1. Home
  2. Aboriginal Art
  3. Protecting Australian Indigenous art
  4. Background information
  5. Taking control
  6. Art as a sign of ownership
Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Art as a sign of ownership

The close relationship between art and cultural revival gives some clue to the depth of concern that surrounds the use and reproduction of Indigenous visual forms. For many Aboriginal people, art is linked with the reclamation or reinforcement of their identity, story, language, place, symbolism, and techniques and practices. It has had a key role in social activism, building solidarity and providing an economic base for self-determination.

As much as anything, contemporary Aboriginal art has stood for ownership. It has operated as a visible sign through which individuals and communities have publicly identified themselves with the things that are particular to them, and which they value:

The dancing and artwork is your whole life - you have to know your traditional artwork that ties in with the land and ties in with the creation, where your boundary is, how far your ancestral creator has travelled. It’s all written in the art. That is what the traditional art means: owner to the land.

- Banduk Marika (quoted in Isaacs, 1992)

I believe that art is a language for interpreting who you are, and I can’t find any satisfaction other than painting … Aboriginal people have always had a vast, rich culture and I am part of this. There are many things, which are too numerous to mention about the treatment of Aboriginals, but through my art I have identity and strength.

- Raymond Meeks (quoted in Isaacs, 1992)

The observations of Banduk Marika and Raymond Meeks bring into focus the idea of attachment. This is not something that is easily generalised, because the experience is different for all artists. However, Marika, Meeks and others seem to suggest that the important ideas of their culture are more fully brought into being by art. Art is capable of continually revitalising social, natural and spiritual realities.

The significance of this attachment might be explored in the form of a parallel. Take, for example, some wearable urban symbols from mainstream Australia’s female youth culture - midriff top, nose ring, skin-tight synthetic pants. Now use them to dress an elderly woman from a small country town. The translation is by no means impossible, since the clothes are cheap and easily obtained; rather, it seems incongruous, because the clothes are bound up with an idiom, or form of expression, that places them within a particular cultural territory.

However, we find it apparently much less incongruous (if at all) for a non-Aboriginal artist to develop and mass produce ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘desert’ designs, even though they are not congruent with the artist’s cultural identity. The reason for this is complex, but it is partly explained by the convention that allows artists, through their work, to be temporarily located outside the social current. That is, they are narrators, but they do not belong to the story. Most commercial artists do not ‘wear’ their art in nearly the same way that the elderly woman wears her clothes. While we might believe that their art speaks for them, we are much less likely to believe that it speaks of them in a way that is capable of defining who they are. We are even less likely to believe that the work of these artists could speak of the identity of other people who are connected to them (unless they are explicit subjects).

Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size
Art as a sign of ownership