High art by low down under

White Aborigines
August 14, 1998

The perpetual twists and turns in Australia's racial narrative have meant that many recent publications on the subject can claim to be timely. White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art, however, has surfaced at an acute moment in Australian history. For perhaps the first time this century, racial politics and legislative trends appear to have taken a real step backwards rather than forwards - at least for the Aboriginal and liberal urban populations.

At the time of publication, Australia was stumbling towards a racially divisive general election. In early July, this course was diverted by a parliamentary bill that turned the clock back, negating the 1996 ruling that native title rights could co-exist with pastoral leases (outback farming land). The new legislation leaves Aboriginal people with control over only a tiny percentage of the country at a time when the parochial, far-right One Nation party is gaining extraordinary popularity.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal art has continued to establish itself as the most successful area of Australian artistic practice, both in terms of commercial (tourist) appeal and of critical appreciation. As Ian McLean writes, only Aboriginal art could "position the local in the global, and paradoxically, make an Australian art of global significance". No tourism advertisement is complete without its boomerangs and "bush tucker", no government press conference genuine without Aboriginal art as a backdrop. It is this dichotomy between political vulnerability and artistic strength that is at the very crux of McLean's thesis.

Even before 1788, McLean notes, "the Antipodes" was an exoticised, mythical concept. At times almost poetic, he charts the reader through Ocean, melancholy, redemption, the sublime and the grotesque, relating how colonial artists colluded with racialist rationale and, in turn, the decimation of the indigenous population.

Today's postcard-popularity of the Australian impressionists seems chilling on reading McLean's assertion that their arcadia "was built on a xenophobic white Australia and a virulent racism". Later, the enthusiasm of "Aboriginalist" artists, anthropologists, collectors and curators was often translated into a patronising appropriation. As such, McLean awards art an active role in both the continuing conflict between black and white and the obsessive search for a national identity. This identity - while in essence Anglo-Celtic - borrows heavily, yet selectively, from Aboriginal culture. Indeed, since "Australian time" began, Australians have adopted, or co-opted, signifiers of Aboriginality to "Aboriginalise" their identity. Yet does this make them "White Aborigines" as the title suggests?

McLean is clearly a member of the new wave of theorists who confront history in all its gore, tackling massacre, war and the other taboos of colonisation. Yet he perhaps does not always make it clear, particularly for the more unfamiliar reader, that this path is still a highly confrontational one in the populist Australia of today.

White Aborigines does not fully acknowledge its title's other reference - those urban-based Aboriginal people of mixed race and lighter skin, the children of the "stolen generation", who have been rendered "invisible" by their nonconformity to stereotypical Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identities. The undisputed role they play in politicising Aboriginal art and life is informed by experiences inherited from the assimilationist era.

In addition, the first indigenous "cultural activists" are denied agency by the book's linear approach and the way that early chapters foreground the colonists' perspective. (Indeed, it is not until the fourth chapter that McLean notes that Aboriginal artists have always been engaged with contemporary perspectives too.) McLean is perhaps at his most lucid in the final-chapter discussion of Gordon Bennett's work and the absorption of contemporary Aboriginal art through "aesthetic neo-colonialism".

His comparison of the work of Bennett and Imants Tillers enables a true exploration of the dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art. The narrative flows through the late 20th century, but at almost too quick a pace. With Bennett, Tillers and Tracey Moffat the book's only featured contemporary artists, it could be difficult for the lay reader to piece together a picture of today's artistic battles.

Antonia Carver is a writer on social anthropology and the visual arts.

White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art

Author - Ian McLean
ISBN - 0 521 58416 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 204

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