Melinda Harper, Untitled 2001 
Purchased 2001 National Gallery of Australia. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Cultural Con/Texts: Apologists vs. Apologies

Brenda L Croft
Senior Curator
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
National Gallery of Australia

Firstly, I wish to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the surrounding region, the Ngunnawal people and thank Ngunnawal representative, Matilda House for her welcoming message to the delegates participating in Art Museums: Sites of Communication over the next two days. As many of you may know, I am employed at the National Gallery of Australia as Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and have worked as a curator for much of the past decade. However, I began my career as an artist in the mid 1980s, and taking priority over all of these things is that I am a person of Indigenous and Australian heritage living in various parts of Australian throughout my life. All of these things have formed the foundation for everything I do, experience, and most particularly, how I view Indigenous visual art and culture.

I am going to show a selection of slides with my talk, which depict a small window, or snapshot into the history of Indigenous cultural material collection practices over the past six and half decades.

In the early days of public collections there were no specified curators of Indigenous art. These positions were collectively termed primitive, Indigenous, Asian, Aboriginal, Melanesian, Oceanic art — and in some parts of the world still are.

Many of the early collecting forays seen in hindsight can be considered as Curatorial/Directorial ‘Boys own adventures’/redemption journeys in the pure, dark unknown regions of the continent, or islands as the case may be, testing themselves to acquire trophies of empire from ‘dying’ races. All the while, most of these early collectors ignoring where they lived and worked as being unpeopled, trammelled, impure, populated by ‘half-castes’ and mix-raced unwanted remnants of Indigenous society.

As I stated in my outline one of the most important changes that has occurred within art galleries and museums over the past two decades are the individual and collective roles whereby Indigenous people have not only been the artistic practitioners whose innovative works comprise a fundamental part of most major public collections, but the role of Indigenous curators taking on increasingly senior curatorial responsibilities for the acquisition, maintenance, presentation and display of Indigenous cultural material; roles which were once the realm – sometimes jealously guarded - overseen by non-Indigenous curators.

Indigenous perspectives, in relation to input into presentation and display of our cultural material, both in galleries and museums, have changed markedly in this period. I’d like to chart some of these changes since those times — particularly in my own curatorial practice.

This input has been generally received positively, with occasional detractors (True Colours: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists raise the flag (1994). Expand upon the catalogue essay ‘Truth, myths and little white lies’, written by my curatorial colleague Hetti Perkins and myself, which presented a condensed history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history in Australia since European contact in the late 1700s. Responses to the essay of ‘revisionism’ came from as high up as the Prime Minister’s office and talk-back radio when it was reproduced in the NSW Board of Studies Aboriginal Studies kit. Hetti and I were asked to edit it and we refused to, so it was printed in full, and ended up being heatedly discussed on talkback radio as well).

In more recent times this can be seen in the recently announced government review into a major public institution in the national capital in relation to its Indigenous displays and public interpretation, a drive initiated by social commentators and ‘revisionism/political correctness’ detractors such as Keith Windschuttle, who denounce the inclusion of Indigenous oral history as an essential component of shared history in Australia — not only Indigenous history as these are shared histories - as being unsubstantiated and therefore, untrue/unauthentic.

The irony is that Indigenous culture is used to sell everything Australian overseas, which was particularly evident in the 2000 Olympics. Often this is sanitised and/or bastardised — made safe, unthreatening. Interestingly, the ‘pure’ Aboriginal community is considered ‘safe’, ‘easier to deal with’, than the ‘trouble-making’, ‘mixed-race’, ‘mixed-up’ politicised urban-based Blackfellas. A reversal of the notion of fear of the unknown — fear of the known. What many people do not realise is that we [Indigenous people in remote, rural and urban environs] are not separate from each other; we are in fact connected, and interlinked through our language and land affiliations.

There is a culture of fear and loathing in Australia in these times — towards immigrants, people of other cultures, Indigenous backlash, One Nation push.

It is important that Indigenous artists in challenging these issues, and that Indigenous people are working within cultural institutions to present/display/promote/articulate from Indigenous perspectives. The white cube is not a sanctuary, a haven, a chapel only for the dead white males of yore – no matter how much we might love their work, but also a living space, keeping places, cultural centres, educational institutions, engaging, rebuffing, challenging, inspiring, but should never be boring.

