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Aboriginal Art and Film
The Politics of Representation

Marcia Langton

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1. See Philip Jones, ‘Perceptions of Aboriginal Art: A History’ in Peter Sutton (ed.), Dreamings (Ringwood: Penguin, 1988), pp. 176- 179.


2. Ibid, p. 179.

  The history of the changed status of Aboriginal artists – including visual and performing artists and filmmakers – from anonymous artefact makers whose works were collected until the 1970s by museums, anthropologists and pastoralists, to serious acceptance by the global art industry in the 1990s, (1) is the tale of a modern art movement of enormous significance to modern Australia. At an Australian Rugby League Grand Final, Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ was played, and the cheerleaders performed to it. This piece of ethnographic trivia from modern Australia, and many other examples like it, tell us that there is something happening between white and black Australia, and that it has to do with music, art and film. It is more than an ‘increasingly appreciative public informed by an attentive media’. (2)  



Visual and oral expressions have always been very elaborated, in the social sense, in Aboriginal societies. It is estimated that, before the invasion, there were two hundred distinct Aboriginal languages. There are at least fifty surviving, with numbers of speakers ranging from one to more than two thousand. Many observers have commented on the extraordinary amount of time and resources devoted to the arts and religious ceremonies. Multilingualism, linguistic devices and codes, oral, dance and musical traditions, and the visual arts, were more elaborate than the material culture used in daily domestic life, such as items for hunting, gathering and preparing food, shelter and apparel.

A modern development of this emphasis on the visual and oral values in traditional life is the enormous production of visual art for the Australian and international markets, of film and video for internal community and external exhibition, and of music. Some of the better known people in the visual arts are Michael Nelson Jakamarra, Gordon Bennett, Trevor Nickolls, Rover Thomas, Jimmy Pike, Fiona Foley, Ron Hurley, Sally Morgan, Pansy Napangarti and Emily Kngwarreye. In the film and video area, Australians may have heard of Tracey Moffatt, Ivan Sen, Michael Riley, Essie Coffey, Wayne Barker, Bryon Syron and Rhonda Barker, Gerry Bostock and Robert Bropho, who have participated in co-productions such as Lousy Little Sixpence (Bostock & Alec Morgan, 1983), Munda Nyurringu: He’s Taken the Land He Believes It is His He Won’t Give It Back (Bropho & Ian Roberts, 1983) and the community of Borrooloola, which co-produced Two Laws/Kanymarda Yuwa (Carolyn Strachan & Alessandro Cavadini, 1981). In music, Yothu Yindi, Roger Knox, the Mills Sisters, Archie Roach, Kev Carmody and Coloured Stone are all well known and some world-famous. In the performing arts, Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae, and the works of Richard Walley, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Robert Merritt and others, have won national and international acclaim.




3. A petition presented on 14 August 1963 to the then-Prime Minister from the Elders of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) that the Swiss multinational NABALCO corporation not be permitted to mine on their land. The petition was on bark, in Aboriginal-style drawings.

4. See especially Tony Fry and Anne-Marie Willis, ‘Aboriginal Art: Symptom or Success’, Art in America, Vol. 77 No. 7 (1989).

  How does one characterise this cultural efflorescence? My own observations of Aboriginal artistic production, and less so its marketing, are that it is a process of incorporating the non-Aboriginal world into the Aboriginal worldview or cosmology, to lessen the pressure for Aboriginal people to become incorporated or assimilated into the global worldview. Some very direct gestures with this intent have been recorded since at least the 1950s. The ‘Yirrkala Bark Petition’, presented to Parliament in 1963 and still housed there, is one well-known example. (3) There has been a great deal of anxiety about the commodification of Aboriginal art in the global art market, centred around concern about exploitation of the exotic with not enough attention paid to the motivations for the production of the art. (4) It would seem to me that the intent – the message, if you like – of the Bark Petition cannot be appropriated, and that the most the appropriators have grasped is the exterior, decorative features of Aboriginal material culture, and some suggestion that behind the abstraction there lies a body of hidden meaning.  




5. Howard Morphy, Ancestral Connections (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 193-196.
  What I see as central to much Aboriginal art production is a new permissiveness, atypical of the old traditions. To have the authority to execute the sacred designs (now seen around the world on objects as unrelated as sneakers and BMWs) only ten years ago, one had to be a properly qualified Law man or woman (i.e. within traditional Aboriginal Law), a religious exegete. There was a harsh discipline and physicality involved in achieving and upholding this status along with its rights and responsibilities. There are two fields of Aboriginal knowledge, which are exemplified in the historical process of making Aboriginal designs available to non-Aboriginal people: the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, the secret-sacred and the non-secret-sacred, although these are not entirely absolute and distinct. The revelation of inside knowledge occurred formerly only during specific status-changing ritual ordeals. Today, anybody in the world with a mind to can walk into a gallery and see at first hand an Aboriginal design depicting the outside knowledge. They will not, however, see the ‘brilliance’ described by Howard Morphy. (5) The technique relies on restricted inside traditional knowledge. Peter Sutton suggests that knowing more about Aboriginal culture might help others to understand these works, but that this knowledge,  

6. Peter Sutton, ‘Responding to Aboriginal Art’, in Dreamings, p. 49.
  while hardly common as yet, can be much overrated: it does not guarantee a rich grasp of the art ... Sacred understanding largely comes from seeing, and particularly from seeing performances and the execution of designs, together with listening to the often cryptic glosses offered by elders at such events.(6)  


7. See Further Reading.
  However, the outside knowledge conveyed in the common representations of Dreamings – such as the Yam Dreaming or the Two Women Dreaming or the Two Men – in any particular example of visual art can now be grasped, if only distantly, because of the increasing body of scholarly and critical literature and catalogues of exhibitions. (7)  


  While attempting to incorporate global culture into Aboriginal cosmology, or into its outside ideational system, Aboriginal people are also incorporating Western and Japanese technology at an enormous rate. Video production, television transmission, interactive technology, electronic musical instruments and sound systems, plus other technologies, now abound in Aboriginal communities.  





