about | writing | contact
naughty natives security threat liminal being a medium  
Intervention See No Evil upon the place of blood Trans Me  
Hinenuitepo Blood Landing jooroo  
Maccassan Story Yugambeh MoleMole ifloving you is wrong... Moko  


Activism in Aboriginal art by Jacqui Katona


Expression of the personal is often political. This is very true of Aboriginal art — which often reflects on what it is to be an Aboriginal person in Australia today. The debate over Aboriginal rights to land in this country is fundamental to the expression of our human rights — Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal people strive, not only that our rights to land be recognised, but also that it be managed, consistent with our cultural practices. It is from the land that our law and power is derived, it is the foundation of our authority. Our land cannot be transformed as a resource, our land is part of our family, it reflects our relationships with each other, it connects our souls, it feels as we do and it grieves — as we do — when our connection with it is impaired. These are the issues that are central to Aboriginal art. Essential to Aboriginal people. It also requires that the marginalisation and the inhumanity experienced by Aboriginal people be expressed explicitly in Aboriginal art.
Aboriginal art cannot be isolated from our experiences required in this country is a fundamental psychological change — to accept that we are capable of devising our own structures, our own solutions and determining our own future. This has to happen at the local level all over Australia. The current reductionist process of politics will defeat every other attempt. We know there is genuine goodwill on the part of the Australian public for the injustices of the past — but it requires the hard work and understanding of every Australian before our future can be recast.
In our fight we are often labelled bad citizens — but it is not our aim to be good citizens — it is our aim to be non-citizens. For if our actions as non-citizens are recognised we will have begun, on our own terms, to achieve a new path which truly reflects our future, not a compromise in which we stand judged by other’s values and beliefs. For it is those values and beliefs which ultimately are used to determine our identity, redefine our past and dominate our future.
When I worked for the Australia Council at the Aboriginal Arts Board1, — as it was known in 1985 — under the Dixon/Foley regime2 it was necessary to undertake guerrilla warfare in the arts bureaucracy. I say it was necessary because prior to the Aboriginalisation of the Aboriginal Arts Board unit, decisions about arts funding were made according to a non-Aboriginal agenda and a non-Aboriginal view of what Aboriginal art should be. This was abhorrent to Aboriginal people. It meant that the power to define Aboriginal identity through expression in the arts was determined by what non- Aboriginal society would tolerate. Projects that represented a more romantic view of Aboriginal people were funded and it seemed Australians were content with the promotion of culture divorced from the political realities of Aboriginal communities. There was found to be a predominance of projects that benefited non-Aboriginal arts-workers rather than Aboriginal artists. Aboriginal people who were not perceived to be culturally authentic — “urban Aboriginal artists” — or who did not fit easily into the fine art definition were not funded. Major Indigenous arts institutions were not required to
ensure an Aboriginalisation policy was implemented in their organisations and were dominated by non-Aboriginal arts-workers. Cultural imperatives determined by anthropology and archaeology were articulated as legitimate frameworks through which Aboriginal identity should be expressed. Yet Aboriginal society had been demanding the ability to make our own decisions — to represent our own identity — to articulate our own cultural imperatives and for institutions to accommodate those decisions made by Aboriginal workers within them.
Was the Aboriginal Arts Board ultimately able to bring about a change in arts administration? Perhaps for a short period of time. However, before long we were ostracised for trying to increase the budget for funding Aboriginal artists. The Aboriginal Arts Board during this period of time undertook protection of cultural heritage objects and materials. They were also at the forefront of negotiations in a meaningful way with institutions regarding the return of artefacts taken outside of Australia in the colonial process. They sought to strengthen Aboriginal decision-making through funding for Indigenous management of Aboriginal arts organisations. The Aboriginal Arts Board was required to fund projects across all art forms, unlike specialist Boards within the Australia Council. All applications from Aboriginal artists were automatically referred from other areas of the Australia Council to the Aboriginal Arts Board for funding. A priority of the Foley-Dixon regime was to increase the overall funding of projects directly to Aboriginal artists and Aboriginal arts-workers. The Aboriginal Arts Board was able to effectively double the money to Aboriginal artists by requiring that funding go to Aboriginal artists, and not non-Aboriginal arts workers.
Aboriginalising the staff of the Aboriginal Arts Board was an effective and meaningful process by which increased access to Arts Board programs by Aboriginal communities was achieved. This approach was directly responsible for the prominence of Aboriginal artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley and others.
We received no support or backing from other Australian government arts administrations for the premier international art exhibition ARATJARA. This major multi art form exhibition was almost entirely funded by the German government for touring throughout Europe. Ironically it is exhibitions such as these that often define the Australian identity internationally. Criticism and ambivalence from within the arts bureaucracy was one thing. The important question is: Did the arts bureaucracy ultimately accommodate the decisions of Aboriginal people and the agenda of Aboriginal artists within arts administration? Sadly the answer is no.
Arts administration continues to generally demonstrate a strong resistance to the accommodation of decisions by Aboriginal artists and Aboriginal arts administrators. This
is often obvious in the extent to which collections and programs of exhibitions reflect a Western desire to interpret Aboriginal art, not a desire to facilitate the articulation of Aboriginal art by Aboriginal artists. This practice within many art institutions is actually
institutionalised racism. This, in fact, is what has contributed to Aboriginal art becoming a ‘white thing’.
Aboriginal art isn’t produced by Aboriginal people for aesthetic pleasure only — it is produced by a powerless group of people for consumption by a powerful group of people. Aboriginal art is produced to survive the marginalisation of Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal art practice identifies the artist and the artist’s heritage through historical issues which have defined our experiences as Aboriginal people.