I welcome the feedback from visitors for artists’ work, like Vernon Ah Kee’s If I Was White - good and bad. One of the staff members here was affronted but hadn’t actually read the text properly, and sent a heated email to his section head who forwarded it to me. The young Indigenous man visiting to see Namatjira, and who felt compelled to speak out at the derogatory comments being made by two non-Indigenous visitors next to him, treating him as if he were invisible. The middle-aged leftie visitors who take the time to fill in the questionnaire at front of house and want to see the entire series sent to the PM’s office, or made into cards to buy in the shop. The woman who attended Vernon’s artist’s talk and took what his statements were personally, ‘I’m not like that, not all white people are like that’, and fellow artist, Christian Thompson responded, ‘It’s not about white people, it’s about the effect of Whiteness’.

Ian McLean’s article on 'Southwest Central' for Art Monthly April 2003 outlined his concerns that the ‘oppressors’ of Indigenous people/artists have reversed their role by seeing themselves as the ‘liberators’, by ‘allowing’ Indigenous artists to be represented within public institutions. However, I don’t think it is as simple, or ‘black’ vs. ‘white’ as that. Ian’s comparison with the Carrolup Gum Tree School/kitsch and Namatjira’s and the re-rendering of the derivative into the acceptable. In my view, these paintings are not simply picture postcard representations for white/non-Indigenous consumption. I was not in total agreement with Ian’s review, but I found it raised important issues.

I’d like to present an example: one young visitor to Seeing the centre: the art of Albert Namatjira 1902–1959, was visited by a large group from Sydney’s western suburbs. The diversity of visitors to this exhibition was striking — the Penrith visitors, included Indigenous elders and members of the local Lebanese community, who stood easily alongside the white-haired retirees and admirers of Namatjira’s watercolours; the common link being an understanding, a collective comfort from the images of Namatjira — something that we [Australians] are all familiar with, have grown up with, understand — diluted, perhaps, non-threatening safe.

Which brings us back to the often confrontational and direct work of artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey, Gordon Bennett, H J Wedge, Michael Riley, Christian Thompson, Julie Dowling and Christopher Pease and how audiences respond to their work. I have discovered how the ‘fear of the unknown/known’ can be diluted/dissipated by including artists’ talks and public programs involving the creators of the art as an essential component of the education of the general public. For example, the artists’ talks during Beyond the Pale were attended by approximately 200 people during Artists Week in 2000. (Beyond the Pale showcased the work of 25 Indigenous artists from regions and communities throughout Australia and importantly, brought them together to see each other’s work and to view responses from the public to their art.)

Other issues include the importance of placing Indigenous material from Australia within their own cultural contexts, as well as alongside other cultures — Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Also, substantially increased understanding of the diversity of Indigenous visual culture has particularly occurred through the influence of Indigenous curators and arts practitioners input through Indigenous exhibitions and displays, both within Australia and overseas.

Audiences, like exhibitions, are multi-layered. An exhibition proposal I am currently working on, with the innocuous title Jesus loves me, this I know — after a Sunday School hymn — sparks different recollections for people. For example, when I have discussed the proposal outline with people from other cultures with similar communal histories of displacement and dispossession, there is an immediate understanding of the curatorial context. Likewise, socio-political circumstances always impact upon, and are reflected in Indigenous cultural expression.

One only has to view The Aboriginal Memorial, which was conceived by Djon Mundine in 1998 as a response to the Bicentennial/Buy-sell-tennial celebrations that conveniently overlooked Indigenous Australians. It was also conceived as a response to the fact that no memorial existed to honour the thousands of Indigenous men and women who lost their lives fighting for their country — on their own soil and overseas — in the 200 years since Captain Phillip planted the Union Jack at Sydney Cove/Werang/Warrang (it’s traditional Cadigal name).

Or in the work of Gordon Hookey’s Ten Point Scam (1998), painted as a retort to the Federal Government’s 'Ten Point Plan’, which severely diluted Indigenous claims to Native Title, whereby only individuals or communities that could prove unbroken connections and links to traditional country and practices could lay claim to Native Title. This effectively disenfranchised the majority of Indigenous people on the eastern and southern seaboards - those who had suffered the greatest impact from settlement and colonisation.

Or Gordon Bennett’s Valley of the Ghost Gums (1989) and his collaboration with Eugene Carchesio The visitation (flowers for Albert Namatjira) (1989) with their acerbic and poignant visual commentary on the commodification and destruction of Namatjira and his work.

Or Richard Bell’s brooding canvas Delusional grandeur (2002) with its skin-like, cloak-like surface of gravel, synthetic polymer paint and raised text: ‘I am not sorry. This work throws a direct response or challenge to those in authority and leadership who will never apologise to the thousands of Indigenous people who were taken from their families, their communities, their lands, their cultural ties ruptured, sometimes irreparably, but thankfully not always.

‘I wasn’tthereitwasn’tmeididn’tdoitwhatcanidoIAMNOTSORRY’

Je ne suis pas desolée et je ne suis pas un apologiste