August Books: Winners and Losers

The end of August brought good news for fans of fiction with an Aboriginal theme: Adrian Hyland’s Diamond Dove (Text Publishing 2006) won the Ned Kelly Award for the Best Debut Novel. Hyland’s story tells of Emily Tempest’s return to the community she was raised in, Moonlight Downs, the murder that follows, and the schemes the young woman uncovers as she tracks down the killer. It is fascinating in its depiction of the heroine’s attempt to find her place between the indigenous and whitefella worlds and great fun in what one review describes as “an affectionate flogging of outback Australia’s melanoma-encrusted hide.” 

Better news, especially for American readers, is that even before winning the Award, Diamond Dove was picked up by Soho Press for inclusion in its prestigious international crime series (which incidentally is also the American publisher of Kelly winner Garry Disher). Hyland apparently took some affectionate flogging in turn from award presenter Peter Temple, who said that Hyland would have been “the future of Oz crime” if he hadn’t been 74 years old. Truth be told, Hyland’s barely reached his mid-century, but he may well be the future of Oz crime writing nonetheless.

If your taste in recreational reading tends to the historical romance more than to murder and mayhem, then you might want to try Philip McLaren’s Sweet Water — Stolen Land(University of Queensland Press 1993, UQP Black Australian Writers Series). Although, truth be told, there’s an awful lot of murder and mayhem involved in this one too. The novel is a fictional account of the Myall Creek Massacre couched in a confection that contrasts a black family with a white missionary’s troubled marriage. 

The missionary is more than a little bonkers and in his evil, psychotic personality is more than a bit of a caricature. He is tipped over into absolute evil when his beautiful, innocent wife falls breathily for a handsome visiting English artist with a heart of gold. The Aboriginal heroine is almost lost amidst all these plot complications, and the massacre story itself is almost reduced to an unfortunate coda to a psychopath’s degeneration. But the novel attempts to balance brutality of the frontier with its beauty, and the good and evil in men’s hearts as well.

Disappointingly, Picturing the ‘Primitif’: images of race in daily life, edited by Julie Marcus (LHR Press, 2000), is an ill-tempered collection of essays reprinted from the Olive Pink Society Bulletin. Most of the pieces included here are far too brief too allow for the development of a thoughtful examination of white representations of black culture. As a result, the book becomes an exercise in whingeing more than anything else.

Many of the essays also suffer from a focus on the 1950s. There are two examinations of Jedda, a critique of the 1958 installation of Aboriginal culture at the Australian Museum, and a look at documentary films and early television. There is an article on representations of the indigenous in Walkabout magazine, a mid-century “National Geographic” style publication, and a critique of the post-war ballet Corroboree. It doesn’t take much critical acumen these days to dissect the racism of fifty years ago. These exercises in cultural complaint might have been valuable starting points for an examination of the sorry state of Reconciliation in the 1990s and thus offered readers a challenge, but the authors never rise to the occasion.

I had a much more satisfying encounter with the ingenious Aboriginal Art, Identity and Appropriation by Elizabeth Burns Coleman (Ashgate, 2005). Coleman, currently a lecturer in Philosophy at LaTrobe University, completed this work as part of a post-doctoral fellowship at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU. Meticulously argued and impeccably researched, this volume presents a fascinating case for the protection of indigenous visual intellectual property.

Coleman’s starting point is the call by Aboriginal artists for stronger protection of their work and imagery through the copyright law. Aboriginal claims that the appropriation of their art effectively appropriates their identity and thus threatens the continued existence of their communities are indeed serious charges that demand, in Coleman’s view, serious investigation if we are to honor them.

What follows is an exercise in logic as Coleman examines each element of the problem in turn, satisfying all potential arguments. She scrupulously, for example, defines the notion of “cultural appropriation”: what it is, how it might occur, what its effects are likely to be. She looks at the very concept of “culture” itself, asking who can own a culture, how it can be defined, how individuals and groups experience culture in their daily lives and how we define it at an abstract level.

Her conclusion is a bit surprising at first glance. She does not in the end argue for enhancing the copyright laws or even for more stringent application of them as a solution to the problem of the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery. Instead, she finds ample legal protection in the concept of insignia, which she traces back through English law over several centuries, finding it ultimately quite appropriate in an Aboriginal context.

Part of the pleasure of reading this book comes in watching Coleman explore her topic. The notion of a pictorial representation of one’s identity is both familiar–coats of arms being the obvious example–and at least in its applications, a bit strange and unfamiliar. I had never before thought how an insignia (the word is both singular and plural) functions. For example, I may employ insignia in some contexts and not others. I can formally communicate on paper embossed with a letterhead in my official capacity as a librarian of the university that employs me, but I can not use that letterhead and claim its sanction when complaining about road maintenance in the neighborhood where I live. I am granted the right to use it by an institution rather than an individual, although an individual may be the instrument who grants me the right. 

Working from a background in Yolngu art, Coleman is quick to appreciate the parallels with clan designs, the granting of permissions, the management of rituals, and the responsibilities entailed. Parallels to the desert traditions of “bosses” and “managers” for rituals and their associated designs extend the similarities and help reinforce Coleman’s conclusions.

Along the way, Coleman tackles many of the thorniest issues in contemporary Western critiques of Aboriginal art, including the issues of authenticity and forgery. She neatly draws a distinction between western and indigenous concepts of authenticity. Doing so allows her to rightfully assert that, for example, Kathleen Petyarre’s controversial Storm in Atnangkere Country II is indeed an authentic–if not an autographic–work of art. Conversely, working outside the tradition, Elizabeth Durack painting as Eddie Burrup can produce genuine autographic works that are nonetheless never authentic.

In the end, Coleman believes that Aboriginal claims to stronger protection for their work are justified and necessary. She reaches this conclusion while admitting that it was not exactly the position she started from. Like many liberal thinkers, Coleman believes that copyright can be and is abused, and that current practice often restricts free speech. But through her exacting and intricate logical processes, she makes an expert legal case–in western terms–for protecting the indigenous intellectual patrimony. Aboriginal Art, Identity and Appropriation is a startlingly original book of unusual rigor. It should be appreciated for what it has to say about preserving the culture of Aboriginal people, while at the same time it can be enjoyed for its own sake, a beautifully reasoned argument that is almost a work of art in itself.

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