Collecting My Thoughts-Authenticity, The Museum And Representation.
“Aboriginal art—it’s a white thing” Richard Bell
I have been thinking a lot about this statement lately, and looking at the art industry and the way Indigenous art and cultural material is classified, controlled and often exploited which I believe speaks directly to the past (and in some cases present) representation and display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material in museums.
Indigenous art and culture claimed by non-Indigenous people began its journey from the early collection of material culture as exotic curiosities to fill the mantles and cabinets of an establishing Australian nation and sent throughout the world in a diasporic splatter. The largest of these sprawled throughout the United Kingdom, who of course needed trophies of their conquests which resulted in the museum halls and draws lined with our objects and ancestors bones, some kept for beauty, some for study but all to fill the need to capture, to dispossess, and to own.
The removal of our old peoples’ cultural objects and later their bodies by the British began in 1770 when one of the first-ever objects was taken from its country, a Gweagal shield collected by Captain James C(r)ook at Kurnell, Botany Bay, which is now “housed” at the British Museum where, for the past 245 years or so we have been gagged and bound by the scholars’ books and housed by the vitrine and various ways. The context in which these objects have been historically positioned connects strongly to our representation and ongoing struggles in art institutions today.
In my experience of some of the museums and galleries in Australia and internationally, the problematic lean towards cases of curiosity and grand narratives of the other continue to consume the halls and exhibitions. Although many efforts in deconstructing the apparent “post-colonial dialogue” (I don’t believe that exists) within these institutions have been attempted, and the distancing of any imperial authority over these cultural objects are made, the reigns of the empire seemingly have not loosened their grip and fixed (boring) methodologies continue to pump through the walls of these establishments and the veins of some of the curators and scholars that work within it.
The concept of authenticity which has its roots deeply embedded in theories of racial purity seem to still dictate and be at the forefront of discussion and representation of Indigenous art and cultural material in museums and galleries. This expectation of authentic identity comes from many directions, that of the institution from the expectation of the viewer and from the Indigenous artists deconstructing and representing this concept themselves. There is still a game of tug of war between western anthropological museum practice and the contemporary curator of what is authentic enough to be Bla(c)k today in a museum. Slowly, more Indigenous curators and artists are having agency within these spaces to drive a Indigenous curatorial methodology that isn’t embedded in ethnographic systems of classifying or commercial driven conceptions of what Aboriginal art should look like (out with the dots in with, whatever the hell you want) but this is the problem, the lack of Indigenous curators in these spaces. Who are ultimately deciding the acquisition, the collection research and the curatorial narratives of exhibitions? Mostly non-Indigenous curators, and the common journey into colonising the space I have heard is ‘I’ve majored in Indigenous Studies, have a masters in curatorship or anthropology and worked in an arts centre in the desert’. I’m not suggesting that these people are not well-educated or should not participate in Indigenous arts; however, why are they hired over Indigenous people who have the qualifications plus cultural knowledge and authority? And this reality is evident if you look across all the major cultural institutions in Australia and count how many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people are working these spaces.
The expected, assumed and often mythologised ideas of Indigenous authenticity and aesthetic lead me to asking the question: what are the aesthetics and intangible foundations of Aboriginal culture and art, for Aboriginal people? Is it dots, earthy tones and animals, is it language, skin colour, eye colour, reflection, activism, victimisation, heroism or how many times a day you can say Deadly that positions your work or cultural material Aboriginal enough? Maybe it’s all and maybe it’s none, I’m not saying either way is good or bad because all of these things make us who we are in one way or another, and I like some of them. However, when the dialogue and narrative that are foundations of an exhibition are being created by non-Indigenous people, isn’t the problem of what is actually “in-authentic” here the non-Indigenous development of exhibitions, of collection research and decision making of whose art work or cultural material should be acquired and why? And not how we as Aboriginal people choose to express our culture.
I wholeheartedly believe in collaboration, black and white curators and artists working together, and none of this “we are all equal, let’s hold hands” fluff but proper respectful culturally appropriate collaboration, which I have experienced and I have worked with talented, non-Indigenous curators whom I have learnt a lot from and deeply respect. I believe however that more Indigenous agency is needed within institutions with our cultural material and curatorial and collection management whether it’s working with a contemporary photograph or a 200-year-old shield.
The time of studying the other, the system of classifying our cultural identities and telling our stories is over, it is time for us as Aboriginal people to be further supported in sharing our histories and our voices to create the discourse.