For this reason arts institutions generally must examine closely their objectives and procedures in engaging with Aboriginal art and Aboriginal artists. Arts institutions must be aware that the practice of institutionalised racism is a pervasive one, so they must create the procedural framework with which to identify racist practices. It’s common for non-Aboriginal people to believe that racism is a phenomenon that occurs “somewhere else”. However, it is imperative that institutions take a proactive stand to identify racist practices that continue to disempower and marginalise Aboriginal decision-making within institutions. I have found a useful example of the definition of institutionalised racism originating from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry3 where Justice William Macpherson stated the concept of institutional racism consists of:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

He went on to say that institutionalised racism: persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence… . Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive disease.4

This is not particular to arts bureaucracy, it happens in most bureaucracies across Australia. In fact I would go so far as to say that Aboriginal affairs, currently, is a conversation between white people. Because a Western paradigm for interpretation of Aboriginal art is so dominant it results in two things — the acquiescence by Aboriginal artists to the dominance of Western thinking, which degrades the integrity of their art, or the exclusion of particular artists from engagement by arts institutions in Australia. In terms of Aboriginal expertise within art organisations, the advice of Aboriginal art-workers does not form the basis of ongoing formal policy development and artistic direction.
Aboriginal art-workers are often expected to have input as an individual, not reflecting a collective view. These are the examples of cultural restrictions experienced by Aboriginal artists. This tokenises Aboriginal art and Aboriginal artists for simply challenging the status quo — not just in arts administration but the status quo in Australian society.
On our terms this means acquiescence by Aboriginal people to the dominant theories of the noble savage. The recognition that our culture has adapted and is no less authentic than that portrayed by anthropologists has little legitimacy. The value of Aboriginal discourse or commentary through the medium of art may be regarded as controversial by art institutions, however this is a political issue, not an issue of artistic integrity. It has been my experience that activism by Aboriginal artists often results in bureaucratic structures of arts administration being used to isolate those activists often labelled as bad,
angry and unrepentant — laughably, as if this is not allowed in art practice.
In fact, this attitude bequeaths privilege on those ascribing to Western paradigms. The demand by institutions to conform — for Aboriginal art to conform to acceptability on Western terms — is assimilatory. Aboriginal artists require the ability to access, act on and enjoy rights within our own dynamic cultural framework. This could encompass arts projects which allow Aboriginal artists to explore expression of Aboriginal ideas about both the Aboriginal community and the non-Aboriginal community; projects which allow Aboriginal artists and arts-workers the freedom to raise issues which directly affect their lives and interrogate the nature of power in Australia.
The major consideration here is who has the power to define? Whose discourse is taken as authoritative? How is the dynamism and living nature of our identity represented? Any form of intellectual superiority demonstrates a neo-colonial attitude and frankly, is
If neo-colonial attitudes continue to find refuge in institutions in Australia it will set this country apart from the discourse on indigenous human rights taking place in the rest of the world. There are many exhibitions which are created by and for indigenous peoples all over the world, which explore the power relationship between coloniser and colonised. Nations have in the past experienced an uncomfortable but necessary journey aided by the arts to confront uncertain nation-building which accommodates indigenous peoples.