8. Eric Michaels, ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’, Art & Text, no. 28 (1988), pp. 60-61. Reprinted in Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons (University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
  Image production is a good example of how Western and Japanese technology and artefacts have been incorporated as part of Aboriginal customary law. Eric Michaels identified, in relation to the production of acrylic art depicting traditional ritual designs, features which distinguish Warlpiri art and design – or image – production from European production. Aboriginal art does not emphasise original creative individuals or assign them responsibility as author. Warlpiri artists earn rights to paint certain pre-existing designs, not so much to introduce new ones. Rights to an œuvre are inherited so that one’s son, daughter-in-law or some other individual continues producing the same designs. Therefore, Michaels explains, ‘A forgery adequately executed, when circulated, may be no forgery. Plagiarism is not a possibility in this tradition. What is feared instead is thievery – the unauthorised appropriation of a design, as well as the potential for such stolen designs to convey rights and authority to the thief.’ He concluded that ‘these design traditions are considered to originate in a collective past, and project towards an infinite, impersonal future. By necessity, the authority of this system would be compromised by an ideology of invention which singled out individual producers.’ (8)  


  This social context of Aboriginal art, startlingly different from European art, explains why Aboriginal art has been so inaccessible to non-Aboriginal people. The intellectuality and abbreviation, two of the significant features of Aboriginal art, are disguised by the often cryptic explanations by Aboriginal artists and by the equally cryptic catalogue entries. Sutton remarks on the erroneously assumed similarity in the Western mind of child art and Aboriginal art:  




9. Sutton, ‘Responding to Aboriginal Art’, p. 37.
  The formal simplicity of much Aboriginal art similarly belies its embodiment of complex social, mythic and ceremonial meanings. It often rests on that preference for cryptography and obliqueness demanded by a restricted economy of religious knowledge, the basis of so much power in Aboriginal society. But while the Impressionist painter sought to achieve something like a copy of a visual impression, the Aboriginal artist generally seeks to create reductive signs for the things represented. In other words, the Impressionist’s approach is predominantly perceptual, while the Aboriginal artist’s approach is generally more conceptual. (9)  


  Much of the Aboriginal art production of today, that from the areas settled earliest, is not a direct expression of the traditional cultural precepts described by Sutton and Michaels. But this does not mean that much of it is not ‘authentically’ Aboriginal art. There are some signs that the scholarly end of the fine arts market has successfully resisted the impulse to collect exotica like trophies. Sutton, Philip Jones and Steven Hemming write about the conviction of the artist and ‘urban artists’:  









10. Sutton, Jones and Steven Hemming, ‘Survival, Regeneration and Impact’, in Dreamings, pp. 203-204.

In postmodern circles an ironic mode may even be almost obligatory if an artist’s work is to be accepted, yet an Aboriginal artist may proceed without the detachment of a mode of irony and certainly in most cases does so without cynicism. This is especially true of the more tradition-oriented artists. Urban artists like Trevor Nickolls, on the other hand, may well employ irony and bitter humour in their work. But the difference between these two kinds of artistic approaches is not merely one of sincerity versus irony. The irony of the urban artist may be as sincere in its own way as the conviction of the painter of Dreamings. And the underlying difference is one of detached comment (recent urban art) versus symbolic narrative (traditional art).

In the urban case, there are usually two primary texts: the art object and its message ... In traditional Aboriginal art there is basically only one public text: the story, or spirit, or animal represented and its representation. The artist does not say things like: ‘In this painting I am trying to show the relation between power centred in the gerontocracy and what has happened to young people in my society.’ Meaning is not made exterior to its representation, and the message is not distinct from the myth or image itself. There is a quantum gap between this kind of mythic interpretation and an ethics-based overt analysis of the social order. In the 1980s, however, objectification of the social order is as authentically Aboriginal in Sydney as embeddedness in a mythic order is in remote Papunya or Ramingining. (10)




What do these terms, ‘conviction’, ‘message’, ‘intent’, ‘comment’, ‘narrative’, mean? Is it correct to slide over the sociality of ‘urban artists’ as if their account of history is only connected to the tradition from which they have emerged (the tradition of Aboriginal society) by a narrow detached conviction? Such questions occur again when the involvement of Aboriginal people in the making of film and video is discussed. For, since 1979, this has increased at such a rate that the field can be seen with some hindsight and quantification as a minor social revolution. This was when filmmakers Alec Morgan and Martha Ansara handed over directorial control to Essie Coffey, Aboriginal matriarch and country and western singer, in the making of My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979).

But, as in other revolutions, and other fields of Aboriginal action, critical problems have arisen.

