The two major visual art events at the Telstra Adelaide Festival 2000 - to give the event its brand name - focussed on Aboriginal creations. The opening of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum coincided with Beyond the Pale as the Biennial of contemporary Australian art in the Art Gallery of South Australia. In addition, the main program included From Appropriation to Appreciation at the Flinders Art Museum City Gallery and 3 Space at Tandanya. The Fringe also provided a variety of venues.

The Museum has selected 3000 objects from what is claimed to be the world's largest collection. Its displays occupy two floors of a refitted wing, backed by computerised access to additional data. The displays are designed to supply information, not to decorate walls. On that criterion, the cabinets are sometimes overloaded and the signage too small, especially given the low levels of lighting. The design brief for a cultural museum means that the paintings are used to illustrate ethnographic or anthropological issues, that is, as visual captions to commentaries about food-gathering or typographical knowledges. Few are attributed to a named individual.

Access to this collection will enrich the understanding of indigenous arts by their current makers and their viewers, whether settler or Aboriginal. Settler prejudices about savagery were grounded in our tying of civilisation to ruins – an association mocked in David Pearce’s ceramics at Tandanya. Because indigenous buildings were neither substantial nor lasting, we have tended to downplay their labours, even their humanity.  The mass of items on display counteracts this assumption by demonstrating the expanse of their inventiveness.

The catalogue notes that 'In the past, Aboriginal art and design formed an integral part of ceremonial and daily life'. That maxim does not answer the question of where - if anywhere - does craft end and art begin in regard to these decorated artifacts. To a Western trained eye, that line is nowhere harder to maintain than in regard to the score of painted tin masks retrieved in the Kimberlys in 1953. The visages are mostly post-contact but their purpose was ceremonial. Torn from that context, they would suit the Ballet Russe costumes in the National Gallery of Australia.

Beyond the pale
The title of the 2000 Adelaide Biennial at first looks like a racist homonym. This figure of speech turns up as a homophone in Ian Abdulla’s installation and painting, ‘Beyond the Pail’, which document his early life as the recipient of charity. The titles for Clinton Nain’s paintings and line of umbrellas play with White King (theb leach) reigns/rains. Punning, despite the authorisation of Shakespeare and Joyce, is considered to be just above sarcasm on the scale of wit. To appreciate the significance of puns for these indigenous artists depends on the recognition that class, regional or ethnic accents and idioms differentiate access to power. Hence, Aborigines, even those who grow up knowing nothing but Australian English, are made aware that phrases such as ‘beyond the pale’, or ‘blacken one’s reputation’, speak to their disadvantage. As artists, they nuance such phrases into another layer of resistance by making the rest of us uncomfortable with our commonplaces.

To that end, Beyond the Pale, as a title and as a selection, pricks assumptions about what should be said and done to reach reconciliation. The choice of ‘pale’ confronts colour prejudice, at once the most blatant form of racism and the most readily denied by Alf Garnett and Pauline Hanson who would agree with the 1906 editorial in the Victorian Labor Weekly, Tocsin:: ‘We do not object to a man because his complexion … differs from our own, but because his complexion …. [is] inseparably connected in our experience with certain qualities of mind to which we do most emphatically object’. Thus, beneath colour prejudice lurks culture prejudice.

Curator Brenda L. Croft’s choice of ‘pale’ proposes its own connection between skin and aesthetics by insinuating that whiteness may be insipid. The title and the works also violate the norms of good taste within the business of indigenous art where collectors and curators have favoured the prettiness of what looks like abstraction. Corporate boardrooms will have no place for Gordon Hookey’s garish boxing bag, toilet paper and a miner’s drill as male genitalia, which owe far more to Juan Davila than to Rover Thomas. Take the (punning?) title, ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes’, away from Rea’s installation of glass skulls set before printed targets and the political impact would pack more punch than Hookey’s painted-on words. The Reas should go next door to the foyer of the Museum as a reminder of how such institutions once collected their anatomical evidence.

Golliwogs have found a friend in Destiny Deacon who displays them with much the same cheekiness as other Aborigines joke among themselves about black bureaucrats as ‘up-town Niggers’. No white artist could get away with that - yet. How long will it be before Deacon dares to restage Tony Coleing’s installation at the 1976 Festival when he half-buried Aboriginal garden gnomes along North Terrace under the title ‘Plant an Australian Native Today’ as a protest against genocide, before Kath Walker’s outrage led to their removal.

Croft made the difficult but right decision to limit the number of artists by representing each by at least three examples of their work so that we can deepen our comprehension through comparison. The hang proved unusually spacious for the Art Gallery of South Australia. The one blemish was that Michael Riley’s set of c-type prints reflected the wall opposite which disrupted their monochromatic tonalism. The darker alcove in which the cibachromes of Darren Siwes were presented allowed their ghost figure to communicate his sense of being displaced in Adelaide’s CBD.

