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   What is Contemporary Aboriginal Art?

Generally speaking, the thread that connects all `Contemporary Aboriginal Art` is Aboriginal history, which is captured in one form or another by both tribal artists in remote communities and artists from Australian cities and towns. Koori, or Urban artists, for example, lend to the more recent past and the present day from a personal and socio-political perspective, while traditional Aboriginal artists, in contrast, focus on themselves as a people and their history, rather than individuals, or individual experiences, in their art. In the early 1970s Australian History was predominantly about white Australia; Aboriginals hardly had a mention, as if they had no past, or heritage, and much that was ever written about Aboriginal people spoke of them in a denigrating manner. These people did not matter in the Australian psyche, because they were close to invisible and thought of as an unevolved people on their way to extinction. Besides Aboriginal activists playing a vital role in bringing the Aboriginal world into focus from the 1930s on in particular, the Art of the Papunya Tula Masters had an enormous impact on our awareness of Aboriginal people and inspired Urban artists to explore their own pasts. Consequently, the results from both camps of Aboriginal artists have been amazing and we cannot allow personal bias to persuade us to think otherwise, or to think of Aboriginal Art as being `a white thing` for all Aboriginal Art remains as one in the expanding pool of knowledge relating to Aboriginal life in Australia. 

If Richard Bell, who stated that Aboriginal Art is `a white thing` as was written on one of his works that won the 2003 Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award, however, comes from the fact that much Aboriginal Art conforms to the European ideal, or Modernism, like Bellís own work, then perhaps this artist has a point. That is, if his own definition of Aboriginal Art is in accord with the definition arrived at by the founders of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, who dismissed any work outside their own `language`, or iconography, as not being Aboriginal, but belonging to `white fellas`. So in the opinion of these masters the meaning of a work alone, or the fact that it was created by an indigenous person, is not Aboriginal Art by definition, if `the language` is not of native heritage, or ethnographical, and cannot be `read` by the Native Born.  Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, for instance, was very adamant about this and his disapproval of Emily Kngwarreye`s work being labelled as Aboriginal Art was regularly misconstrued as envy towards this renowned painter, or her overnight success, even by his own biographer Vivien Johnson. 

Bellís perspective of Aboriginal Art is unclear without reading his ideas, but no such ambiguity exists in terms of what the founders of Contemporary Aboriginal Art thought Aboriginal Art to be, as their aim was to create it and they succeeded and put Contemporary Aboriginal Art on the map, while at the same time, or in the following decade  during the 1980s, there was a call coming from Victoria and New South Wales, in particular, to refrain from using the word Aboriginal in favour of the word Koori, because the latter was an indigenous word to mean  Native Born, while the former was not and also tended to be viewed as carrying derogative connotations. But in the growing Aboriginal Art market `Koori Art` was being left on the shelf, because it was not being identified as being the same as `Aboriginal Art` in terms of the two being different genres, which they were, as both had differing characteristics. In the main, however, the word `Koori` was not accepted by traditional Aboriginals, who viewed the word as belonging to non-traditional people of part heritage from Australian cities, so thereby Koori Art, or the term, was held at arms length away from Aboriginal Art, which all traditional people thought their art to be, as they essentially identified themselves as Aboriginal and did not think of the word as having derogative connotations, while at the same time felt offended if the word Koori was applied to them.

As time went on and Koori artists were making no ground in the art market, the term Koori and Koori Art increasingly became more invisible and in its place the term Aboriginal and Aboriginal Art came to include all indigenous Australians and their art regardless of life-style, heritage (in part or whole) and place of birth, or residence and art form. This is where Aboriginal Art and artists stand today, though the word Koori has not entirely been abandoned and I personally use it in terms of clarity in making a distinction between different art forms, one from the city and one from the bush, although I also tend to use Urban Art to describe art from the city, though I prefer to use the term Koori, because Urban Art seems to suggest an art about an urban environment, or buildings and the like, which is not really accurate, as Koori artists focus on many subjects and some very sad and disturbing aspects relating to personal experiences and socio-political ideas and events. In particular the events associated to past government policy to forcibly remove Aboriginal children of part heritage from their indigenous mothers, or fathers, and set them up in orphanages before handing them out to non-aboriginal families. In an Australia that saw the Native Born as uncivilized and as a dying race, the forcible  removal of children was believed to be in their best interest: `for their own good`.