We must recognise that the debate in this country about reconciliation is all about white people’s concepts of comfortable race relations and in fact acts as a diversion and a barrier to Aboriginal self-determination.
The question remains: how does non-Aboriginal Australia help re-position the power imbalance which marginalises Aboriginal peoples? If you recognise the power imbalance at a personal level between individuals — what is your responsibility? If you recognise the power imbalance between our communities — what then is your responsibility? If you recognise the power imbalance between the two societies, which exist separate and distinct in this country — what is your responsibility?
It is not about platitudes and promises. It’s about something that is a fine tradition of artists radicalising society. If Aboriginal artists are not able to radicalise society with their works — if a challenge put by Aboriginal art and Aboriginal artists is excluded — it will
be as a result of a privileged group suppressing that challenge. Our future, collectively, demands that Aboriginal ideas, representations and imperatives be accepted as legitimate. Is the threshold of acceptability so low in Australia so as not to accommodate different ideas?
I invite arts institutions to take a new direction regarding Aboriginal art and redefine their relationship with Aboriginal artists.
In the process we hope that arts institutions will demonstrate their leadership and encourage Australians to join an enlightened and positive change which allows Australia to come to terms with its future. It does require leadership and effort. It does require challenge and meaningful, genuine discourse. Without these things Australian art will become the hostage of Australia’s broader insecurities.
Institutions who do not actively employ Aboriginal staff in senior management positions are also tokenising advice on crucial issues such as collection and exhibitions. In fact, to employ a group of Aboriginal people without adequate management recognition tokenises their input and privileges non-Aboriginal managers who ultimately take responsibility for the unique and highly specialist advice of Aboriginal staff who are often not credited and
not recognised for their invaluable advice, networks and knowledge of cultural protocols. These are issues that must be acknowledged throughout management structures, not simply exploited for the benefit of the institution. This activity characterises the privileging of an organisation that ultimately appropriates Aboriginal knowledge, and thus diminishes the integrity of that knowledge.
I was asked what Aboriginal arts-workers should do about this situation. My response is that Aboriginal artsworkers should withdraw their knowledge from non-Aboriginal institutions and instead invest their knowledge within the Aboriginal community. In essence, that Aboriginal control of Aboriginal knowledge should not be conditional. Aboriginal knowledge must be utilised as intellectual capital separate and distinct from Western imperatives. This framework must be defined by Aboriginal people and reinforce the dynamism which is the source of our cultural strength.



* The above transcript is a revised version of a paper originally delivered at the Blak Insights: Indigenous Voices, New Directions conference held at the Queensland Art Gallery, 3-4 July 2004, and then published in Machine Magazine issue 2.4, p3, 2007.



1 As a Project Officer from 1985-87.
2 Gary Foley was the first Aboriginal Director of the Aboriginal Arts
Board, appointed 1984. Chicka Dixon was appointed Chairperson of the
Board in 1983.
3 Stephen Lawrence was a black British teenager who was stabbed to
death on 22 April 1993 in a racially motivated crime. The Macpherson
Report (1999) was the result of a public inquiry into claims of
institutional racism in the way police dealt with the original murder
4 www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm42/4262/sli-06.htm#6.34