The poem 'Artist Unknown', recited at opening of Beyond the Pale, mourned the loss of exemplars but overlooked two aspects of treating indigenous creators in the same way as settler artists. The first is that the former were never unknown among their own people. The second is whether the post-Renaissance category 'artist' is another element of colonisation, carrying the secular and commercial across to a sacral process. Surely, 'maker' or 'teller' is the more culturally appropriate term for those earlier creators? What was unknown before contact was the idea of the capital-A artist, for which no equivalent word existed. A supplementary aspect of this difference arises with the notion of the Western artist as Romantic individual expressing a private vision, a development explicated by Raymond Williams in his Culture and Society. That approach to creativity does not sit easily with collaborations such as those between Jimmy Njiminjuma and Abraham Mongkorrerre.

Other exhibitions added to this dialogue. Diversity of media marked 3 Space at Tandanya as one of the Festival 2000 exhibitions. David Pearce makes his three-dimensional pieces out of scrap and junk while Darryl Pfitzner Milika includes splinters of sheep bone. Both recall the pre-contact ground sculptures of branches, sticks and string that were common across the continent. The third participant, Mark Blackman, deploys musical and mathematical signs where Peter Maralwanga would apply cross-hatching. Nonetheless, Blackman’s symbols are as political as the Yirrkala bark that went to Canberra in 1963 as a land rights claim. His  ‘X’ stands for increased diversity.

String and calculation linked the Tandanya trio with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander show in a makeshift Fringe venue across from the Jam Factory. Sandra Saunders’s string cartoons tie up disputes from Hindmarsh Island to the High Court, while her groups of moulded heads, (available as photocards), deserve their place alongside the Rubbery Figures at the National Portrait Gallery. Max Mansell comes close to a code of his own by highlighting the computer-like circuits within some traditional patterns.

A selection of prisoners’ art, 'From the Inside', was shown in a deserted shop down an infrequently traversed passage off Hindley street. With incarceration rates among indigenous Australians as skewed as they are, the likelihood of significant artists qualifying for inclusion is high. Also notable was that almost half of the works were by women, a greater proportion than among the prison population. The imagery was predictable in as much as it repeated the motifs that deculturalised Aborigines could have picked up from the mass media: rainbow serpents, Uluru and the land rights flag. Appropriations from Western culture included Ned Kelly as a fellow outlaw, and a lizard turned video-game Dragon. In most of the works, the patterning was heavy with dots and serpentine lines. Circumstances derived from the painters' incareration appeared in tattoos and blocked graffiti. However, the most common feature was the use of an indigenous motif as a painted border around a naturalistic landscape, echoing the exhibition's title - 'From the Inside'. Against these recurrent elements, a suite by Luke Hooker was poignant. Titled 'Things Unseen', he had made bright spring European landscapes, as if Emily had gone to Giverny.

Not fifty metres away on Hindley Street is the Adelaide Gem Center, purveyor of Aboriginalities which its information labels discuss in terms of 'superstitions'. Beyond the shop-front stuffed with the industrially-produced tableware and artifacts marked by the usual expropriations, is a display is Max Mansell's, 'jackpot dreaming', named for colours and patterns like the decor of the Melbourne and Sydney Casinos.  The wall brochure explains that Mansell began life in Hobart, moved to Central Australia to study with prominent Aboriginal painters and now expresses his 'spirituality' in Adelaide. That dislocation is evident in the absence of a locus of his imagery which floats the skies and oceans, (the latter on view at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fringe show further down Hindley street).

Before wiping Mansell's star-gazing and scuba-diving off as souvenirs, we need to reflect on how representative his wanderings are of the indigenous population. A photographic display at the State Library of South Australia, 'Nakkandi/Look, Indigenous Australians 1999/2000', documented a variety of ways of being Aboriginal today. Running through those disparate practices was the search for relationships, a quest for ancestral knowledge to be attained only by making contemporary connections. That method was summed up by Space 3 participant Mark Blackman who, on moving from Murri country into Nunga country, started calling himself a 'Murri-unga'. At a continental level, the word Aborigine has long performed that function. Another photo shows a Mt Isa-born man with grandparents drawn from right across the top end. He joined an Adelaide Aboriginal dance group a few months ago in the expectation of connecting 'to my cultural background, which I have never learnt about at all.' The contradiction in that statement is not semantic but social, a fact of life which he is overcoming by 'Learning about stories, dance, songs and language. Put it all together and it gives you spirit, you can't ever take away'. The past 212 years have shown how vulnerable the hope in that last sentence can be, but also how vital its sentiment remains in reconciling Aboriginal Australians with each other, and with themselves.

Max Mansell's visual statements fall at the horror-show end of image-making. Yet, the story behind why he has had no story of his own to retell, like the story of why so many of his people are seeking themselves through art, and the story of why so many Europeans leech on their efforts, bind yearning as dreaming around discontents which art, from wherever derived, can reveal but never resolve.