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  5. Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art
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Curios and souvenirs

While nineteenth-century artists like Barak, Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla were able to establish a demand for their works in Australia’s more populated south-east, a good deal of interest among non-Aboriginal people was based on preserving curiosities from what was regarded as the last generation of ‘true’ Aboriginal people. This curiosity factor was apparent in the souvenir trade that flourished in the early twentieth century.

The rise of purpose-designed ‘souvenir art’ coincided with the spread of squatters and pastoral leaseholders into vast areas of Aboriginal land. The resulting fragmentation of Aboriginal societies was supported by a policy of ‘protection’ involving contrived colonial settlements - Christian missions and Aboriginal outstations. Into each of these superficially European living environments were drawn displaced Aboriginal people from different dislocated communities.

Inevitably, the people in these communities were encouraged into activity that was economically productive. The making of decorated crafts was one such activity. Craft objects were believed to be those most likely to gain mainstream acceptance because of their appearance as ‘traditional’, and therefore ‘authentic’, expressions of Aboriginal culture. They fed the desire among non-Aboriginal people to experience the work of ‘real Aborigines’ - generally assumed to be people who were primitive and unchanging. Indeed, the only significant exhibition of Aboriginal art in the early part of the century - bark paintings at the National Museum of Victoria - was titled ‘Primitive Art’.

Two other misconceptions were reinforced by ‘souvenir art’: that Aboriginal people were craftspeople, not artists; and that visual design among Aboriginal people was the preserve of men, a belief deriving from the work of earlier anthropologists who tended to collect men’s portable works for display in galleries as evidence of Aboriginal peoples’ cultural activity.

A purist’s view of outstation and mission life might be that Aboriginal peoples’ art - and their culture generally - was ‘corrupted’. However, Aboriginal art and design seems to have always been receptive to intercultural influences. Perhaps this is most strikingly evident in Arnhem Land, where cultural and material commerce with the Macassans occurred for centuries before contact with Europeans.

The apparent purity of art forms was not, and is not today, the major concern of Aboriginal people. Rather, the important issue was (and is) ownership and control over cultural expression.

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