First impressions

indigenous artReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art | Ian McLean

Contemporary Indigenous art is one of the great modern art movements. Central and northern Australian Indigenous art in particular has mesmerised art buyers and gallery goers with its colour, rhythm, freshness and closeness to country.

But it is not without ambiguities. While it is not entirely new and mines a rich vein of traditional design that was sustained over thousands of years in rock art, body painting and sacred objects, it is also often an art form adapted to Western tastes and influenced by Western ideas.

In Rattling Spears, Ian McLean emphasises Indigenous art as a cross-cultural endeavour, from the moment Aborigines noticed white sails on the horizon, and especially after colonisation.

But cross-cultural movements work both ways. Westerners have had to learn to look in a different way at Indigenous art, to appreciate an alternative to the European landscape tradition, and to understand the relation of Indigenous art to ceremony. McLean suggests that only after Western art theorists began embracing the abstract and performative aspects have they been able to appreciate Indigenous art as more than anthropological curiosity.

While Westerners are often attracted to the aesthetics, from the beginning of ‘contact’ art with William Barak and others, through the pioneering Papunya movement of the 1970s, art was a way for Indigenous people to keep culture alive. 

Desert art has become spectacularly successful in doing so, yet is safely remote for most Australians.

Urban Indigenous art, on the other hand, remains radically critical of white, mainstream society, a conscience-pricking thorn in the side of Australian culture.

Christianity’s part in colonisation is an interesting thread in the book. Christians were often protective of Indigenous people and culture, against more general colonial attitudes of paternalism, neglect or outright hostility. And many Indigenous people embraced Christianity as a ‘fulfilment’ of traditional ways, a further sign of adaptability and continuing cross-cultural exchange.

Available from New South Books, RRP $40 

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