Dialogues that in the past have mostly been developed by non-Indigenous curators and anthropologists have dictated the “Aboriginal aesthetic” which has been debated and negotiated for years and South Eastern Koorie artists have only in recent times had their work accepted on a state and national platforms within the institution. We have come from a long history of South Eastern Koorie identity and cultural “authenticity” being questioned and being compared to that of our more northern brothers and sisters or to our ancestors of 200 years ago and the assumption our skin should still be black and we should be carrying a spear around. These ideas stem from anthropological studies and the enforced (attempted) cultural genocide and assimilation which lead to misinformed histories and blatant lies that we did not retain a culture or are able to express and carry that through modern individual creation. Um excuse me, WRONG.
This demand and understanding of what is authentic or not has made it incredibly hard for artists within a growing urbanised lived experience who are all products of on-going colonisation to not only identify but to practice as an Indigenous artist, and be recognises as such. The foggy anthropological lens along with governmental policies have been instrumental in creating the tension between the authentic and “non-authentic” canon assigned to our art and institutions struggle to move beyond this discourse even with the most contemporary space and visionary curators. Is it the inherent deep racism that runs through these places? And I’m not talking about people hating on black people, I’m referring to institutional white privilege and histories of eugenics, cultural theft and appropriation. The need to hold on to “tradition”, not wanting to lose the nostalgic nineteenth-century antiquarian veneer and Darwinist frameworks that they have so long fought to keep.
“Proving” your authenticity is not isolated to Australia; it is placed broadly across worlds— Indigenous and “non-white” peoples.Tanzanian-born artist Everlyn Nicodemus states about representation: “all this twaddle about ‘hybrid’ objects and ‘transitional’ art is nothing but a refusal to acknowledge the paradigm shift which is at the heart of modern African art”. This shift that Nicodemus refers to mirrors our struggle for not only the re-positioning of what is the “authentic” Aboriginal experience or aesthetic but also to a shift in what is a culturally appropriate and relevant representation of Australian First Peoples’ history and current realities in these spaces, both nationally and internationally.
Historically our objects were thought to be relics of a culture that was assumed in the near future to cease to exist, they were trophies of the supposed dystopian frontier, relics of the past and evidence of a “less civilized” peoples, thought to be the link between the ape and the “enlightened” gentry of the empire at the time. Post Charles Darwin’s Origin Of the Species, the gathering of Indigenous cultural material changed. Emphasis moved from the collected exotica to tangible evidence (although still prized for its “unusual prehistoric” appeal) to support Darwinist race theory and justify, further, the hegemonic state of total colonisation based on evolutionary race hierarchy, comparing objects to show the “progression” of mankind. In the age of “enlightenment” and “(un) settlement” of Australia, objects were sourced from across the continent, some of the most unique and significant objects that are housed in both international and national museums and galleries come from these expeditions objects that were stolen and some exchanged in relationships formed with Aboriginal people.
These items also came under the scrutiny of authenticity, the most prized objects were those that were unimpaired by the white man’s tool and as colonisation brought steel, glass and other European resources the cultural material and art adapted to the change yet was not welcomed within the museum, who were attempting to capture a “traditional” (authentic) moment in time. Problematically there was little or no information gathered from the makers about these objects as they were taken on the bases of aesthetic or “exotic” curios, gathered on mass to fill the glass cabinets, university laboratories and dens of the gentry. These objects lay silent with little or no data on the maker, cultural and ceremonial significance, unless of course there can be a current engagement with the community they come from.
These early colonial methodologies have shifted over the past century or so in the however, the fact remains that the western system continues to dominate the space with a curatorial and collection management framework that is deeply embedded with a Eurocentric approach to cultures and to the “object”. These constructed western paradigms of classification and research are limiting in a contemporary space both for the growth of collection and intellectual response to them (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) but also to the relevance of museums and their continuation to be custodians of this material within the twenty-first century.
Two examples of museums that retain these dated typological classification systems are the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford University, and South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Pitt-Rivers museum has been described as a “museum of a museum”, which has incredibly remained mostly untouched since the early 1830s. Julian Spalding, in The Poetic Museum; Reviving Historical Collections states that: “General Pitt-Rivers collected everything he could that showed what he called ‘the living scroll of human process’. He invented the word typology to describe the sequence of gradual improvements that he hoped to discover in everything man had made and done”.
Pitt-Rivers holds thousands of objects on display in heavy nineteenth-century cases where there is very little interpretation, if any, and this collection is of one of the most significant in the world. Pitt-Rivers has an important collection of Australian Indigenous material,l some on display and some in the archive, that are extraordinarily significant to Victoria with some of these one of a kind objects (known) unusually have provenance to specific regions and cultural groups.
