https://nga.gov.au/exhibition/undisclosed/default.cfm?MnuID=ARTISTS&GALID=34446&vi

Figure 4: Johnathan Jones, Lean to, 2012, MDF wood, tarpaulin, fluorescent lights, size 360 (h) x 1750 (w) x 85.0 (d) cm. Artist’s personal collection. Reproduced from https://nga.gov.au/exhibition/undisclosed/default.cfm?MnuID=ARTISTS&GALID=34446&vi

Contemporary Aboriginal art confronted white Australians with the political nature of Aboriginal existence. Jones’ installation Lean to encompassed the consideration of Aboriginal communities through presenting two walls of wood leaning against each other with blue tarpaulins and fluorescent lighting.


The walls together symbolised the shelters within Aboriginal communities. The lights formed a repetition of V patterns to make a light blue glow and signify Koori designs, also seen using white as a reference to ochre in Aboriginal body paint. This also represented community, while a bulb represented the individual, thus striking a politically charged conversation between the two.


As a result, the use of traditional art emphasised the significance of the contemporary when used in artistic activism to deliver the message. The message provided was essentially for the audience to consider the place of Aboriginal roots in society along with the shared Australian history. This created a sense of unity which promotes a sense of equality and understanding which indigenous cultures should be accepted in society.


Furthermore, this artwork created a conversation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures concerning historical events and oppression. By accentuating the conversation between Aboriginals and white Australians, a form of activism was achieved with the goal of increasing the visibility of Aboriginal culture.

The Wonders of Aboriginal Australian Art

To Conclude

The goal of activism in contemporary Aboriginal art surrounded themes of scientific eugenics, violence, mistreatment of land, and creating understanding between communities. From the point of the European invasion to contemporary history, Aboriginals endured hardships such as losing their land, their people, and their children. A surgical setting along with plumb bushes clamped with metal was provided in an installation where Scarce confronted the audience with the scientific racism. Peters’ Chinaman’s Garden Massacre portrayed the violent result of racism undertaken by settlers and colonial police through his highly symbolic work, contributing to the desire for Aboriginal people to be heard, acknowledged, and accepted.


The connection to land within Untitled presented a symbolic link to body paint, traditional Aboriginal art practises mixed with Abstraction, addressing the issue of the mistreatment of land. The symbolic use of lights, walls and bulbs within Lean to delineated the conversation between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals to provoke visibility and equality. Overall, political activist art has continued to persist wherever there was corruption and as injustice towards Aboriginals persists, contemporary art will remain as an outlet to accentuate the voices of those downtrodden in society.

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© 2022 Simran Singh

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