Rates of exchange
Unequal exchanges mask the corporate exploitation of the Third and Fourth Worlds. Since the 1940s, the ratio between the price for raw materials and for manufactured goods has drifted in favour of the industrialised economies. This imbalance exemplifies neo-colonialism, a far more potent force than Post-Colonialism which, like globalisation, is a blind for the persistence of an imperialist division of the wealth among nation-market-states.

Any social benefit from exchanges between cultures can not make all exchanges equal. Borrowings by the dominant culture exact a marginal advantage. Inequalities between the world’s art museums are boosting the exchange value of art by Australia’s indigenes. Only the National Gallery of Victoria has a wide enough range of first-class European paintings to be a player in the art world game of ‘I'll lend you my Rembrandt, if you lend me your Tiepelo'. The bargaining chip for Australian curators is their control of Aboriginal work. The recent loan of the Funeral poles to St Petersburg was a belated repayment for a collection of Russian works shown here.

Promotion of indigenous art can now be detrimental to our comprehension of both indigenous and settler artists. For instance, at the Customs House on Sydney's Circular Quay, the Djamu gallery, an off-shoot of the Australian Museum, recently held a show called Mapping our country. The visual quality of the indigenous works was as high as any I have seen. The first problem was that unless you came knowing that the paintings were maps of country - land claims in effect - nothing in the rooms would have guided you to that fact. Secondly,  the non-indigenous items were chosen with much less care. As a consequences, they delivered only the most obvious of maps that the multitude of Australians use. There was no flight-path, no ferry, train or bus routes. A floor plan for a Westfield centre, representative of how we negotiate spaces, would have helped viewers to see that the seemingly abstract Aboriginal works were also leading people through places, (a point made by the 1960 Festival catalogue).

How to determine the appropriate context for discussing these collaborations and conflicts was the aim of From Appropriation to Appreciation organised for Adelaide Festival 2000 through Flinders University Art Museum and curated by that university's Head of Cultural Studies, Christine Nicholls.

At first sight, the title seemed to suggest an improvement over time, which would have misrepresented the encounters between Aborigines and settlers. The purpose, however, was to examine the current range of responses as they shift back and forth between appreciation and appropriation, and most importantly to recognise that those categories are rarely mutually exclusive. Of course, to achieve that sophistication requires awareness of the temporal shifts within past practices, whether by artists, curators and critics, or audiences. For instance, what needed saying in the 1970s about Margaret Preston’s views of Aboriginal design was affected by the fact that she had been almost forgotten. Different critical perspectives became possible once she became a public icon.

Four of the settler artists on display (Margaret Preston, James Cant, Ian Fairweather and Fred Williams) were active before the current wave of interest in indigenous art began in the 1970s. The catalogue essay does not locate their responses in contexts where Aboriginal cultural production was viewed outside the realms of fine art. The official exhibition at the 1960 Festival was entitled 'Aboriginal Bark Paintings and Carvings', not as fine art or sculpture. Although the items had been selected from the State Gallery's collections, the introductory essay was not by an art gallery curator but by C. P. Mountford, hon. Associate in Ethnology at the Museum. The catalogue for a commercial exhibition of 'Battarbee Centralian Arts' held during the 1960 Festival conceded that the  'skill and sensitivity’ of the Aborigines 'sometimes leads them to produce authentic works of art'.

Instead of absorbing those circumstances, Nicholls treats Preston’s writings as first-year essays to correct with the insertion of [sic] after any mention of ‘primitive’. Offensive as primitive now strikes us, the term ‘Primitive art’ provided a password by which Aboriginal creations could get out from under the rubric of ethnographic artifacts to be accessioned as works of art museum quality.

Nicholls is more sensitive to the complexities facing Aborigines who work with materials from outside their own country, such the late Lin Onus, a Yorta Yorta man, who obtained permission to paint in the rarrk style from central Arnhem Land. Equally, she treats the multiplicities in Gordon Bennett or the urban critiques by Trevor Nickolls with the layering that they bring to their art.