The display is positioned in a global homogenous context of typology, alongside the cultural objects mostly based within the utilitarian construct of use and absent of any cultural identity are cases that are esoterically themed. A prime example of this is case typed by Magic, Witchcraft and Trial by Ordeal which hosts many Australian Indigenous objects. These cultural materials including message sticks used in ceremony and healing from western Victoria; dugong carving from the Torres Strait Islands sit next to many “mysterious” objects including a silvered vile from Sussex apparently containing a witch and amulets worn to protect from witches. This typological display not only removes cultural significance but the context of the western understanding of cultural practice to which these objects are placed mythologizes, and removes them from any individual identity and real cultural meaning.
This case is also one of the most detailed in interpretation (small pieces of paper with a paragraph or two). However, little is learnt about the many hundreds of years of culture or story that is attached to these items. There is extraordinary wonder when amongst the world’s “treasures” at Pitt-Rivers, but this type of mass display with little information led to frustration for me as I was left not knowing anything about the object or artwork. I could only hypothesize an imaginative narrative based on the “type” that has been assigned to the material.
Another problematic case was the human remains on open display within the Museum. There are not any Australian Indigenous remains, however; there are shrunken and “prized heads of the enemy” of warring tribal groups from across South America and other heads that were used in all kinds of ceremony. This perpetuates myth of “the savage” and, taken completely out of any cultural context, these are but heads in cases, people, behind glass for the enjoyment of the visitor and the spectacle of the implied “heathenism” of non-European cultures. Perhaps this is all part of the “stage” of museums and the set dressing that sets the mood, however, if it were Australian Indigenous remains on display there would be outrage from the community and sympathetic scholars. In what context is it ok to display human remains?
The South Australian Museum shares this problematic display with Pitt-Rivers and is perpetuating the ethnographic approach and is an in veritable anthropologists’ theme park. The Indigenous gallery lends itself to an encyclopedic display of one of Australia’s largest collection of Indigenous objects. Case after case of cultural material ethnographically classified and although rich in information and “facts”, yet there is little or no Indigenous voice. The problem here lies for me that from the display method and associated imagery one with no concept of Indigenous Australia at first glance may assume that in fact there are no First Peoples left (other than in the remote “traditional” lands of Northern Australia) and the other issue I have is that the community is further disenfranchised from gaining autonomy over self representation and cultural authority within the institution.
Because the contemporary living voice is fairly absent within the space the overarching authoritative museum voice suffocates any attempt to truly represent current lived cultures. This can also be said for the pacific gallery which boasts that it retains the original nineteenth-century cases in its space. Whilst again an impressive collection the ethnographic approach positions these objects in the historical past, including the extremely disrespectful display of human remains with no mention of the history of unethical collection often associated with such items.
While the ethnographic collection and display history holds a different intent from the display aesthetic and collection of the art museum, one can see how history of classifying and representing Indigenous culture continues to influence the discourse and curatorial methodologies in the contemporary space of the museum and art gallery. Spaces that are still lacking in Indigenous autonomy and seem to purely be there for non-Indigenous people are clear examples that Aboriginal art can be (I’m extending this theory to the museum also), as Richard Bell puts it, “a white thing”.
Pitt-Rivers collections are extraordinary, where they are lacking is the interpretation and display and connection to the living culture that these objects continue to be a part of, even across the sea. With an overwhelming spectacle of collections in museums such as Pitt-Rivers and South Australian Museum, you leave either not knowing any history or narrative or you leave with an understanding of the objects or art from a non-Indigenous perspective which leads for me, an un-satisfactory ending. I feel it’s fairly pointless for the treasured cultural materials to be sitting in these places if they are not connected with the mob they come from, their “realness” and power is blanketed behind a wall of glass and an invisible wall of colonization. (Perhaps the glass acts as this also, or the fact they are even there.)
I have to reflect on my own positionality in these spaces as I work for a museum which is one of the oldest institutions in Australia, one that holds our objects and our ancestral remains (remains which are continuously being repatriated home) but my reality is that I work within a space that has played a hand in the history which I have detailed above. It is, however, a space which I look forward to going to every day and am inspired by, this is because I am supported by my manager and am able to work and connect with objects the Old People made and to which their spirits still stay.
I am personally connected to photographs of my Grandmother and Great Grandmother and relations that are in its collection and I also have the opportunity to celebrate our culture and the incredible contemporary art through exhibitions by Koories that continue to embody the spirit of the past and resilience of who we are. The museum and contemporary Blak art reinforces to me the incredible legacy we have been left by our Ancestors which drives my vision to make change and to honour our history and community that are living, strong and proud.
© Kimberley Moulton