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Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art

The perceptions of Aboriginal art among non-Aboriginal people have taken a long, slow turn since the period of first contact. Two currents lay under early attitudes. The first was the prevailing concept of ‘civilisation’, which placed Aboriginal people at the bottom of human cultural achievement. Art was held to be one defining characteristic of ‘civilised’ societies, and it was generally assumed that Aboriginal people had no art. This attitude was famously – or infamously – chronicled by William Dampier:

The Inhabitants of this Country are the most miserable People in the world. The Hodmadods of Modomatapa, though a nasty People, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these; who have no Houses and Skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry and Fruits of the Earth, Ostrich Eggs, &c. as the Hodmadods have: and setting aside their humane shape, they differ but little from Brutes. (Dampier, 1698)

The second current showed an awareness of the ills of contemporary European society coupled with an idealised vision of life that was lived close to the earth. This was the idea of the ‘noble savage’, prevalent among the educated classes and encapsulated by Captain Cook:

From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to be the most wretched People upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe; they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition. (quoted in Wharton, 1893)

However, even this romantic attitude did not attach the idea of ‘art’ to Aboriginal cultural expression.

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Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art