Condemnation of Saskia Anmatyerre's invented persona and made-up legend for his decoration of the chapel at Mary McKillop Place is justified but overlooks the question of how many legends now accepted by Aborigines have come back to them via the story-telling of Europeans. The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains is one case where tourism in 1949 might have generated the stories that we now have of that district. The non-initiated must always accept that when we are told a legend - whether through images or in words - even by the appropriate holder of that story, that person may be misleading us in order to protect her or his knowledge. After informants confess that they have provided anthropologists with only the most childish of the layers of religious knowledge, the scholars face the infinite regress of when is an outsiders ever told the whole truth. Is the confession itself another protective layer? Inevitably, curators follow anthropologists - those marginal natives - in down playing the secrecy among the people upon they have staked their careers. 

The inclusion of works that Elizabeth Durack made under the name of Eddie Burrup, and her participation in a seminar, were the most publicised points in the Flinders University exhibition. That issue requires more space than it can be allocated here just as two aspects merit mention: first, does a woman pretend to be a man in order to dethrone kings in grass castles and to escape from the shade of an elder sister?  Secondly, where has the Durack men’s Aboriginal offspring left the women of their white family in regard to indigenous society? It is also worth remembering that, although Durack has shattered the Wandjina in her paintings, she not faked Lily Karadada’s telling of it, or the surfaces of any actual artist’s work.

Another change since the 1960s has been the attachment of personal names to indigenous works. The exhibition at the initial Festival in 1960 arranged Arnhem Land works by subject, without any interest in identifying their makers. When the Museum of Victoria sent bark paintings to Texas in 1965, the catalogue spoke of Yirrkala and Oenpelli, but not of particular creators. Aborigines later became capital-A artists through contact with social workers, dealers and connoisseurs. The fake became possible within that network of helpers.

The layout of From Appropriation to Appreciation fell between the decorative bias of a fine art museum, where curators like to make pretty patterns along the wall, and the requirements for a museum of ideas where engagement of the intellect should take precedent over the balancing of frames and colours. The task was to arrange the images so that they posed questions that the captions and catalogue essay could then explicate, if not always answer. This objective was achieved in the coupling of the Durack with the Karadada. In general, the ordering needed more juxtapositions to help the images to make the point. Instead of pairing the Prestons, each should have been set against an apposite Aboriginal piece. A keener eye would have put one of Preston’s 1950s Biblical stencils to the left of Linda Syddick Napaltjarris syncretic Christianity and one of John Coburn’s desert series on the right. James Cant’s copying of Mimi figures would have taken on a different significance had his canvas been set against one of his previous angular Surrealist and Social Realist paintings. If Cubists made their Modernism out of African sculptures, Australian Modernists got to Primitive Art via one or other of the moments of Modernism.

Modernism also accelerated the interchanges between gallery arts and quotidian design, as the cubism of 1910 was marketed as the Art Deco of 1925. Preston's interest in Aboriginal practices began with pottery and only later extended to the application of their colours and patterns to her wildflower paintings and finally to her landscapes. Thirty years after Preston published her initial essay, 'Art for crafts: aboriginal art artfully applied' in the December 1924 issue of The Home, Australian consumers still had to be convinced of the attractiveness of hand-made tableware. Moreover, the local product had to struggle for shelf space against the English import.

The thinking about all cross-cultural appropriation and appreciation can be deepened by considering the first Adelaide Festival of the Arts in 1960. Such contextualisation is valuable in itself for a society where the new and the now are depriving viewers of their sense of history as processes working through the present. Indeed, behind the appeal of indigenous cultures is the settlers’ loss of meaning under a blizzard of the 'news flashes', whether in fashion or politics. In reaction, metropolitan sophisticates cannibalise the primitive to gain their fix of deep time and secure space.