The Need for Critical Theory

Critics find it difficult to discuss Aboriginal works because of an almost complete absence of critical theory, knowledge and sensibility towards Aboriginal film and video production. There are some important exceptions, mostly in specialist literature. It is not widely read.

The late Eric Michaels, anthropologist, and Michael Leigh, film archivist, in particular, have broadened our understanding, while a small group of film theorists have ventured into the field. Laleen Jayamanne, a Sri Lankan/Australian filmmaker, and E. Ann Kaplan, an American film theorist, have written reviews of Tracey Moffatt’s works and provide an anti-colonial understanding of an Aboriginal woman’s filmmaking. As well, other independent film and video-makers such as Destiny Deacon, Michael Riley, Rhonda Barker and Eric Renshaw have provided an anti-colonial critique through their productions. But there is no sizeable body of literature that provides an informed anti-colonial critique of the films and videos about Aboriginal people.


11. Michael Leigh, ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’, in Scott Murray (ed.), Back of Beyond (UCLA, 1988).   History is another problem. In film, as in other media, there is a dense history of racist, distorted and often offensive representation of Aboriginal people. Michael Leigh estimates that a staggering six thousand films have been made about Aborigines. (11) Research and critique by the few critical writers is diminished to the size of a family of ants in comparison to the elephant of colonial representation.  

12. Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (London: Verso, London, 1990), p. 1.



The easiest and most ‘natural’ form of racism in representation is the act of making the other invisible. Indeed, racism can provide a satisfying comprehension of black identity (a reason why it persists), and one that is linked to the viewer’s ideological framework. (12) E. Ann Kaplan has noted the initial invisibility of Aboriginal people to visitors from overseas such as herself. This becomes her metaphor for the absence of Aboriginal people from representation: ‘As a foreigner, it has been hard to locate Aborigines on any level, least of all in person. Yet once one becomes aware of their absence, suddenly in a way they are present ... ’

Kaplan describes her encounters with Aboriginal people: a quiet Aboriginal family in Mosman visiting a waterhole; a quiet, very drunk, Aboriginal man trying to obtain a service in a shop, and an Aboriginal video producer from Central Australia.



  How are we, as strangers, to make sense of any of these contradictory images? We are faced again with the problem of difference, and with how to conceptualise it. How can I enter or approach the culture of the Aborigines, as a white Anglo-Celt who has lived long in North America? ... Knowledge can only happen as we enter into a dialogue with the other culture, as we dare to look at it within frameworks we bring with us rather than trying to get inside ‘their’ frameworks, and losing ourselves in the process… Past Aboriginal culture appears difficult to dialogue with, precisely because it is so invisible, because it leaves so few traces for the outsider to experience for her/himself. But perhaps contemporary Aboriginal culture leaves room for dialogue.  


  Kaplan’s engagement in a serious discussion about Moffatt’s early film Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and the award-winning Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) is the kind of critical dialogue to which she refers and which is so absent from Australian considerations of Aboriginal filmmaking:  




13. E. Ann Kaplan, ‘Aborigines, Film and Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy: An Outsider’s Perspective’, The Olive Pink Society Bulletin, vol. 2 no. 1 (1989), pp. 13-17.
  Like Nice Coloured Girls, Night Cries makes an important cultural intervention. Just as locating and celebrating Aboriginal racial specificity is one important current intervention, so also is starting the task of seeing cultural inter-relatedness. Even as an outsider, one can appreciate (indeed, Moffatt’s works precisely help one appreciate) the difficulty of formulating desirable modes of cultural inter-relatedness in Australia: as the first ‘Australians’, how do Aborigines want now (after all that has happened) to relate to later Anglo-Celt, European and Asian immigrants? Is absorption into the Anglo mainstream a desirable goal? Is cultivating ethnic/racial difference best? ... [Moffatt’s] works examine the impact of the past on the present they explore the present on past inter-racial happenings in cultural codes of today. (13)  



Kaplan, perhaps understandably, underestimates the presence of Aboriginal images in Australian film and television. As Michael Leigh has documented, there is a long history of images of Aboriginal people and culture.

The need to convey a sense of the political and aesthetic issues which concern Aboriginal people to other Australians in the film and television industries is one starting point in this essay. Most Aboriginal people involved in production of art-forms believe that an ethical, post-colonial critique and practice among their non-Aboriginal colleagues is possible and achievable. It is, after all, the desire to make aesthetic and political statements which motivates both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to create films, videos or television programs.

‘Aboriginality’ has a significant bearing on the nature of the problem of representation. It is, therefore, important to place Aboriginal people in a social relationship with the filmmaking and television world in an analytical sense. The issue of Aboriginal involvement in production is a complex one, socially, politically and aesthetically, particularly for funding bodies. It is not simply a matter of the sidestepping and blurring of difficult issues of a political and cultural nature. The issues are opaque for more general and universal reasons to do with colonial and post-colonial perceptions of ‘Aboriginality’, of the ‘primitive’, of the ‘savage’, of Australian history and of the historical, political, technological and aesthetic issues which film and video-making and television production accentuate or engender. The problem is not necessarily one of racial discrimination.





