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Understanding Aboriginal art and the respect that deserves

I acknowledge that the Tarnathi exhibition has been presented in the traditional land of Kaurna people, and I respect their spiritual relationship with Country. The information I give are the most precise possible, however I still have to learn a lot: if there is any mistake, please noticed that it wasn’t intentional.

John Mawurndjul works represent stories, ceremonies, places: they might contain figures that also non Aboriginal people can recognize, such as animals, objects and spirits, or they can depict maps and teachings which meaning can be understood only by the members of the Aboriginal group in which that particular story is told. Art, in each Aboriginal group, has always had the essential role of conveying and preserving creational stories, culture and identity of every Indigenous society.

As traditionally Aboriginal Australians don’t have a written language, the oral communication is supported by the artworks, which draws and points out places, characters and object of the story.

Lines and dots might indicate people, coordinates, plants, animals, the earth, the water and the sky: basically all the elements of which Country is composed.

For instance, the one above is a map that represents the artist’s land: the white line in the middle of the painting indicates the place where John takes the clay to draw, and the black lines explain how to get there, and also that the clay is underground.

This artwork, on the contrary, tells what Mawurndjul’s Aboriginal group sees in the new moon: the moon, represented as a circle, wanted people to rise again after their death, while the quoll said that people should die. So everyone who’s buried in that place, indicated by the map itself, in the day in which the moon dies each month, will rise again with the crescent moon, represented by the rounded lines on the top of the painting.

Here it is shown Mardayin ceremony, which meaning can’t be understood by those who aren’t initiated to the mysteries. However, we can imagine that maybe the coloured dots indicate people with different roles, and that their position in the space gives specific information about the development of Mardayin.

With the European colonization, the usage of our alphabet has been imposed to Aboriginal Australians to communicate in English, both writing and speaking; also the arts has changed. A lot of Indigenous and Non Indigenous artists have been influenced from movements such as impressionism, surrealism and futurism. The works in the Adelaide Art gallery live between present and past, Indigenous and non Indigenous, with astonishing results.

Looking again at Mawurndjul works, it can be said that this is not abstract art: every dot and line has a meaning, and gives meaning to the identity and the history of an Aboriginal group. To realize paintings and sell them as Aboriginal art is insulting and demonstrates that Indigenous images have a meaning under the depiction. Too many times non Indigenous artists copy or are inspired by this works without even know the moral value they carry. The Wandjina sculpture’s case is just one of many examples of ignorance demonstrated by non Aboriginal artists that, even when they are moved by good intentions, represent something they aren’t allowed to recreate. Unluckily, Australian copyright laws still don’t have a specific legislation that protect Aboriginal artistic productions, despite the law should applies to every australian.

Still today, Aboriginal people don’t receive the respect and the protection they deserve, not because they are ‘noble savages that has to be saved by extinction’, but because they are the owners of Australia, and Australian citizens as everyone else. But I will discuss this topics in other articles.

Other images can be found on the Tarnathi festival’s website. The artworks have been presented in the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide as part of the Tarnathi exhibition.

Want to explore this thematic further?

Video: Stan Grant’s Speech on racism

Readings: Janke (1998) Our Culture/Our Future: Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights – Part 1, Chapter 1 sections 1.1, 1.3, 1.4.

Janke, T & Lawson, P (2012) New Tracks: Indigenous knowledge and cultural expression and the Australian Intellectual Property System pp. 4 – 8.

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