An Aboriginal Rashomon

To return to the lament about a lack of writing about Aboriginal art (and culture), I think that one of the problems we face is the lack of venues for publication, especially for short pieces. The academic venues require a set of credentials that most people I know don’t possess. Art magazines have a limited amount of space to devote to any single form of art, and tend to be topical anyway. By “topical” I mean either focused on current exhibitions or devoted to what I often heard described as “the flavor of the month.” 

An unhappy by-product of this situation, for me at least, is the near impossibility of verifying what I accidentally hear, getting a second opinion about a book I’ve read, or pursuing a line of inquiry past what Google might turn up. And often when Google provides multiple hits, the information is identical from site to site. I don’t mean variations on a theme either. Try to find biographical details on an Aboriginal artist. Everything seems to have been recycled from Vivien Johnson’s Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert or the standard CV that accompanies an exhibition. Three or four sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs, and that’s it. All she wrote. The end.

And then there seems to be the enormous problem of the slander and libel laws, which I only dimly understand, but which seem to be far more draconian in Australia (and England) than they are in the United States. Sometimes I think that the entire problem of carpetbaggers thrives, in a bizarre inversion of the metaphor of a flower growing on a dung heap, simply because no one can publicly revile the perpetrators. Anyone who has spent more than a few days in Alice Springs knows that they exist and that they are accused of acting to the enormous detriment of the artists, the market, the art: take your pick. But nobody can ever tell you who they are.

But I digress, if only slightly.

What brought this particular topic to the top of my consciousness was a series of “reports” about the recent death of an artist. In keeping with tradition, I will leave both the artist and my informants nameless and vague. 

The first I heard of this man’s passing came from a gallery that had represented his community, and it was fairly standard obituary fare, if a little vague: no dates of birth or death, hence no approximate age, no cause of death. There was talk about his work in the community, his commitment to the law, the example he set for the youth in his community and his determination to grow them up strong.

It was then with some shock that I heard that, due to politics in the community, he had been an outcast even within the community. That because of, or as a result of his social ostracism, his alcoholism got out of hand and he was literally forced out of the community and onto urban streets where he died like a dog, unable to control his drinking.

The shock and confusion increased the next time his death came up in conversation, when I heard that he had been a broken man, bereft of his family, and that although the cause of death was listed as a heart attack, he had really died of a broken heart following years of violence against his family. His losses became too heavy to bear, and he gave up living.

And finally, I heard him described as a feisty fighter who went out in a burst of defiance, a wild and wicked man with a healthy disrespect for authority.

So where is the “truth” in all of that? As different as all the accounts are in their particulars, I could put them all together in a coherent account. Details seem to contradict each other, but on consideration, perhaps they don’t. But who can put these stories together, and where would that final story go?

In The Camp at Wallaby Cross (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1980), Basil Sansom does a marvelous job of recounting how “truth” is constructed in an Aboriginal community on the outskirts of Darwin. He describes a process of creating consensus whereby one person will put forth an account of an event in the general hearing of the community. Some may agree with that account, and add their voices of confirmation. “Yeah, that’s the way it happened.” Others may retell the story, altering a detail here or there. Someone with real authority inthe community may openly dispute any part of the original narrative. The original speaker may then recast his story. This iterative process continues until the community comes to a generally agreed upon understanding of what happened. (Kenneth Liberman provides a detailed transcript and discussion of similar processes near Alice Springs in Understanding interaction in central Australia: an ethnomethodological study of Australian Aboriginal people (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.))

One of the reasons that we need good writing about Aboriginal art and culture is so that, as a community, we can advance our understanding, come to common cause and agreement where possible. Without that, we run the risk of losing direction.

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