14. See, for example, Niggaz with Attitude, Real Niggaz Don’t Die (MCA Music).
  There is a naive belief that Aboriginal people will make ‘better’ representations of us simply because, it is argued, being Aboriginal gives a ‘greater’ understanding. This belief is based on an ancient and universal feature of racism: the assumption of the undifferentiated ‘Other’. More specifically, the assumption is that all Aborigines are alike and equally understand each other, without regard to cultural variation, history, gender, sexual preference and so on. It is a demand for censorship: there is a ‘right’ way to be Aboriginal, and any Aboriginal film or video producer will necessarily make a ‘true’ representation of ‘Aboriginality’. This thinking is as much based on fear of difference as is white Australian racism. If we only look at that which makes us feel safe, that which tells us that we are what we would like to imagine ourselves to be, we will become naked emperors and empresses, or even ‘dead niggers’ in the parlance of Los Angeles rap music. (14)  



I contend that the central problem is not one of racial discrimination, although I do not deny that it might be a factor in specific or general encounters. Rather, the central problem is the need to develop a body of knowledge and critical perspective to do with aesthetics and politics, whether written by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, on representations of Aboriginal people and concerns in art, film, television or other media.

The body of literature which is helpful in approaching this problem comes from a range of disciplines and subject areas. I therefore turn now to a survey of some of the most relevant of that work, and to films and television programs, to examine more thoroughly aspects of politics and aesthetics in representations of Aboriginal matters.

The Social Relationship Between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal

Who is Aboriginal? What is Aboriginal? For Aboriginal people, resolving who is Aboriginal and who is not is an uneasy issue, located somewhere between the individual and the state. They find white perceptions of ‘Aboriginality’ disturbing because of the history of forced removal of children, disenfranchisement from civil rights, and dispossession of land.





15. See John McCorquodale, Aboriginals and the Law: A Digest (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1987).
  The label ‘Aboriginal’ has become one of the most disputed terms in the Australian language. There are High Court decisions and opinions on the ‘term’ and its meaning. Legal scholar John McCorquodale tells us that in Australian law there have been sixty-seven definitions of Aboriginal people, mostly relating to their status as wards of the state and to criteria for incarceration in the institutional reserves. These definitions reflect not only the Anglo-Australian legal and administrative obsession, even fixation, with Aboriginal people, but also the uncertainty, confusion and constant search for the appropriate characterisation: ‘full blood’, ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’, ‘octoroon’, ‘such and such an admixture of blood’, ‘a native of Australia’, ‘a native of an admixture of blood not less than half Aboriginal’, and so on. Indeed, whether or not an Aboriginal person lived in a ‘native’s camp’ even became an important issue of definition in one legal case. (15)  



The fixation on classification reflects the extraordinary intensification of colonial administration of Aboriginal affairs from 1788 to the present. Elaborate systems of control aimed, until recently, at exterminating one kind of ‘Aboriginality’ and replacing it with a sanitised version acceptable to the Anglo invaders and immigrants. Perhaps Aboriginal affairs is the longest ‘race’ experiment in history? It is a monument to the failure of social engineering.

The Commonwealth definition relies on High Court opinion. It is social more than racial: an Aboriginal person is defined as a person who is a descendant of an indigenous inhabitant of Australia, identifies as Aboriginal and is recognised by members of the community in which he or she lives as Aboriginal. This definition is preferred by the vast majority of Aboriginal people over the racial definitions of the assimilation era. Administration of the definition, at least by the Commonwealth for the purposes of providing grants or loans, requires that an applicant present a ‘certificate of "Aboriginality"’ issued by an incorporated Aboriginal body under its common seal.


16. Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987).   However, as Sally Morgan’s first bestseller, My Place, demonstrated to Australian readers, the problem is not so straightforward: Morgan ‘found’ her ‘Aboriginality’ in her adulthood by suspecting a deceit. (16) One wonders what the appeal of My Place was to such a large readership: perhaps Morgan assuages the guilt of the whites, especially white women who were complicit in the assimilation program and the deception into which families like the Morgans felt they were forced? After all, Sally turned out to be a fine young lady, didn’t she?  



Or could the attraction be, as one of my sisters has suggested, that My Place raises the possibility that the reader might also find, with a little sleuthing in the family tree, an Aboriginal ancestor? This indeed would be a startling perception. Yes, Morgan raises the possibility for the reader that he or she would thus acquire the genealogical, even biological ticket (‘my great-great grandmother was Aboriginal’) to enter the world of ‘primitivism’.

What could be the motive for this desire to find and consume the primitive? Marianna Torgovnick, an American cultural theorist, provides some answers in her deconstruction of the habit of iconicising the ‘primitive’. She points out that it is intrinsic to Western culture as a mechanism for grappling with fear of the unknown and apparently known, the uncertain and the apparently certain, as a search for the perceived intrinsic value of the ‘primitive’ and, at the same time, for masking the relations of colonialism and racism (‘the rhetoric of control’). She writes:






17. Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 244- 246.
  But there is more at stake here than a colonialist denial of the complexity of primitive societies or a nostalgia for the lost simplicity of the past ... Maybe what we are really doing though we cannot admit it for a number of reasons is handling by displacement the series of dislocations that we call modernity and postmodernity handling it by studying places where, supposedly, it does not exist and yet does exist ... In the fears and hopes we express for them, the primitives, we air fears and hopes for ourselves – caught on a rollercoaster of change that we like to believe can be stopped, safely, at will ... The West seems to need the primitive as a precondition and a supplement to its sense of self: it always creates heightened versions of the primitive as nightmare or pleasant dream. The question of whether that need must or will always take fearful or exploitative forms remains pressing. (17)  

18. But see the debate surrounding Bain Atwood’s essay, ‘Portrait of an Aboriginal as an Artist: Sally Morgan and the Construction of Aboriginality’, Australian Historical Studies, no. 99 (1992), pp. 302-318, which earned rejoinders and responses from Aboriginal critics including Jackie Huggins, ‘Always Was Always Will Be’, pp. 459-464, Tony Birch, ‘Half Caste’, p. 458, and Isabel Tarrago, ‘Response to "Sally Morgan and the Construction of Aboriginality"’, p. 469, all in Australian Historical Studies, no. 100 (1993).  

