The Economics of Aboriginal Work

My previous post summarized an article in the Alice Springs News that quoted Yanda Aboriginal Art owner Chris Simon as saying, “Some co-ops imply these artists can’t think for themselves by saying that they can only work for them. It smacks of colonialism. … Forcing the artists to stay on the community to paint is a restriction of trade.” I have recently been reading about colonial practices and economics in Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s book, The Cunning of Recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism (Duke University Press, 2002) and want to rebut Simon’s charges in light of a passage from that work. 

Povinelli’s book is primarily an examination of how land rights legislation has affected and reinforced certain definitions of Aboriginal culture in Australian society. I’ll have more to say about it in another post, but for now I want to offer a rather lengthy quote about Aboriginal labor and the creation of wealth and value during the 1930s.

The idea of a self-regulating, self-reproducing native group also provided the government and business an economically expedient excuse for the use of Aboriginal men and women as a disposable labor pool. Although virtually every Aboriginal person would have had some form of contact with settlers by 1936, either directly or mediated by trade with neighboring groups, many northwestern, central, and western desert groups maintained some relative autonomy and some relative expressive difference (local language, dress, ritual practice) from white populations. Employers used these commonsense indexes of tribal function to justify their practice of paying Aboriginal laborers meager rations, arguing that a worker’s extended Aboriginal family could forage for any extra provisions that might be needed during the work season and during periods when no work was available. Governments likewise justified paltry budgets for indigenous health, housing, and welfare by referring to the fantasy of the tribal function. Even when government compounds (“reservations”) were established in the far north in the early 1940s, administrators envisioned them as serving as “refuges or sanctuaries of a temporary nature” where “the aboriginal may…continue his normal existence until the time is ripe for his further development.” This all but free labor pool was critical to capital accumulation in the north, where profit margins were thin at best, especially during the global depression of the 1930s.

Traditional expressive culture was emerging as the ground of a very different type of symbolic and economic value. In 1930 the Northern Territory Times printed “A Plea for the Abo” in which it reported that the British Association for the Advancement of Science considered the “Australian aborigine as being among the most valuable living people for the scientific study of the early history of mankind.” Christian ministers echoed the argument that “our aborigines are a national asset”; and this theological imprimatur was circulated in the national press. Aboriginal expressive culture (rather than Aboriginal people per se) slowly emerged as a national value, as something that belonged to the nation and thus merited federal protection. Although noting that the Commonwealth government had no constitutional authority to intervene in state indigenous policy, in the shadow cast by these reevaluations of indigenous worth, the Northern Territory Times called on the federal government to provide state and territory governments with trained anthropologists to study local people. In other articles, the Northern Territory Times called on ordinary settlers to provide their own ethnographic insights on the ways of “our Abo.” Similar themes were sounded in short educational films such as Art of the Hunter.

Certified as world historic by such internationally recognized scholars as Freud and Durkheim and by esteemed institutions like the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Aboriginal culture lent Australia a symbolic value and luminosity. Anthropologists were not the only settler subjects converting this symbolic capital into economic capital. Two years after announcing the scientific value of Australian Aborigines, the Northern Territory Times ran a four-part series, “Smoke Signals from the Never-Never,” reporting on the novel transformation of the rural economy from pastoralism to tourism. In the serialized articles, the emergent voicings of a global cultural tourist market can be heard: “Quite genuine old timers are neglecting the raising of stock or giving it second place in the great new industry of shewing [sic] sightseers round. . . . For a few sticks of tobacco stone age savages will doff the rags of civilization and perform weird rites in full panoply of feathers [s]tuck on with blood. Spears up-raised, they will charge madly down on the row of loaded — cameras, and rejuvenated business men can take back irrefutable evidence of the tough time they had against the blacks.”

