Indigenous Australia, is a catalogue published as an accompaniment to the current British Museum exhibition (on until 2 August). The review of the exhibition can be found on the Workshop on the Web Home Page, which is under Exhibitions. It traces the story of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Island inhabitants of Australia and the impact of colonisation on them.
Published by the British Museum, the contributors to the catalogue are Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of Oceania at the British Museum and curator of the exhibition; Lissant Bolton, Keeper of Africa, Oceanisa and the Americas at the British Museum; from the Australia National University are John Carty, a research fellow, Howard Morphy, Research Professor of Anthropology and Maria Nugent, Research Fellow; Jonathan Jones, an Aboriginal (Wifadjuri/Kamilaroi) artist and curator. The exhibition was a result of a four-year research programme by the British Museum, National Museum of Australia and the Australia National University.
The book is divided into four chapters, Understanding Country, Encounters in Country, Out of Country, Drawing on Country. The first chapter describes the relationship that Indigenous Australians had with the land and how ‘country’ is defined as ‘a particular area of land or water from which a person’s primary identity and sense of spiritual association and belonging derives’ (Gaye Sculthorpe). This concept is introduced at the beginning of the book and is key to understanding everything that follows. It describes how the Indigenous Australian population were in tune with their environment, worked with it, moved around areas within their estates depending on the season and where water and food could be found. Controlled burning ensured that the land could be used to its full potential.
The Indigenous populations shaped their belief systems around their relationship and understanding of their landscape, and the book beautifully describes ‘Dreamings’ or ‘Dreamtime’ in which ‘a bedrock of common principles’ led to narratives about the creation of the world and how they fit into it and live in this world. The Dreamtime belief systems vary throughout the regions but share fundamental similarities. What is really interesting is that these belief systems are inextricably linked with the land and create maps or ‘songlines’ which may lead to physical landmarks such as significant sites or water, but also detail moral lessons or the social and political structure within a group of people. The religious, moral, physical, artistic and historical were all bound up within the land, and for these reasons, the Indigenous people viewed the land and everything that went with it as their ‘museum’ rather than a bricks and mortar building containing objects, that the rest of the world could relate to. Artwork such as Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) was painted by six senior Spinifex women and was one of the Dreamings from the Spinifex territory. It tells the story of the travels of a group of women singing and travelling through the land and creating parts of the landscape whilst being pursued by a lustful man Nyiiru. The women tricked him, escaped into the sky and became the Pleiades constellation of stars. The collaboration between the women artists who painted Kungkarangkalpa encapsulates the way that the songlines work together across regions. The Dreamings are not owned by one set of people, more that the stories travel across the landscape and become told over wide areas as the stories are revealed as they cross the part of the country in which they are rooted. Stories are held by the senior people and passed down through generations through ritual, but more frequently nowadays, through art.Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington, 2013; Acrylic on canvas. © The artists, courtesySpinifex Arts Project.
It is this definition of country and the Dreamings that makes the description of colonisation that follows so disturbing. When the European explorers came to Australia, they did not recognise how linked to the land the Indigenous Australians were. They viewed them as uncivilised because they did not have permanent housing, agriculture or other emblems of the life the West viewed as ‘normal’. Land was taken from the people, the landscape changed and their living patterns disrupted. The historical evidence of what occurred during colonisation comes mainly from the Europeans and the objects that were brought back, and the Indigenous population struggled as their freedom was curtailed, disease hit large proportions of the population and the general assumption was made that the Indigenous people were dying out and therefore would not need to be preserved. Even through the 20th Century, the Indigenous people were victims of the authorities still trying to ‘civilise’ them by incarceration, isolating them from their population, segregation in public places and the Stolen Generations of fair-complexioned children who were removed from their families and placed in institutions, under the plan to reassimilate them into white society.
Reading these accounts is horrifying, particularly when nuclear testing took place on Indigenous land in the cold war era of the 1960s, and it was only from the 1970s onwards that a move was made towards recognising land rights. Campaigns such as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, erected outside Old Parliament House in 1972, brought the debate to the fore to recognise land rights of the Indigenous Australians. Some moves forward have been made but the book acknowledges that problems still exist.
The book covers a huge period of history in full detail, and offers a fully rounded view of the different reasons for debate on this subject. By offering a context of how the Indigenous Australians lived and viewed the land before colonisation happened gives great insight into why this is such a difficult area of discussion to explore. The fact that the accounts of many of the explorers at the time of colonisation have given us the background information as to how the population lived, causes mixed feelings about what has happened in the past and the information that it has given us today. The exhibition itself is fascinating to see and combined with the book, gives visitors the opportunity to fully contemplate a period of history that may not have been considered or understood. The knowledge provided through the book and exhibition will serve as a good basis for following debates that will continue about the past and future treatment of the Indigenous Australians. The emphasis at the end of the book on new artists, such as Judy Watson and Julie Gough, using museum pieces and the understanding we have from them, to create contemporary art with a strong root in their heritage is a positive ending and one that sees hope in sewing ‘the seeds of a new history’.
Published by The British Museum
Available from www.britishmuseumshoponline.org