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A culture of forgetting
Chris Healy
According to a now conventional history, Aboriginal high art emerged
in a series of landmark moments stretching from the 1960s. At the very
beginning of this period, the Yirrkala church panels, 1962-63, and the
Yirrkala bark petition, 1963, were produced. Ten years later marked what
some have called the 'invention' of modern Aboriginal art at Papunya.
Another decade on and large canvases by Papunya artists - 'vast
compendiums of Western Desert culture, mapping out the artists'
custodial responsibilities over vast areas' - were included in Australian
Perspecta at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Sydney, a
moment which Vivien Johnson has described as marking 'the beginning
of the end of the long denial of Aboriginal art by the Australian art
establishment'.' In 1988, the exhibition 'Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal
Australia' was shown in New York and then toured to Chicago, Los
Angeles, Melbourne and Adelaide. The new millennium was marked by
'Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius' at the AGNSW, a moment when
paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and
Rover Thomas Joolama had become among the most sought-after
Australian contemporary art both nationally and internationally.
This art history has been packed with extraordinary creative industry.
With each new style comes a new star, announced by newspaper
headlines such as 'Six months after picking up a brush, Sally, 83, a top
seller'.2 In a sense, it's a repetition of history across the country whereby
Indigenous people in relatively remote communities pick up brushes,
often through government-sponsored programs, to produce startlingly
new and deeply authentic transportable art for sale to mainly non-
Indigenous buyers, public and private institutions.
But, as I've argued in my book Forgetting Aborigines (2008), this history
may also be amnesic. In addition to regarding the creative output as
simply 'extraordinary and exhilarating',J it may be that the emergence of
Aboriginal art has produced forgetfulness in the domains of Aboriginality.
226 art &australia
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It is interesting to consider how the creation of an Aboriginal high art is
shadowed or perhaps haunted by other histories and other memories of
Aboriginal art in relation to white Australia. This 'other world' of image-
making and Aboriginalitv has produced a seemingly endless supply of
Aboriginal kitsch and 'Jacky Jacky' statues. It is a retro world of Gantas
menu cards replete with 'Hunting motifs from Australian Aboriginal Art'
and the 'Honey-bee totem Christmas card' designed by Estonian-born
Gert Sellheim; of 'Kangaroo hunt' textiles by Douglas Annand and Frances
Burke; of Byram Mansell murals, Lloyd Piper playing cards and Rita Chin
mugs; of the theft of a David Malangi design for the Australian one-dollar
note (introduced in 1966); and much else besides. These objects, designs
and artworks share one thing: they are in some respects derived from
versions of Indigenous art practices. But rather than creative practice in
the domain of 'authentic Aboriginal art', this is 'Aboriginal art' produced
by non-Indigenous people. Such works are about popular image-making:
closer to 'Mulga wood ashtrays, crude motifs on tea towels and plastic
boomerangs in tawdry souvenir shops' than unique works of art in
galleries; more reproduction than authentic; more light and offensive than
serious and genuine; more of mundane everyday culture than of
extraordinary genius. The contemporary celebration of authentic
Aboriginal art has, in the main, consigned this world of Aboriginal kitsch
to the dustbin of history as image-making practices to be forgotten
because it was made by the wrong people and based on the theft of
Indigenous tradition.
This artistic entanglement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians can be revisited by reconsidering the recent consolidation of
Papunya Tula as 'perhaps the greatest single cultural achievement of
Australia's post-settlement history'.' One of the effects of this cultural
achievement has been that 'new' and 'authentic' Aboriginal art has come
not only to dominate the terrain of contemporary Aboriginal art but also to
obscure how, in the not-too-distant past, Aboriginal art was possessed in
very different ways by non-Indigenous Australians. As well as marking the
birth of a movement, Papunya might also be the beginning of the end for
Aboriginal kitsch. One illustration of this contrast is Roman Black's
amazing 1964 book Old and New Australian Aboriginal Art, in which 'new
Australian Aboriginal art' refers to the work of non-Indigenous artists,
designers and potters using Indigenous art as a resource and inspiration
for their artistic practice. This work opens up the terrain of Aboriginalia or
Aboriginal kitsch as an ambivalent cultural space of Aboriginality. What is
remarkable about the inheritance of Aboriginalia today is that, while
disavowed by respectful collectors and critics, the terrain is being
reworked by artists such as Destiny Deacon and Ross Moore. It may be
that the cultural and political ambitions for Indigenous art may depend, in
part, on non-Indigenous people recalling their inheritance of this
otherwise forgotten history.
