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  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Background information
  5. Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art
  6. Permanence
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Permanence

One of the main things that supported the assumptions of people like Dampier and Cook was the apparently non-acquisitive and transient character of Aboriginal life. This lifestyle was poorly understood. The absence of constructions for permanent habitation, and the absence of agricultural practices such as tilling and managing domesticated animals, led the newcomers to claim lands that were not, to their way of thinking, ‘owned’. It was only later that a more detailed appreciation developed, including an understanding of the precise network of countries that had been defined across the continent, and the sophisticated intercultural relationships that negotiated and preserved their boundaries.

In other words, there was permanence – it had endured for 50 000 years or more in some Aboriginal countries. However, it was not a permanence that exhibited urban or village characteristics as understood by the Europeans. For the newcomers, ideas of permanence extended into the concept of art. To their way of thinking, art was set aside to endure – on walls, in galleries and theatres, and so on. The qualities of timelessness and immutability rated highly among the qualities that gave significance to creative works. This was particularly true of drawings, paintings, lithographs and so on – things that were dignified with frames, bindings or other processes that were intended to signify their ongoing value.

In European eyes, Aboriginal people were, at best, folk decorators – people who placed designs onto objects of utility such as baskets, or objects of ceremony such as didgeridoos. These were things that were not nurtured for their own sake, in the manner in which so much of European art was nurtured. They were not intentionally set aside, nor admired from a critical distance.

It is important to recognise that this Western notion of art continues in much of contemporary Australian society. It is, in fact, a key to the recent popular success of Aboriginal art forms, which are now available in conventional media through widely accepted modes of commerce and display.

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