Literature and Koori Art tells us otherwise and also describes these stolen children as `the stolen generation` and both they and their own children today have and do make up the Koori artist pool to a large degree. For some, identifying themselves as Aboriginal and their work as Aboriginal Art might be very important to them personally, as they, or their mothers and grandmothers, or fathers and grandfathers were denied being at one with traditional people not all that long ago. One cannot imagine the emotional and very often physical pain that the stolen generation had suffered, not to mention the sheer misery of the mothers and fathers, who had their children taken from them, even where consent might have been given based on the assumption that their children would be better off elsewhere in the dominant cultureís white world. Perhaps if the word Koori was more regularly used and better understood as an Aboriginal word meaning indigenous, the term will be more readily  embraced and if it is only applied to `the stolen generation` and their descendents is there wrong in this? Koori people themselves can only be the judge of this, perhaps in the same way that only the first Contemporary Aboriginal artists can decide upon the definition of their own art.  But they are no longer with us, so whatever anyone thinks, or does, in this Aboriginal Art arena these first contemporary Aboriginal artists  have little say, as it was when they were alive.

Today all art made by indigenous people be they traditional, or otherwise, comes under the umbrella of Aboriginal Art. This is how it has come to be and terms to distinguish different art by different people are in place to some degree. In that, works are often described by region or language group, for example, Pintupi Art is by Pintupi people whose works are also described as Western Desert Aboriginal Art, which is also applied to the art of the peoples from the central desert associated to different tribes, or clans. Another example is Kimberly Aboriginal Art, or Kimberly Art, which represents works from the far north region of Western Australia, then there is Yirrkala Art that lends to the work of the peoples from the Yirrkala region in the Kakadu National Park. Another example is Torres Strait Islander Art, which comes from the people of the Torres Strait islands, who do not approve of themselves or their art being termed Aboriginal, as they feel to be different to the Native Born from the mainland; even so, their work is also found in Aboriginal Art exhibitions and competitions.

An excursion through the internet offers more in the way of different terms applied to Aboriginal Art across Australia, which all comes together with a mountain of different issues relating to this very unique and interesting subject that we recognize as Australian Aboriginal Art. Although given the many different styles and artists intentions, it makes better sense to adopt definitions that better characterize individual art forms, as Aboriginal Art is first and foremost about Art, though given the qualifications of the people, who widely monopolize information on the subject, it seems more of social science subject than it does a subject of Art, which might be why even the poorest works find undeserving status and genius is found even where none exists. Though this too has to do with the Aboriginal Art Market in which certain sellers have a mistaken understanding of the `Modern ideal` and confuse `wall-paper` with Fine Art.  Even so, there is no shortage of quality art created by indigenous people in Australia where the lives of many are no longer invisible chiefly on account of  Contemporary Aboriginal Art, which cannot be confused with Traditional Aboriginal Art that is  made for cultural purposes, such as ritual ceremonies.

 

This, of course, is a broad subject that needs wider interpretation, which is too complex to deal with here, although a broader overview can be found on the `Aboriginal Art ` page of this website, though here too information is limited, as it is an overview of Aboriginal Art and not a detailed expose`.

                                            

 

                                                                

 

 

 Milanka J Sullivan

 

 


All material on this site is protected by Australian and international copyright and other intellectual property laws. Users may not do anything which interferes with or breaches those laws or the intellectual property rights in the material. Where there is a wish to use expression: permission is granted on the basis that the source is acknowledged, this permission extends to the non-reproduction use of the art of Milanka J Sullivan,  but does not include photographic material owned by Artspeak and imagery belonging to Aboriginal Artists, which remains the sole property of the artist or artist`s estate.  If unclear seek clarity.


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