Yumari by Uta Uta Tjangala, 1981, Acrylic on canvas.
Photograph: National Museum of Australia
Westerners fail to recognize civilizations beyond their own.
What is civilisation? Westerners tend to think it has something to do with Greek statues and classical music. No wonder they failed to recognise it when they saw it in the great southern continent that James Cook claimed as a British possession in 1770. The expressions of civilisation that could be clearly seen all over Australia were so different and so unfamiliar that Aboriginal culture was denied to even exist.
No people has been quite so consistently disparaged by Europeans as Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, whose tragic story is movingly told in this thought-provoking exhibition.
Cook and his crew admired the ways of Tahiti and the art of Easter Island, but saw Australia as peopled by mere savages – a prejudice that continued until very recent times. Sigmund Freud expresses deeply negative opinions about Aboriginal culture in his book Totem and Taboo, for instance. Europeans found it hard to see any culture here at all, let alone a civilisation.
And yet what Cook encountered in 1770 was indeed a civilisation: a settled, sophisticated way of life with a deep sense of history and place. It was in fact the world’s very oldest civilisation. Westerners pride themselves on traditions that go back a few hundred years: Indigenous Australian art was being made in 1770 in an unbroken tradition with a pedigree of somewhere in the region of 40,000 years. There is a bark shield here probably made in the 1850s, with a handprint strikingly stencilled on its reverse. Anyone who has ever seen any Ice Age art will recognise it as the exact kind of hand image made on cave walls by the first artists. That is no surprise, for the first Australians crossed the sea to settle this difficult environment during the Ice Age, and brought its art with them. The oldest rock art in Australia dates from around 40,000 years ago. What is unique is that it carried on being made and remade down the millennia, generation on generation.
It is deeply unsettling to see how a culture of such age and beauty could be utterly dismissed by white settlers. ... Big fascinating abstract paintings dot this show – “abstract” that is, to untutored eyes. Uta Uta Tjangala’s great 1981 painting Yumari, lent by the National Museum of Australia, pulses with shimmering circles, riverine flowing lines and the outline of some fabulous beast.
It is a captivating work of art even if you know nothing of its meaning. Modern art, especially Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, created new visual assumptions that have enabled outsiders to at last see the power of Australia’s ancient art forms. But this picture is not really abstract. It tells a story: it describes a “dreaming”, the mythic history of a particular landscape. The creatures and ancestors in it, who include Digging Stick Women and King Brown Snake, tell the story of the artist’s own biological conception.
Art is made in this 40,000-year-old tradition to tell important stories of the land and its people. From rock art to paintings that are sold today on the global market, these mysterious images are made by the custodians of dreamings to preserve them for a new generation.
It is savagely ironic that every bit of the continent Cook took for an un-owned wilderness was mapped by dreamings. Australia’s indigenous art has a sacred bond with the places whose collective memories it preserves. That makes the ownership of this art inherently problematic. This exhibition includes some of the oldest portable Aboriginal artefacts, owned by the British Museum since the 18th century. Many people demand their return. This radical, provocative encounter makes those controversies explicit.
You are the custodian, not the owner
It’s been less than a century since the world’s leading collectors began acknowledging Indigenous Australian art as more than mere ethnographic artefact. Since then, the most enlightened, from Hong Kong to London, New York to Paris, have understood that when you purchase a piece of Indigenous art you become its custodian – not its owner. That image depicting a moment on one of the myriad songlines that have criss-crossed the continent during 60,000 years of Indigenous civilisation can adorn your wall. But you will never have copyright. Sometimes, not even the creator owns the painterly iconography and motif attached to particular stories that are family, clan or tribe – but not individual – possessions.
Such understanding is now implicit in the compact between collectors and creators, as remote Indigenous Australian arts centres match a rapacious international market with the rights of some of the world’s most accomplished, and impoverished, modern artists to support themselves and their families. But for museums, especially those of the great empires, ownership of Indigenous cultural property remains an existential bedrock. Which brings me to the British Museum and its forthcoming exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation. To call this exhibition – and a related one, Encounters, planned for Canberra’s National Museum of Australia – controversial dramatically understates the bitter politics, anger and behind-the-scenes enmity provoked by the British Museum’s continued ownership of some 6,000 Indigenous Australian items variously acquired after British contact, invasion and occupation of the continent beginning in 1770.
Reverse the situation
Shane Mortimer, an elder of the Ngambri people on whose land the Australian capital, Canberra, is built, said, “If the Ngambri people went to England, killed 90% of the population and everything else that is indigenous to England and sent the crown jewels back to Ngambri Country as a prize exhibit … what would the remaining 10% of English people have to say about that? The exhibition should not proceed without the permission of the owners of all of the items.” And that will never be granted.
After the British Museum launched its exhibition in January, veteran Indigenous Australian activist Gary Foley wrote on the museum’s Facebook page: “Bet they won’t be prepared to seriously discuss issues of repatriation of cultural materials obtained through nefarious means ... because of their retention of the so-called ‘Elgin marbles’.” Last month, historian and university lecturer Foley again attacked the museum in a seminar convened by the Greek Orthodox community of Melbourne, which sees parallels between the museum’s stance on the requested return of Indigenous Australian objects and the Parthenon marbles. He said: “The British Museum grew out of the era of colonialism. The rest of the world grew out of those ideas 100 years ago. Their position has no credibility in the modern world. It’s really that simple.”
Repealing the Australian legislation that will protect Indigenous objects on loan to Australia from the British Museum collection would “highlight the outrageous position of those at the British Museum who refuse to return anything to anybody, because they’re scared of the precedent that might be, in terms of the Parthenon Marbles,” Foley said.
Stolen Property vs. Preservation
Some Indigenous Australians want what they rightly regard as their property (some of it stolen in circumstances of extreme violence on the Australian colonial frontier) returned. Others have been more conciliatory, saying that the British Museum (which insists it has been on a long journey of consultation with Indigenous communities ahead of its exhibition) has preserved items that would otherwise have been lost.
The older objects have profound spiritual significance for the communities where they belong, linking the living with ancestors and elements of the past. They also testify to the existential threat that was implied in first contact.
An elegant exhibition catalogue does not attempt to sugar-coat the violence against and dispossession of the locals, who died in vast numbers (estimates vary from a conservative 20,000 to at least 60,000) in clashes with explorers, settlers, British soldiers and police until the last accepted massacre at Coniston, Northern Territory, in 1928. “The essential truth is that Aboriginal people were dispossessed from their land by force, their populations reduced by disease and violence, and their cultural beliefs and practices disrespected and sometimes destroyed.” Indeed, the catalogue – which includes essays by Gaye Sculthorpe, the Indigenous Tasmanian curating the exhibition who has, since 2013, been curator of the museum’s Oceania and Australia section – is perhaps indispensible when it comes to understanding the back story of this contentious collection.
Indeed, the questions that burn uncomfortably at the core of this exhibition and the linked one in Canberra are about imperial acquisition and continued ownership. The counter-argument, of course, has always been that had the British Museum not acquired items such as the Dja Dja Wurrung barks and the Gweagel shield, they may otherwise have turned to dust. Is salvation – or imperial arrogance – most identifiable in the British Museum’s Indigenous collection? Many of the items in this collection were, after all, designed for utilitarian, ceremonial or decorative function – not posterity.
Which leads to bigger questions: should Indigenous Australian culture be preserved primarily in institutions, as too many paternal white politicians insist? Or is it best lived and nurtured in traditional lifestyles in home countries across the continent?