When Parallel Worlds (Don't) Collide:
Decolonising and Indigenising Australian Art
by James Tylor
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that included Aboriginal people as Australian citizens. This change to the Australian constitution marked the beginning of the end of racial segregation between Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians.(1) As our nation approaches this milestone, I wonder if Indigenous art, history and culture have been included in Australian art, history and culture? I wonder if our nation is still stuck in a British Colonial mindset that values Western Europe as the dominant culture, or a new mindset that has decolonised the way it thinks about and values Indigenous art, society, history and culture in Australia? In order to answer these questions I will look at the Art Gallery of South Australia in my home state to see how they are currently presenting Indigenous culture, history and art.
The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) is a good art institutional example for determining if Indigenous art has been included in Australia. AGSA recently hosted the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and the Tarnanthi Festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. The Adelaide Biennial is renowned as the best snap shot of contemporary Australian art in the country. The last two biennials, Dark Heart and Magic Object, have represented a large array of talented contemporary Indigenous artists and given a well-rounded social critique of Australia’s history and society. When AGSA hosted the Tarnanthi Festival it showed how to decolonise and indigenise the way we think about Indigenous art in Australia. Historically, AGSA has written itself in the record books as the first state institution to buy an Aboriginal artwork, a watercolour by Albert Namatjira in 1939. Also, they committed to collecting Indigenous art in 1955, twelve years before the 1967 referendum.(2) These are incredible achievements in improving the relationship with the Indigenous visual arts communities around Australia and attempting to create a platform for Indigenous people to be represented on a state and national level with in an Australian institution.
However, behind the blockbusters of biennals, the record books and the fan fair, there are some fundamental problems with the presentation of Indigenous art and Australian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Firstly, AGSA has only one official permanent cultural gallery for displaying Indigenous art, the Santos Atrium. However, this space is technically not a gallery room but a stairwell atrium, an in-between space. In comparison to the other world cultures galleries, it is disrespectfully under-represented because AGSA has multiple dedicated gallery rooms to Asian art in the lower wing, European art in the Melrose Wing and Australian art in the Elder Wing.
It could be argued that Indigenous art is included within Australian art in the Elder Wing, but this would be incorrect. The heritage listed Elder Wing has eight rooms dedicated to exhibiting the history of European Australian art in chronological order over the past 228 years since the British colonisation of Australia. There are limited additions of historical Indigenous artworks that were created or collected since European arrival in Australia but exclude anything that was made prior to the British occupation of Australia. This Western European art mode of recording and displaying Australian art in chronological order from European colonisation onward sets Indigenous art history to be automatically excluded from the Australian narrative. The problem with the chronological Western European mode of representing Australia’s art history is it completely ignores the 50,000-year-old rich and unbroken human cultural art history of Australia.(3) Australian Indigenous art and culture is the longest continuous human history in the world. What is the most concerning aspect about only presenting the past 228 years of Australia’s European colonial history is that we are excluding 99.55% of Australia’s chronological human art history and focusing only on 0.45% of the time European’s have been on the continent.(4)
A second fundamental problem that has restricted Indigenous art from being included in Australian art history is that state art galleries did not start collecting Indigenous art until relatively recently. By their own account, AGSA was 'the first state art gallery to purchase the work of an Aboriginal artist in 1939, and in 1955, it was the first to commence strategically collecting Aboriginal art'.(5) However, while AGSA was the first institution to commit to collecting Indigenous art in Australia, it has only a small collection of Indigenous art in comparison to other major state galleries in Australia.
The underwhelming amount of Indigenous art in AGSA’s collection could be a factor as to why the gallery does not display more Indigenous art in their Australian art wing or have a dedicated Indigenous cultures gallery. However, I believe that a limited collection of 1000 Indigenous artworks is more than sufficient to have a real dedicated gallery or galleries for the display of Indigenous art and culture, rather than the poor afterthought that is the current atrium gallery.
There are two South Australian institutions collections that could help support AGSA in displaying more Indigenous art while they build their Indigenous art collection. The South Australian Museum (SAM) and Flinders University Art Museum (FUAM) (6) have large specialised collections of Indigenous cultural material that could fill the gaps within AGSA’s limited collection. Indeed, SAM has the largest collection of Australian Indigenous cultural material in the world and could play a vital role in representing the missing 50,000 year pre-colonial gap that is currently absent in AGSA’s Elder Wing display.(7) If AGSA engaged more with these local institutions collections in Tarndanyangga Adelaide they could display more Indigenous art in their Indigenous and Australian cultural galleries.
To return to my original question: Has Indigenous art, history and culture been included into Australian art 50 years on from the 1967 referendum? The answer is yes, no and kind of. AGSA shows us that it is possible to decolonise successfully by including Indigenous art in Australian art festivals such as the Adelaide Biennial and TARNANTHI. Sadly, these achievements become tokenistic when they are not always practiced in the permanent cultural galleries, and undermine the milestones AGSA has achieved over the last few decades. There have been some amazing changes in presenting and including Indigenous culture into Australian art, but Indigenous art is far from being equal to the colonial European canon in Australia. Australians can gain greatly from including Indigenous art, history and culture into the mainstream of Australian art. If Indigenous art becomes a permanent part of the Australian art display, we will have the oldest art history in the world at our fingertips. We will also have a greater knowledge base for thinking, creating and presenting art in our country.
Sadly in 2016, I am still left wondering when Indigenous art, history and culture will be valued enough to be included in Australian art history. Or should I say, when will Australian art see itself within our 50, 000-year-old Indigenous art history?
Figure 1: Art Gallery of South Australia map
Australian Goverment website, 'Australian Indigenous cultural heritage'
The percentage of time the British inhabitants Australia (228 years) in comparison to the time Indigenous Australian have inhabitants Australia 50, 000 years based on the Australian Government website: (228 ÷ 50000 x 100 = 0.456%)
Editor's note: as of December 2016, Flinders University Art Museum (FUAM) hold over 4000 artworks by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists (55% of their collection).
South Australian Museum, 'Humanities'