Australia Cultural Artistry

Tory Glerum

Aboriginal art and public policy were topics of discussion earlier this month when Anna Haebich, director of the Center for Public Culture and Ideas at Griffiths University in Brisbane, Australia, lectured in Golden Auditorium on Tuesday, November 12 in connection with the Core 329 Passion, Promotion, and Public Awareness: Thinking about Arts in the 21st Century. This visit was Haebich’s first time in the United States.

The lecture began at 7:30 p.m. with an introduction by Professor Ellen Kraly of the Geography Department, who spoke of Haebich’s accomplishments as an Australian Research Fellow and a writer of histories of post-war migration.

“She is a scholar of international repute in the areas of indigenous history, art history, and social justice issues. She has influenced the knowledge of Aboriginal history in deep and profound ways,” Kraly said.

Kraly also referred to Haebich as “a scholar who remembers through her art and through her heart.”

Haebich’s lecture was titled, “Possession and Disposession: Voices, Silences, Paradoxes in the History of Australian Aboriginal Arts,” and focused on Aboriginal history and identity through the lens of art. She began by discussing the geography and history of the Aborigine culture, how it survived the demographic catastrophe of colonization, and is still in existence today with art dating to back before the common era.

In regards to the art itself, Haebich said it was confined to anthropology museums before 1950, and then in the 70s experienced an explosion in to the public domain with government support. This fueled modern artists’ interest in reinvigorating images of Aborigine culture.

“Art from some regions was more successful than others, and there were big issues and debates from local artists against art being bought from remote areas,” Haebich said. “It mirrors the nation’s past and present by expressing relationships and political changes over the years,” Haebich said. “The 20th century was a time of political change, and there was ultimately a move away from art, but the artists established an exceptional legacy.”

The first category of art Haebich discussed was the work of Aboriginal child artists who were taken away from their families in the 1950s and institutionalized as part of the government’s desire to assimilate native Aborigines with Australia’s white population, a movement which began in the late nineteenth century and continued into the 1970s. According to the Picker Art Gallery Website, these children of the so-called “Stolen Generations,” were housed at the Carrolup School in Southwestern Australia from 1945 until 1953, and began producing drawings of nature, designs, and narrative scenes when the headmaster decided sketching was a way to alleviate them from the horrible conditions they were experiencing due to the assimilation policies.

Haebich had spent some time earlier in the day with the Core 329 class looking at Picker Art Gallery’s own collection of paintings by the Carrolup children, which was donated to the school by Herbert A. Mayer, class of 1929.

Haebich presented several images of the Carrolup children’s drawings and then discussed the international interest in primitive art forms that picked up in the 1950s, and notion of “kitsch,” where non-Aborigine people used native designs to create ceramics, murals and textiles in a form of superficial borrowing.

Haebich then transitioned into her discussion on modern dance choreographer Beth Dean, who looked to the primitive and exotic forms of Aborigine dance to put together a show for the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1954.

“Dean toured Aborigine territory to collect information about dance. She really wanted to salvage the vibrancy of the culture,” Haebich said.

The last part of Haebich’s lecture focused on some specific works of art, including those of watercolorist Albert Namatjira and several prison artists. She concluded by emphasizing the forces of government, anthropologists, modern artists, and consumers with regards to influencing and examining Aborigine culture.

Kraly felt that Haebich’s lecture was very relevant to the topics of art and public policy discussed in the Core 329 class, and that it provided a very interesting connection to the Carrolup drawings in Picker Art Gallery.

“[Haebich] discussed very important topics that allowed students to engage first hand in the scholarship surrounding all the issues in Aborigine culture,” Kraly said.

This was not the first time Aborigine culture had been discussed at Colgate in connection to the Carrolup Drawing collection. Kraly mentioned a project presented last year in which 15 and 16 year old Aborigine girls exhibited their handmade fashions as a way to portray their heritage and establish a cultural identity.

“They were able to present their fashion juxtaposed to the drawings, and really make Colgate part of their experience,” Kraly said.

Kraly will be leading an extended study this spring to Western Australia in connection with CORE 329 and two geography courses. Participating students will experience the Aborigine culture of the Noongar community firsthand.

Haebich said she hoped students came away from her lecture with an expanded knowledge of the issues present in Aboriginal culture today.

“Aboriginal art is a big industry, and it’s important for people to understand everything artists have had to face,” Haebich said.