After hundreds of years of oppression and forced assimilation, Australian Aboriginal people have got the right to express their identity and culture in art, only in the second half of the 20th century. Aboriginal Art became recognized worldwide only in the 1990s. According to Oxford Art Online, Australian art market faced significant changes due to cultural needs of Australian art community.
Cultural alienation became exploited by Australian artists, and production of Aboriginal communities attracted attention. The first artists who devoted their contemporary works to Aboriginal topics were Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum, Paddy Bedford, and Rover Thomas. They tried to express sacred senses associated with so-called “collective knowledge”. These contemporary works characterized by strong brushstrokes became quite popular among museums and private collectors, because they provided a new interpretation of Australian history.
Many Aboriginal Australians are still trying to go deep in their history, working mostly in the remote regions. Aboriginal art now includes bark paintings, body art, canvases, and designs. Along with contemporary artists, Australian art is created by indigenous makers, who express another approach. However, these works are somewhat similar. Both schools use installations, pay special attention to conceptions, thus being different by functions. While modern artists are looking for a self-realization, ancient artists made art a part of their spiritual practices, or everyday routine, like hunting. The identity of the artist wasn’t a key category in those days. Despite all the differences between modern and indigenous art, these old paintings and masks, still, are highly valued by the art society. Now Aboriginal artists develop this kind of art using new forms, such as theatre, photography, sculpture, prints, installations, and so on.
Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley, and Tracey Moffat considered indigenous art a way to express certain political ideas with the help of contemporary media. They create a completely new experience, mixing aboriginal identity with new elements, creating the atmosphere of cultural renewal, and breaking limits of classical methods.
Wally Caruana wrote that aboriginal movements gained power in the second half of the 20th century, pushing aboriginal people to express unknown features of Australia: racism, dispossession, and thousands of broken families. Finally, a lot of people have got motivation and started expressing their cultural identity, which was impossible before.
The example of aboriginal art that uses mixed media means is artworks of Fiona Foley. She was inspired by cultural traditions of Wodunna clan, which was a part of Badtjala tribe. Ancestors from her mother’s side inspired Fiona with new ideas and motivated her to reveal stories of oppression.
Foley pays special attention to the issue of dispossession of land and displacement, which makes most of her works very sensitive and highly political. She represents the history of Aboriginal people, violence, racism, and identity, giving a look from a new cultural angle.
The permanent collection of the Australian National Gallery includes a frightening part called ‘Annihilation of the blacks’ (1986). Colonizers kill Aboriginal people, and nine black bodies are hanging in front of a white man. Cross poles, along with forked posts, refer back to the symbolism of traditional aboriginal communities.
A sacred complex in Arnhem Land, which is the symbol for the first residence of the Wagilak, represents an ancient Kunapipi ceremony. Young boys are waiting to reborn as men. They stand among flying foxes and sunbeams, referring to the story of the first circumcision brought by a flying fox. It was one of the most important totemic figures in this region.
Fiona Foley combines ancient and modern symbols, creating a very strong impression in every work, and supporting these works with strong political statements.
Another installation, ‘Land Deal’ (1995), tells a story of John Batman. He was a colonial official, and he was proud of purchasing 600,000 acres from aborigines. He paid them with knives, beads, and scissors. A massive spiral represents how the quality of life fell during white settlement, and how genocide took more and more lives, as aboriginal people took poisoned flour. Objects hanging from the walls express the loss of the land, and the entire work creates a powerful atmosphere of voices that have never been heard.
Foley studied Badtjala culture and immediately translated it into modern language, giving new interpretations, and pointing to the significance of Aboriginal culture. As we can see in recent history, the struggle for recognition of Fraser Island’s original inhabitants continues even now.
Gordon Bennett also discovered his aboriginal roots from his mother’s side. Raised as an orphan north of Brisbane, he became a well-known painter, also creating installations and media performances. Combining ideas of an Anglo-Celtic culture with Aboriginal Australian art, he speaks of new ways of perception, identity, and knowledge.
