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2. Baldwin Spencer: Photographer
3. Aboriginal Land Ownership and Use
4. Aboriginal Art Tours
5. Collectible Paintings
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The article about Lockhart River art and culture generated quite a lot of interest and we now have
some more new works by this talented group, in addition to those shown on our Web site. New
works fromB a l go and other communities have also been added in the last week.
Baldwin Spencer is renowned for his pioneering work as an anthropologist in central and northern
Australia. He also, along with Frank Gillen, produced some of the most memorable images of
traditional life of Aboriginal people. As a young biologist in his twenties, Spencer arrived to take up
a position as Professor at the University of Melbourne in 1887. His initial interests were in zoology -
amongst other things he described and dissected the two metre long giant earthworms of
Gippsland. But with his work on the Horn Scientific Expedition to central Australia in 1894 he turned
his attention to the Aboriginal occupants of the continent.
After the Horn Expedition was completed, Spencer stopped for a while in Alice Springs where he
met Frank Gillen, the stationmaster of the Telegraph Station. Gillen had for more than twenty years
worked with the Arrernte people of the region and had built a strong relationship with them.
Spencer was fascinated to hear Gillen's account of the life of desert people and this was the start of
a long collaboration between the two men.
gathered to perform an important series of ceremonies over three months. This interaction was
documented in photographs and a detailed account in the book "Native Tribes of Central Australia"
(published in 1899). The book is a landmark in anthropology, particularly in its use of fieldwork and
Spencer made a number of other trips to central and northern Australia (including Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands), some with Frank Gillen, and these resulted in further books with detailed observations of Aboriginal culture, ceremonies and way of life.
Some of the photographs by Spencer and Gillen were published in 1982 in the book "The
Aboriginal Photographs of Baldwin Spencer" which has long been out of print. The Melbourne
University Press (Miegunyah Press) has reissued the book under the title "The Photographs of
Baldwin Spencer" in a significantly expanded and redesigned format. It contains 30 extra images as
well as essays discussing the role of Spencer and Gillen in anthropology, the production and use of
their images and their lasting value and impact.
This book is a pleasure to read. The images are beautifully reproduced with the original explanatory
text retained for each image. The images are the heart of the value in the book. But the essays
place the images in their context and explore significant issues for contemporary viewers, both
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. For non-Aboriginal viewers, a number of the photographs are iconic
in the sense that they have shaped the way that Europeans visualize central desert Aboriginal
people and their traditional way of life.
As John Morton notes, "..many indigenous Australians, when confronted with Spencer and Gillen's images today, are positively moved by them" and Matthew Wonaemiri, Chairman of the Tiwi Land Council states "We believe the Baldwin Spencer records are important to the nation and we are proud of our association with those records."
Howard Morphy has a short but perceptive discussion of the Spencer and Gillen's photographs and
the role they played in shaping field work in anthropology. Spencer and Gillen pushed the limits of
the technology and also pioneered the use of moving images to capture the sequence of events in
ceremonies and in daily life. Morphy observes, however, that .."although it played such an
important role in the formative years of modern anthropology, photography subsequently became a
neglected resource" over the next 50 years. A fine book like this should help further to re-evaluate
the significance of Spencer and Gillen's photographs.
The photographs by Spencer and Gillen of public and secret ceremonies in many cases show
designs used in body painting and sand painting which continue to be used in contemporary
Aboriginal art. Seeing these designs in their traditional context helps to appreciate the continuing
cultural significance of art which incorporates these designs.
Over the last six months there has been a vigorous debate about Aboriginal land ownership,
models of economic development for remote communities - and even the viability of those
Helen Hughes of the Centre for Independent Studies has argued that "Deprivation in remote
communities, fringe settlements and ghettos does not result from a lack of federal, state and
territory expenditures, but from the socialist remote communities\u2019 experiment that has been central
to Australian separatist policies for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders for 30 years. The
uneconomic remote homelands movement and the absence of private property rights under native
title legislation are at the core of deprivation." (Issue Analysis No 63, September 2005).
This view has been supported in an unpublished discussion paper \u2018Privatising Indigenous Land\u2019,
sponsored by National Indigenous Council member Warren Mundine (now president of the
Australian Labor Party). In April 2005 and subsequently the Prime Minister has supported the view
that land privatisation and individualisation of property rights might improve housing and economic
development prospects for Indigenous peoples in remote areas.
These views have been strongly challenged by others. For example, Mick Dodson is of the view
that: "...there is a very unhealthy and inappropriate preoccupation with privatising indigenous land
by some commentators ... We would argue that there are many reasons to think that privatising
communal held land would not improve economic and other outcomes for Indigenous Australians.''
Perhaps the clearest and most considered critique has been given by Altman, Linkhorn and Clark in
a paper for the Centre of Aboriginal Economic Research (Paper 276/05) which focuses on the
situation in the Northern Territory where 44% of the land area has been returned to Aboriginal
ownership. Their research confirms that there is deeply entrenched Indigenous disadvantage on
Aboriginal land in the NT, but they find no evidence to suggest that individual ownership of land is
either necessary or sufficient to increase rates of economic development or housing construction.
Altman et al argue that "..the notion that land rights reform can unilaterally drive economic
development should be reconsidered in light of cultural difference, the legacy of disadvantage, and
structural factors faced by Indigenous communities on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. ...
there are far more significant structural issues that must be addressed in order to encourage
greater economic development and address housing needs. These structural factors include the
remoteness of communities from mainstream markets, relatively low populations and population
densities, the need for greater investment in education and vocational skills, poor infrastructure,
and the generally economically marginal nature of most lands held under Aboriginal title. In
addition, there are fundamental Aboriginal cultural reasons for attachment to land, irrespective of
whether that land has current commercial use or potential."
Despite the controversy, the Australian Government proposes to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights
(Northern Territory) Act 1976 to make it easier for people to own their own home and to develop
businesses in townships on Aboriginal land. This will be done by changing the processes for getting
long term leases through a voluntary system of head-leases over township areas. The Government
states, however, that it is not changing the fundamental features of land rights, including
inalienability, communal title and the Traditional Owner power of veto.
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