Aboriginal critiques of My Place are largely unpublished, (18) but there have been many salon discussions. Another friend suggests that none of the reviewers noticed that Morgan’s book is ‘really about’ concealing not the ‘Aboriginality’ of the family, but the origins of the family in incest.

Whatever the case, the enormous response by white Australia to the book lies somewhere in the attraction to something forbidden – ‘Aboriginality’ or incest – and the apparent investigation and revelation of that forbidden thing through style and family history. It recasts Aboriginality, so long suppressed, as acceptable, bringing it out into the open. The book is a catharsis. It gives release and relief, not so much to Aboriginal people oppressed by psychotic racism, as to the whites who wittingly and unwittingly participated in it.


19. Emile Durkheim, Emile, Les formes elémentaires de la vie religieuse: le système totémique en Australie (Paris: Alcan, 1912).   What my discussion is pointing to here is that Aboriginality is not just a label to do with skin colour or the particular ideas a person carries around in his/her head which might be labelled Aboriginal, such as an Aboriginal language or kinship system. Aboriginality is a social thing in the sense used by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. (19) Aboriginality arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue, whether in actual lived experience or through a mediated experience such as a white person watching a program about Aboriginal people on television or reading a book.  



Moreover, the creation of Aboriginality is not a fixed thing, it is created from our histories. It arises from the intersubjectivity of black and white in a dialogue. From the time that Herodotus described the customs of peoples of North Africa to the Victorian era when the English idolatrised certain fictive features of ‘classical civilisation’ (Greek and Roman), exploration and discovery led to views which arose as much from the history of ideas about savages, barbarians and others, as from what was observed on distant shores. Aboriginal people meeting their first white men in 1788 (possibly 1770) thought they were ghosts, spirits of the dead returning to be with their relations. The reality of the invasion only became clear some time later, probably in 1790 when the British military post and penal settlement were well established.

Before Captain Cook and Governor Phillip, there was no Aboriginality in the sense that is meant today. (There is a long cross-cultural experience over perhaps a thousand years in northern Australia with Asians and Papuans, but this history is not well documented.) The term Aboriginal, and the colonial and post-colonial implications of the concept, began to take shape in Australia to some extent in 1770, but more so in 1788.




20. Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier (Queensland: James Cook University, 1981).
  Before contact, there were Yolngu (from North East Arnhem Land), Pitjantjatjara (from the Central Desert bregion in the far northwest corner of South Australia, dispersed, following invasion, to settlements and missions including Areyong, Ooldea, Ernabella and Yalata), Warlpiri (from the Central Desert area northwest of Alice Springs), Waka Waka (from the area of Northwestern Australia on and surrounding the upper Burnett, Barker and Brisbane Rivers), Guugu Yimidhirr (from the East Cape area in Qaueensland around Hopevale on the Cape York Peninsula), or whatever the ‘Gadigal’ or ‘Eora’ actually called themselves. As historian Henry Reynolds points out in The Other Side of the Frontier, some groups such as the Guugu Yimidhirr began to see whites only in terms of an identifiable and different group, rather than random individuals, one hundred years after contact when the effect of colonisation had proved so consistently brutal and devastating. (20) However, while Aboriginal people saw whites as a group, they did not see them as a ‘race’. This was a concept of the whites.  





21. Bennelong (1764-1813) was from the Wangal people of what is now the region around Sydney in New South Wales; he was also known by the names Wolarwaree, Ogultroyee and Vogeltroya. He was a significant interlocutor in early relations between Governor Phillip and the Indigenous peoples around the Sydney area.

22. Boney (spelled Bony in the original novels) was the character of the part-Aboriginal Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, who featured in the crime novels of Arthur Upfield (1888-1965) beginning in 1929 with The Barrakee Mystery. The books spawned a popular television series, Boney.

23. Ion Idriess (1889-1979) was a prolific and popular Australian writer and journalist who published more than 40 books, beginning in 1927, dealing largely with themes of adventure and exploration and set primarily in outback and coastal Australia, the Torres Strait Islands and Papua.


Aboriginality and Intertextuality

Aboriginality only has meaning when understood in terms of intersubjectivity, when both the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal are subjects, not objects.

Textual analysis of the racist stereotypes and mythologies which inform Australian understandings of Aboriginal people is revealing. The densest relationship is not between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists. Films, video and television are powerful media: it is from these that most Australians ‘know’ about Aboriginal people. The Aborigines that Australians ‘know’ are Bennelong, (21) Jedda and Marbuk in Charles Chauvel’s film Jedda (1955), Boney, (22) or the characters of Ion Idriess such as the rebel Jandewarra. (23) Like these fictional characters, Evonne Goolagong (not the actual Mrs Cawley), Senator Neville Bonner, Governor Doug Nicholls and even Charles Perkins are figures of the imagination generated by Australian image producers. They are safe, distant distortions of an actual world of people who will not bring the neighbourhood real estate values down.