The concept of self-identity is expressed in various self-portraits. He tries to break through the limits of a white culture, questioning stereotypes, and touching important cultural issues. Bennett discovered his Aboriginality in his early teens, and it was a point starting from which he began his attempts to reflect both cultural traditions. ‘Self portrait’ (1992) disclosures broad issues of personal identity along with cultural identity. This installation represents his family, and his self-portrait seems to be everywhere and nowhere. The word “self” gives us a hint on the closed nature of these issues, while ‘culture’ and ‘history’ are somewhat closed and partly open. According to Bennett, the full sense of identity can be developed only within a family, in the context of culture and history. Thus, his family serves as a two-dimensional mirror that helps understand the very meaning of self-identity. According to Bennett, there’s nothing inside the mirror, so everything is possible there.
Everyone who participates in this art faces an examination of self-consciousness, because the self-portrait which speaks from the first person changes its subject from “I” to “us all”.
The perspective drawn on the floor with the grid creates a system of symbols which leads us to the more clear understanding of the sense of the entire work. In European culture, maps depicted lands and territories taking into account ownership. Four letters on each corner (A B C D) not only determine location but also recall first letters of racist slurs: Abo, Darkie, Coon, Boong.
These complex metaphors and multi-level ideas are not apparent, but intentional, because Bennett uses himself to crack fixed stereotypes and discover a new understanding of self-identity. He wrote that his Aboriginality has been lost for him for three generations. This is a reason why he avoids any images, stories, or designs, to assert his heritage.
Traditionally, Aboriginality was measured in blood, so it’s an important symbol in a racial context. Indigenous people were labeled ‘Quadroons’. It was used as a genetic term, being widely socially accepted. The more indigenous blood you have, the more Aboriginal you are. Europeans never wanted to mix their blood, because they were afraid to lose their ‘authenticity’. Being an Australian in both Anglo Celtic and Aboriginal way, Bennet couldn’t touch his roots for a long time though. He wrote that traditional works on Ethnography and Anthropology only supported the classic image of Aborigines as primitive dreamers who live in a desert, therefore stating that only people with pure Aboriginal blood are real Aborigines.
Bennett’s thoughts were reflected in his ‘Self portrait: Interior/Exterior’ (1992). He decided to test stereotypes again using self-portrait technique. He depicts the bloody nature of the colonial occupation. A black vessel looks like a coffin almost buried under heavy brushstrokes of black paint. ‘Cut me’ – these words scream out of black leather. Like scars, they will never be forgotten.
You cannot find the real body there. The coffin represents it. ‘Pollock-style’ scars on the coffin are not only physical but also emotional. The whip beside the coffin recreates the whole picture of humiliation. Bennett’s agenda is not to make blood another romantic symbol. He wants to show how identity develops through pain and scars. Black skin with blood and the whip represent two identities which are opposite to each other. These are slaves and masters, and they are not absolute figures. Something is behind them, and that’s what Bennett is looking for.
He wrote that he wanted to secure his identity, so he needed to explore it. He felt lost in the wrong place, trying to get his opposite thoughts together, and trying to get out of this closed space. His main point is to remove anything from your way to your real personality.
Tracey Moffatt was born in Brisbane, in a white family. Her indigenous ancestors lived in the place outside the town, called Cherbourg. Moffatt’s works illustrate how colonial past determines the present. She makes films, and usually, her photos are stills from these tapes. Her stories are narrative. They tell us about Aboriginal history, from the feminist point of view. She explores various political ideas, searching for new meanings of identity. Her style is unique; it blurs borders between gender and social categories.
‘Up in the Sky’ (1998) is one of the most powerful works, which consists of twenty-five photographs that depict stories of Stolen Generation. The government took children from their families. They were forcibly sent to Queensland’s outback. Moffatt unfolds the truth, speaking about the collective memory and heritage. Remote living always has other sensitive issues underlying, and Moffatt doesn’t forget about it. Her works are dedicated to such issues as desolation, cultural influence, and alienation.
In 1989, her films told stories of relationships between a mother and a daughter. Memory, death, loneliness, and childhood were a starting point for her ideas. ‘Night Cries’ tells us how black and white cultures lived near each other during the assimilation policy and how Australian Indigenous people were forced to accept the white society.
Since the 1970s, the interest in Aboriginal art created many opportunities for new artists. Now their works can be seen around the world, in various galleries and museums. Indigenous art provides another system of values, inspiring even more artists every year. Aboriginal art has its own spiritual element, reflecting the history of indigenous people and their political struggle.