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Dominant and marginalised cultures

Misappropriation may be defined as ‘to apply fraudulently or dishonestly to a wrong use and is clearly an unethical act. Appropriation is more complex but may be even more damaging when it is part of a social relationship consisting of a dominant (non-Aboriginal) culture and a marginalised (Aboriginal) culture. When this relationship is considered, it is easy to understand why some Aboriginal commentators call the appropriation of art ‘a new phase in colonisation’.

Others see the use of Aboriginal styles and symbols by non-Aboriginal artists as a return to ‘assimilation’ - a discredited social policy pursued by Australian governments from the 1940s to the early 1970s. In essence, the policy of assimilation sought to integrate ‘new Australians’ (immigrants) and Aboriginal Australians into mainstream society by encouraging their adoption of dominant (Anglo-Celtic) values and lifestyles.

Art critic Juan Davila has described this appropriation as ‘the collapse of differences’. It is ‘an operation which selects from reality only those items which function to patch together the illusion of a reconciled society’ (Davila, 1987).

Davila’s observation reveals how easy it is for those in control to assert their identity; that is, those in power have the authority to describe themselves - to say who they are. On the other hand, Aboriginal Australians have had to continually strive to assert and define their identity in ways that are not allowed automatic recognition and authority.

Art forms and symbols (eg the Aboriginal flag) have played a huge part in the process of proclaiming identity. The theft or misuse of these forms weakens their distinctive character, and therefore weakens the declarations that are being made through them.

The emergence of [Aboriginal culture] as a renewed historical subject cannot be treated ideally or promoted from the centre. For in this sort of scenario, the Aborigines will become all the more that obstacle which the White subject has always surmounted by his traditional ability to absorb every single object, surface, body or economy that is not his own.

- Juan Davila (1987)

What does Davila mean when he talks of this ‘ability to absorb’? If one considers the kinds of images that most commonly signify ‘Aboriginal art’, the first step in absorption can be seen to be the process in which a particular artistic device (eg x-ray, dotting) or a particular symbology (eg concentric circles, turtle) has come to signify ‘Aboriginal art’ in general, rather than certain Aboriginal artists or groups. In the second phase icons that were once intimate to particular Aboriginal groups become the symbols of the Australian nation.

Discussion points

  • Most Aboriginal people take pride in their cultural heritage, including art. Why wouldn’t Aboriginal people be proud whenever governments and large corporations use their styles and designs?
  • If you were trying to describe the distinctive character of Australian culture, what items, objects or symbols would you name? Are any of those names particular to Aboriginal communities? If so, how do you feel about them? Do you think they are a part of your cultural heritage?
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Dominant and marginalised cultures