The world of Aboriginal sociality and politics is also distant and shadowy. Ernie Dingo and Gary Foley, contemporary Aboriginal comedians and actors, have perceived this impulse in colonial relations and have transformed the coloniser’s caricatures of us into satirical rhetoric through comedy performances which subvert the comfort of white Australia.

Aboriginality, therefore, is a field of intersubjectivity in that it is remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people create Aboriginalities, so that, in the infinite array of intercultural experiences, there might be said to be three broad categories of cultural and textual construction of Aboriginality.



  The first category is the experience of the Aboriginal person interacting with other Aboriginal people in social situations located largely within Aboriginal culture. There is never a totally closed Aboriginal experience, however, because even the few remaining Pintubi living traditionally in the Western Desert know of, have seen and have some explanation of the fences, windmills, four-wheel drive vehicle tracks and other evidence which whites leave behind. They know, too, that they have kinfolk living in remote Northern Territory settlements such as Kintore and Papunya or in the outstations, who have adopted some whitefella technology and ways of doing things. I have been asked by Aboriginal people in such situations, ‘Why do white people have curtains on their windows?’ and ‘Why do white people wear sunglasses?’ Usually there is no one to explain. Not knowing much at first hand about whites, Aboriginal people in remote regions develop some extraordinary theories about whites. ‘Who are these strangers?’ they ask.  



24. Widely assumed to be modelled on Fred Wilson, known as ‘Mulga Fred’. The slogan for these Pelaco shirt advertisements in the 1960s was ‘Mine tinkit they fit’. See Richard Broome, ‘Seeking Mulga Fred’, Aboriginal History, no. 22 (1998), pp. 1-23.
  As a second category of cultural and textual construction of things Aboriginal, there are the familiar stereotypes and the constant stereotyping, iconising and mythologising of Aboriginal people by white people who have never had any substantial first-hand contact with Aboriginal people. These icons of Aboriginality are produced by Anglo-Australians, not in dialogue with Aboriginal people, but from other representations such as the ‘Stone Age savage’, the ‘dying "race"’, the ‘one-penny stamp-Aborigine’, the Pelaco Shirt Aborigine, (24) Venus Half Caste (Leonard Man’s 1963 book), The Cinesound News Service caricatures, Crocodile Dundee I (1986) and II (1988), ‘the received wisdom’. They are inherited, imagined representations. ‘All Aborigines are dirty, drunk and useless, and they’re going to die out anyway,’ say some white people without hesitation or qualification.  



A third category is those constructions which are generated when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people engage in actual dialogue, be it at a supermarket checkout or in a film co-production. In these exchanges, the individuals involved will test imagined models of the other to find some satisfactory way of comprehending the other. It is in these dialogues – and in the world of film the co-production Two Laws is an example – that working models of Aboriginality are constructed as ways of seeing Aboriginal people, but both the Aboriginal subject and the non-Aboriginal subject are participating.

Can films, videos and television re-educate people to be non-racist and eliminate racism? Why do so many Australian institutions remain racist after years of anti-discrimination legislation and rejection of racist notions in education programs? Perhaps we should ask, rather, why are some people not racist? Indeed, for the purposes of this essay, it is important to recognise that there are some people who are not racist, and who take the anti-racist sentiment in the film and television industry further. This points to the importance of the argument on intersubjectivity and intertextuality: the need to test imagined models against each other.

The question we should be asking is: what informs the mythologies and symbols? The answer has to do with the stance of the participant within the dominant culture, within the colony. For instance, Aboriginal life in modern Australia has been described as ‘welfare colonialism’, and the encapsulation of Aboriginal society as ‘internal colonisation’. Although this kind of analysis could be applied at one level to the economic condition of some Aboriginal people, there are other clear social and economic formations. The hunting and gathering mode is one, even though it is now supplemented by art production and by social security entitlements which enable the purchase of store-bought foods.

Whatever the economic conditions, the discourse is colonial. The term discourse is used here in the sense meant by Michel Foucault as a system of power. The subject speaks back, and the dominant culture is informed by Aboriginal cultural practices, particularly practices of resistance.

Signs and Aboriginality

Our different stance in history shapes the models we use. All representations are derived from, and react against, historical representations and historical symbols of Aboriginality.

From inside, a culture is ‘felt’ as normative, not deviant. It is European culture which is different for an Aboriginal person. Aboriginal people had no eugenicist theory, no need to theorise a racial superiority to justify exploitations or land theft. Now, of course, some Aboriginal people even think in racial rather than social terms, in exclusive rather than inclusive terms. For instance, ‘yella fella’ is a racial term for a part-Aboriginal person that is used in some restricted contexts in remote Australia.

And, of course, Aboriginal people have no pyramid-like hierarchy of social and technological evolution, no ‘Stone Age’, ‘Iron Age’, etc. The closest some Aboriginal people might come is to talk of the people in the bush as ‘myalls’ because of their lack of knowledge of white society. Aboriginal people, such as those at Yuendumu (a community on the edge of the Tanami Desert in Central Australia) and Ernabella (a community in South Australia), to name just two communities, have adopted computer, satellite and television technology and certainly have no conception of themselves as ‘Stone Age’.