1 Vivien Johnson, '8.5 Desert an', in Sylvia Kleinen and Margo Neale. Aborigine/Art and Cultura,
Oxford University Press, Australia and New Zealand. 2001, p. 214.
Ian Gerard. 'Six months after picking up a brush, Sally, 83. a top seller', The Australian,
5 September 2005, p. 6.
Fred R. Myers, Painting Culture: The Making ofan Aboriginal High Art, Duke University Pross.
Durham. 2002. p. 342.
4 Paul Carter, 'Introduction: The interpretation of dreams', in Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon.
Papunva: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement,
The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2004. p. xiv.
Forgetting Aborigine., UNSW Press. Sydney. 200B. 256 pp.. $39.95.
art &australia 227

Durham. of 'Kangaroo hunt' textiles by Douglas Annand and Frances Burke. more reproduction than authentic.. 214. 'Introduction: The interpretation of dreams'.. on non-Indigenous people recalling their inheritance of this otherwise forgotten history. The Miegunyah Press. Australia and New Zealand. 5 September 2005. Myers. Duke University Pross. Aboriginal art was possessed in very different ways by non-Indigenous Australians. This 'other world' of imagemaking and Aboriginalitv has produced a seemingly endless supply of Aboriginal kitsch and 'Jacky Jacky' statues. The contemporary celebration of authentic Aboriginal art has. xiv. designs and artworks share one thing: they are in some respects derived from versions of Indigenous art practices. But rather than creative practice in the domain of 'authentic Aboriginal art'. 2004. designers and potters using Indigenous art as a resource and inspiration for their artistic practice. The Australian. 2001. 'Six months after picking up a brush. in Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon. What is remarkable about the inheritance of Aboriginalia today is that. in part. in the not-too-distant past. more light and offensive than serious and genuine. 256 pp. Melbourne. 4 Paul Carter. p. This artistic entanglement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can be revisited by reconsidering the recent consolidation of Papunya Tula as 'perhaps the greatest single cultural achievement of Australia's post-settlement history'. Oxford University Press.95. $39. this is 'Aboriginal art' produced by non-Indigenous people. Papunya might also be the beginning of the end for Aboriginal kitsch. more of mundane everyday culture than of extraordinary genius. Forgetting Aborigine. in the main.' One of the effects of this cultural achievement has been that 'new' and 'authentic' Aboriginal art has come not only to dominate the terrain of contemporary Aboriginal art but also to obscure how. Sydney. 1 Vivien Johnson. It may be that the cultural and political ambitions for Indigenous art may depend. Fred R. '8. 6. consigned this world of Aboriginal kitsch to the dustbin of history as image-making practices to be forgotten because it was made by the wrong people and based on the theft of Indigenous tradition. 200B. 2002. These objects.It is interesting to consider how the creation of an Aboriginal high art is shadowed or perhaps haunted by other histories and other memories of Aboriginal art in relation to white Australia. of Byram Mansell murals. p. p. One illustration of this contrast is Roman Black's amazing 1964 book Old and New Australian Aboriginal Art. of the theft of a David Malangi design for the Australian one-dollar note (introduced in 1966). in which 'new Australian Aboriginal art' refers to the work of non-Indigenous artists. 342. in Sylvia Kleinen and Margo Neale. the terrain is being reworked by artists such as Destiny Deacon and Ross Moore.5 Desert an'. This work opens up the terrain of Aboriginalia or Aboriginal kitsch as an ambivalent cultural space of Aboriginality. Sally. p. art & australia 227 . 83. Papunva: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement. Aborigine/Art and Cultura. while disavowed by respectful collectors and critics. UNSW Press. and much else besides. crude motifs on tea towels and plastic boomerangs in tawdry souvenir shops' than unique works of art in galleries. Painting Culture: The Making ofan Aboriginal High Art. a top seller'. As well as marking the birth of a movement. Lloyd Piper playing cards and Rita Chin mugs. Ian Gerard. It is a retro world of Gantas menu cards replete with 'Hunting motifs from Australian Aboriginal Art' and the 'Honey-bee totem Christmas card' designed by Estonian-born Gert Sellheim. Such works are about popular image-making: closer to 'Mulga wood ashtrays.

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