I have recently launched a new website with a selection of textiles and written work that I have done. I have also decided to move my blog onto the website so that it is all located together. All the older posts will still be available on this Catch a Crumpsey site but all new posts can be found on the website:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.