What the non-Aboriginal subject often fails consciously to articulate is a model of ‘European’ or whatever the case might be – British, Irish, Vietnamese, Italian. And he/she also fails very often to allow Aboriginal people to articulate their own models of what they perceive ‘Europeans’ to be.






25. bell hooks, ‘Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination’ in her Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press), 1992, p. 170.
  In the same way that many of the world’s successful filmmakers choose violence and horror as the points of crescendo and resolution in the dramas they portray, so are Aboriginal people used to tell iconic tales of horror or humour in speaking of the ‘whites’ or ‘kadiya’ or ‘gub’. These Aboriginal representations, constructed in editing rooms, are tokenistic. They are stereotypes of what Aboriginal people are imagined by whites to think. In some films, television and video, the directors/editors/writers/producers, black and white, seem to want Aboriginal people to iconise ‘the oppressor’. They edit in the ‘gub’ and ‘kadiya’ stories and leave Aboriginal stories of good times with white people – the flotsam and jetsam of the working models – on the cutting room floor. These filmmakers want to see Europeans portrayed only as oppressors and all the complexities are eliminated. The Afro-American feminist theorist bell hooks writes: ‘Stereotypes, however inaccurate, are one form of representation … They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken – are not allowed.’ (25)  



‘European’, ‘white’, ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘black’ are signifiers of much larger meanings which are difficult to translate. They convey emotionally significant meanings more immediately than thoughtful interrogations might reveal.

Most people who come into contact with ‘Aboriginal affairs’ remark (or are tempted to remark) on the difficulty of dealing with Aboriginal people and things Aboriginal. There is among Aboriginal people, some say, an almost deliberate unwillingness to be understood. Talking to ‘them’ is confusing, disorienting. There is a danger. It is too hard. The overwhelming temptation for many non-Aboriginal people is to delegate their responsibilities to an Aboriginal person or committee, or label the nature of the dealing under another rubric such as welfare, multiculturalism, or even criminality. Some ignore or suppress or censor the problem altogether in an effort to avoid the issues, in particular the one of difference. These are the responses of white Australians who want to abdicate their responsibility to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. The central problem is the failure of non-Aboriginals to comprehend us Aboriginal people, or to find the grounds for an understanding. Each policy – protection, assimilation, integration, self-management, self-determination and even, perhaps, reconciliation – can be seen as ways of avoiding understanding.

That Aboriginal people, their ways of doing things or saying things, their appearances and style, are so extremely different from the Anglo-Australian norm, whatever that might be, has been a recurring theme in Australian history, and a problem which has bedevilled the most brilliant commentators. Anthropologist John von Sturmer captures something of the perceptual problem for white Australians in relation to the subjectivity of Aboriginality:




26. John von Sturmer, ‘Aborigines, Representation, Necrophilia’, Art & Text, no. 32 (Autumn 1989), p. 139.
  One senses that there is ... [a] destructiveness directed at Aboriginal societies, that they ... can only be treated as spectacle, as tableau. Is it because they lie beyond the possibility of a truly lived engagement? It is still the case, as it has been from the very beginning, that they do not live according to ‘civilised’ notions of society, refinement, propriety, group welfare or personal well-being. They fight too much, they drink too much, fuck too much, they are too demanding, they waste their money and destroy property. But a lack of restraint, caution, or calculation is not necessarily an absence or a failing. It can be a superfluity. A refusal: a refusal to accept the repressive principle. (26)  



The problem of discussing the politics and aesthetics in film and television production by or about Aborigines lies in the positioning of us as objects and of the person behind the camera as subject. If we are so misplaced, it is therefore not surprising that the political and aesthetic critique of these images is so muted. The problem remains one of dominance.

One result, which Eric Michaels discusses in relation to Warlpiri acrylic paintings, is the absence of discrimination, in the aesthetic sense of the word:


27. Michaels, ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’, p. 59.   I want to consider the curious fact that almost nothing of this work is ever designated ‘bad’ – a lacuna which would not seem to make it easy to sell anything as especially good, either. There are exceptions (including a vulgar judgment that all primitive art is bad). (27)  



While Michaels is specifically discussing the difficult position of Western Desert Aboriginal acrylic painting in terms of the absence of any consensus in aesthetic taste in Western society, his analysis of the creative and authorial practices which preclude valuation, and even evaluation, of traditional Aboriginal art is relevant to the discussion here.

Representational and aesthetic statements by non-Aboriginal people of Aboriginal people transform the Aboriginal reality. They are accounts, and it is in these representations that the Aboriginal-as-subject becomes, under the white gaze imagining the Aboriginal, the object. The audience, however, might be entirely unaware that they are observing an account, usually by the authorial We of the Other. The creative efforts of filmmakers, video producers, broadcasters and artists to represent some particular Aboriginal ‘reality’, even if there is an attempt at involving the Aboriginal subject in the production, is always a fictionalisation, an act of creative authority.