At the 1960 Festival, the visual component included sixteen Turners from the Tate, 'The Art of Mexico' from the San Fransisco Museum of Art;  'Twentieth-Century Painting from Australian Galleries'; 'Aboriginal Bark Paintings and Carvings' - all held at the State Gallery - and a Dobell retrospective in a department store. That list would draw crowds today. But what would this year's Festival-goers have made of the 13x8m. floral carpet of 400,000 blooms, modelled on Albert Namatjira's 'In the Ranges of Mt Hermansberg' and planted by the Kindergarten Union on North Terrace for National Flower Day, one of the community events absorbed into the 1960 Festival?

In the year leading up to the first Festival, South Australia had been the flash-point in Aboriginal affairs because of the trial in which Max Stuart had been condemned to death for the rape and killing of a nine-year old girl near Ceduna in December 1958. A Royal Commission into how the police obtained Stuart’s confession followed in 1959. After Stuart's counsel walked out of that inquiry, the News published headlines which resulted in the trial of both its editor and its publisher, (Rupert Murdoch), for criminal libel against the Commissioners, who included the chief justice. The acquittal was delivered during the Festival, providing the most gripping theatre in town. Shortly before Stuart's arrest, Albert Namatjira had been sentenced to gaol for supplying alcohol to another Aboriginal, and died late in 1959. In this environment, that floral tribute could express support for Aboriginal advancement. Around that time, a left-wing member of the ALP in Brisbane showed me the place-mats with Namatjira designs that she had chosen to affirm her opposition to the discriminatory laws in Queensland.

The surge of interest in pottery in the Sixties reacted against the home-makers’ satiety of factory-made china and plastics during the first wave of affluence in the 1950s. The editor of the ceramics section of the Commonwealth Jeweller and Watchmaker, did all she could to direct interest towards the local products in the hope that retailers would stock them alongside the Shelley and the Carlton as bait for the tourists expected for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. Another change became noticeable around 1955 with references to Aboriginal designs on vases and tableware, patterned by settler artists. Doulton got in on the act with a wall plaque of 'a striking portrait study of a wonderful old Aboriginal ruggedly arresting and typical of the finest points of his race'.

Promotion of these native designs coincided with the appearance of indigenous elements in tourist imagery as shown at a recent exhibition at the National Library of Australia. Eileen Mayo used dots inside block letters for a Discover Australia Poster in the Olympics year of1956; a few months later, Gert Sellheim included a boomerang decorated with a swimmer and a merino for his central motif while the background carried x-ray creatures. These commercial applications deployed generic Aboriginalities rather than the stories of an identifiable person or community. Few white artists, let alone settler Australians, would have known that materials belonged - in any sense - to specific people.

To recall these connections is to pass judgement neither on Namatjira's watercolours nor on the works in Beyond the Pale. The present concern is to compare how those tablemats operated ideologically among the palefaces of 1960 with the tasks that museum-quality works by Aborigines perform in today's power structures, whether in or out of the art whirl. Forty years ago, that demand would have been met by the mythopoeic landscapes of Nolan, Drysdale and the brothers Boyd. In short, what has taken over from those 1950s nic-naks and canvases in pandering to the Europeans’ ache after a packaged primitivism?

The incorporation of a boomerang into the logo of the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the Art Gallery of New South Wales's directing its Olympics exhibitions onto Aboriginal works are aspects of tourist art raised to a norm by the authority of the state. Both are designed to meet visitor expectations for the exotic. The logo will stimulate the souvenir trade. The AGNSW will underwrite prices in the commercial galleries. A third of the thirty-three full-page, full-colour advertisements at the front of the summer issue of Art and Australia were for indigenous artists.

Today, a set of place-mats carrying Namatjira images is a double embarrassment, entered in evidence of the Australian ugliness and as proof of commercialisation. That repulsion guarantees moral and social superiority to those settler Australians who now eschew as elitist any other qualitative evaluation of art.


See also: ELIZABETH DURACK.  Use 'back' button on your browser to return to this page