Simultaneously an administrative technique and a fantasy of liberal appropriation, the Murray System promised a seamless and peaceful transition from a state of national economic, racial, and civilizational separation to a lucrative business of cultural commodification. As the frontier was absorbed in the nation, Aboriginal people and their customs would gradually lose their “wildness.” No longer wild, Aboriginal men and women would longer be recognized as “more or less tribal.” The full force of state law would then be extended in concert with the full benefits of citizenship and full panoply of business initiatives. Until that time, the more indigenous groups maintained the native customs that signified and were thought necessary to produce a self-regulating Aboriginal group the less state and private capital had to be expended to maintain and reproduce the Aboriginal labor critical to the appropriation of Aboriginal lands and resources. [pp. 127-129]


In short, Povinelli says that Aboriginal people have historically been an exploitable resource for business and government. In many cases this labor was deployed on cattle stations, where the cultural difference of a hunter-gatherer way of life allowed employers to give a meager return for labor by providing only a limited amount food in lieu of wages. Eventually, though, the cultural difference itself came to be seen as an exploitable resource, as the image of the primitive Aborigine attacking the bush tourist became a marketing tool for Outback adventures.

This cultural difference certainly plays a role in today’s art market. It would be naive to deny that the very difference of Aboriginal culture is a significant part of the appeal of the work. This recognition of difference takes many forms. In one of its less savory manifestations, it was the amazement that the world’s most primitive people could produce a master of Western art technique like Albert Namatjira. Fifty years later New Age enthusiasts saw in Aboriginal art a manifestation of a remedy for Western spiritual malaise. In a more positive light, the optical brilliance and visual power of the work and its iconography form the core of its distinctive aesthetic vocabulary among contemporary schools of painting.

But it is Povinelli’s assertions in the first paragraph quoted above that I find most relevant to the discussions about current practices in and around Alice Springs: that Aboriginal labor has been “critical to capital accumulation” and that it has “provided the government and business an economically expedient excuse for the use of Aboriginal men and women as a disposable labor pool.” These descriptions of colonial practice make evident that today’s cooperatives are the complete opposite of colonialism. Simon’s accusation of “colonialism” is just plain wrong.

It is true that past governments have, in an era that might be called colonial, segregated Aboriginal people on reserves, and it is also true that such restrictions on the movement of Aboriginal people furthered colonial interests in pastoralism or mining.

In this context I find Simon’s accusations of “colonialism” on the part of the cooperatives to be offensive and misguided. Papunya Tula provides services to Aboriginal people living in Kintore and Kiwirrkura but these communities are not colonial ventures. Quite the opposite in fact, they are communities created by Aboriginal people in response to colonial attempts to determine where they might live. They are expressions of a desire to return to their homelands, to break free from the restraints of colonialism. Cooperatives like Papunya Tula is not forcing people to remain out in the Western homelands. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. They are one of the few initiatives that promote the continued existence of these communities by providing economic sustenance; and in the case of Papunya Tula, they do so by returning one hundred per cent of the profits to the communities.

Nor is restraint of trade the central issue here. The central issue is the overwhelming poverty of Aboriginal communities, a poverty that only the creation and sale of artwork seems to have been able to dent in the smallest ways. Here again Povinelli’s historical summary hits a mark that is not so far off current conditions: “[g]overnments … justified paltry budgets for indigenous health, housing, and welfare by referring to the fantasy of tribal function.” The struggles to establish the outstations and the government’s slow response to the basic needs of their founders are well documented in Settle Down Country: Pmere Arlaltyewele by Pam Nathan and Dick Leichleitner Japanangka (Kibble Books/Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, 1983). The efforts of Papunya Tula to raise money for health care and the Kintore swimming pool (the latter an attempt to address health, education, and recreation all at once) that I referred to in my last post demonstrate that not much has changed in the way of meaningful and timely support from the government in the decades since Settle Down Country was published. 

The poverty of the Aboriginal communities is both a cause and a result of the problems that have now come under investigation. Simon and other commentators make much of the notion that individual artists should be free to choose for whom they work. But the truth is that individual choice is severely compromised by the overall poverty of the communities, far more so than by the exhortations of any arts advisor. Poverty leaves the artists open to exploitation. It deprives them of bargaining power in the arena of commerce. Workers who find themselves in such compromised positions have historically responded by organizing, by forming guilds, unions, and cooperatives. Far from acting as a restraint on trade, these organizations have been born from the need to establish a counterbalance to the inequalities of trade relations generated by inequalities in capital.


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