Self-conscious fictionalisation, such as Moffatt’s Night Cries, makes us aware of the act of fictionalisation, of the distinction between the author and the subject, by using devices such as artifice. Michaels’ consideration of Warlpiri painting practices tells us that their creative and authorial practices are very different. He observes that:




28. Michaels, Eric, ‘Aboriginal Content: Who’s Got It – Who Needs It?’, Art & Text, nos. 23/24 (1987), pp. 58-79. Reprinted in Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art.
  There now may be far more willingness among a new generation of filmmakers ... involved in a body of contemporary work in which their role as producers is no longer dominant, and where they seek to act as catalysts, providing conduits through which a more indigenous representation is possible. These relationships impose a new set of contradictions ... In fact, the working relationships between filmmakers and Aboriginal subjects which result from the intention of media self-management are diverse and have different success rates as judged from the perspective of either the participants or any given audience. (28)  


  Some Aboriginal filmmakers will not challenge colonialist representation because of the power of the visual realm to conceal social and political conditions. Film and video can make invisible the racist and sexist import of the cultural material they represent. The conventional styles and constructions of melodrama, documentary and popular genre will continue to trap producers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, in conventional racism and sexism. (But the question must be asked: should these insidious ways of insisting on racism, sexism and domination be funded by one of the pre-eminent Australian film institutions?)  

29. Von Sturmer, ‘Aborigines, Representation, Necrophilia’, p. 128.   Nonetheless, Aboriginal people have invented a theatre of politics in which self-representation has become a sophisticated device, creating their own theories or models of intercultural discourse such as land rights, self-determination, ‘White Australia has a black history’ and so on. These are certainly more than catch-cries, or ‘vague and negotiable signifiers’, as von Sturmer has described them. (29) The notion of social justice appears to have become boring and has disappeared from the rhetoric. But this, like the consumption and reconsumption of all ideas and styles, including all that is regarded as ‘the primitive’, is a symptom of postmodernism and economic rationalism.  

30. Mudrooroo Narogin, Writing from the Fringe (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1990).   In Writing from the Fringe, Mudrooroo Narogin has written a thesis on preserving Aboriginal cultural integrity in the arena of Aboriginal literature. (30) In film, video and television, as I have explained, the theoretical approach has barely begun.  



The motivations behind Aboriginal community video production and television transmission can be seen as basic issues of self-determination, cultural maintenance and the prevention of cultural disruption. Broadcasts of alien programming, whether Australian, American or British, constitute both a threat and an important information source to Aboriginal people. The strategies which they have employed to overcome the problems posed by the impact of television and video include: cultural and aesthetic interventions; control of incoming television signals; control of self-representation through local video production in local languages; refusal to permit outsiders to films; and negotiation of co-productions which guarantee certain conditions aimed at cultural maintenance.

An expansion of experimental film and video-making is vital to allow Aboriginal people to make their own self-representations and to create culturally useful meaning. Without a body of self-representative work there can be no self-critical assessment made and no meaningful discourse on Aboriginal aesthetics by Aborigines themselves. Much Aboriginal aesthetic and artistic expression is guaranteed a secure place in Australian social, cultural and economic life and not just because much Aboriginal art is exportable, earning valuable dollars in the international market and tourism dollars at home. This applies to the visual arts, especially the acrylic paintings from the Western Desert and other regions and the bark paintings from Arnhem Land.

Aboriginal film and video output, however, must be financially nurtured because of the high costs of production. As in art and literature, this means that the aesthetic and cultural values must be acknowledged and explained to a larger audience so that the endeavour is understood.



  Reprinted, with permission of the author, from Michele Grossman (ed.), Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians (Melbourne University Press, 2003). An earlier version appeared in Race and Class, Vol. 35 No. 4 (1994).  




Nadine Amadio & Richard Kimber, Wildbird Dreaming: Aboriginal art from the Central Desert of Australia (Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications, 1988)

Geoffrey Bardon, Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert, (Ringwood: McPhee Gribble, 1991)

Wally Caruana (ed.), Windows on the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings in the Australian National Gallery (Chippendale: Australian National Gallery, 1989)

––, Aboriginal Art (London/New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993)

Françoise Dussart, ‘What an Acrylic Can Mean: On the Meta-ritualistic Resonances of a Central Desert Painting’ in Morphy & Boles (eds.), Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Aboriginal Art (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999), pp. 193-218

––, ‘Women’s Acrylic Paintings from Yuendumu’ in Margie West (ed.), The Inspired Dream: Life as Art in Aboriginal Australia (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1988), pp. 35-38

Laleen Jayamanne, Toward Cinema and Its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Eric Michaels & Francis Jupurrula Kelly, ‘The Social Organisation of an Aboriginal Video Practice’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 1 (1984), pp. 26-34

Howard Morphy, ‘Art and Religion in Eastern Arnhem Land’, in West (ed.), The Inspired Dream, pp. 30-33

––, ‘Landscape and Ancestral Past’ in Hirsch & O’Hanlon (eds.), The Anthropology of Landscape: Perspectives on Place and Space (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 184-209

––, ‘Encoding the Dreaming: A Theoretical Framework for the Analysis of Representational Processes in Australian Aboriginal art’, Australian Archaeology, no. 49 (1999), pp. 13-22.

Nancy Munn et al., ‘Totemic Designs and Group Continuity in Walbiri Cosmology’ in Marie Reay (ed.), Aborigines Now: New Perspectives in the Study of Aboriginal Communities (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1964), pp. 83-100

Luke Taylor, ‘New Life for the Dreaming: Continuity and Change in Western Arnhem Lank Bark Paintings’ in West (ed.), The Inspired Dream, pp. 26-29


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