Remembrance of Things Forgotten

Chris Healy’s Forgetting Aborigines (UNSW Press, 2008) is a bit of a strange book that often seems to be arguing that remembering is a way of forgetting, although forgetting can occasionally be a way of remembering.  I think.  It has the feel of an academic study, yet it is based largely on the author’s personal experiences and on manifestations of popular culture he has encountered throughout his life.  It is a whitefella’s portrait of the inadequacy of whitefella portraits of blackfellas.  Healy always seemed on the verge of offering important insights, without ever quite delivering them.

Healy’s introductory chapter begins with a two-page spread illustrating a board game from the 1940’s called Corroboree.   Players would roll dice to move along a pathway marked with events like “Make Fire–miss one [turn]” or “See platypus.”  The goal is to “Dance into Corroboree” at the end.  Unless of course, you land on “Point Bone,” in which case you are out, finished, the loser.  Healy sees the game as emblematic of the ways in which white culture has created “Aborigines” and “Aboriginality” in a kind of reverse image of its own sophistication.  And these are images and conceptions that we have put aside, forgotten, as our appreciation of “real Aborigines” has grown.  But this forgetting, Healy argues is a sword that delivers two unkind cuts, for it allows us to forget how we have misjudged and mischaracterized Indigenous Australians; at the same time such forgetting allows us to assume that our current conceptions are more just and more accurate.

The next five chapters examine different ways in which Aboriginality is or has been constructed.  Healy first examines a 1960s television series of a quasi-ethnographic bent called Alcheringa, in which primitive cultural traditions were reconstructed by actors and introduced by the formidable Bill Onus (first Aboriginal President of the Aborigines Advancement League (Victoria) and father of artist Lin Onus).  His subsequent chapter on “Old and Vew Aboriginal art” investigates what Healy dubs “Abo art,” the mass-produced kitsch of mid-century that was passed off as aesthetic representations of Indigenous culture.

The third essay in Forgetting Aborigines takes on the question of heritage and is a gloss on a broad range of topics ranging from the Bicentenary to Pauline Hanson, the culture and history wars, the Stolen Generations, Deaths in Custody, and land rights.  “Objects and the Museum” investigates the ways in which gorgets or breastplates, the crescent-shaped decorations commemorating “King Billy” and his kind may have been intended to be read at the time of their manufacture, and how they are read in the context of museum pieces today.  Healy’s final critique looks at a joint Indigneous/non-Indigenous venture in cultural tourism along the northwest coast near Broome.

Each of these subjects offers fertile ground for an examination of how settler culture has defined Indigenous culture for itself and how that definition has played itself out in social relations.  And yet I find that all too often, Healy stops short of genuine insight and leaves us adrift in a sea of ultimately unsatisfying and unilluminating pop culture memories.

Let me take the chapter on Aboriginal art as a case study.  Healy begins by positing that white Australia has discarded its benighted concept of “Aboriginal culture” as an oxymoron, and that it congratulates itself on its enlightenment for having done so.  “If there is one, single piece of evidence likely to be called upon to support this liberal progress, it is Aboriginal art” (p. 66).  He proceeds to chart the “conventional history of the emergence of Aboriginal high art” (p. 67) beginning with the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petition and moving swiftly to the narrative of Geoffrey Bardon’s work, drawing heavily on the event recounted in Papunya: a place made after the story (Miegunyah Press, 2005).

Healy then turns to a critique of Bardon’s history, attempting, through a contrast with Vivien Johnson’s portrayal of Clifford Possum’s emergence as a painter, to indicate that things were not quite as Bardon presented them.  In Healy’s telling, Johnson does not reproduce Bardon’s celebration of the appearance of a new art form as a startling genesis ex nihilo, but instead insists on the links to earlier Anmatyerre painting and sculpture, especially works created specifically for the tourist market.  Bardon is to be faulted for forgetting those decades of “Abo art,” the painted boomerangs and incised boat nuts, much less the tea towels and ashtrays with their faux-native appliqués.

Healy wants us to remember all that kitsch, lest we forget the injustices it exemplifies.  Fair enough.  I half expected him to take up Richard Bell’s banner statement, “Aboriginal art–it’s a white thing” and suggest that the Papunya story itself is a product of non-Indigneous imagination and interpretation.  (It would have been an interesting path to follow in this context.)  I appreciate his assertion that “Abo art is art without Aborigines.”  What disappoints is his failure to engage, though he acknowledges, the ways in which contemporary Indigenous artists have put the Aboriginal back into Abo art.

Overwhelmingly, it’s indigenous artists who have been the energetic and creative memory-workers in the archives of Aboriginality.  I think of photographic work like that of Leah King-Smith’s haunting ghost pictures and Fiona Foley’s Survival II (1988), Giviid Woman and Mrs Fraser (1992) and Badtjala Woman  (1994).   I think of film work by Tracey Moffatt and Michael Riley, and of Gordon Bennett’s paintings, some of them dealing directly and explicitly with the inheritance of Abo art in general and [Margaret] Preston in particular.  But the queen of this kitsch is Destiny Deacon.  Her art certainly begins from the ruins of colonialism, but the most distinctive aspect of the work is Deacon’s capacity to hold her nerve, to be fearless in the face of kitsch and embrace it with compassion.  Even so, my purpose is not to add to the significant critical commentary on indigenous artists in relation to the history of image-making about indigenous people.  Instead I want to consider how a non-indigenous artist, Ross Moore, has approached Abo art (pp. 91-92).

Healy then spends several pages explicating Moore’s 1994 installation Dear Primitive, a mashup of plastic shields and ceramic tiles adorned with cartoonish images of dancing men and coolamon-bearing, bare-breasted women set to a soundtrack by the likes of Rolf Harris’s  “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.”  As Healy sums it up, “Here institutional forms were familiar; these were false artefacts on display–clearly products of white imagination–and I was being asked to gaze at my (cultural) self in a mirror of mis-recognition” (p. 95).

This passage crystallized my problems with Forgetting Aborigines.  In the first place, much of what Healy refers to when he is talking about Abo art is exactly kitsch.  And while Destiny Deacon may exploit that kitsch better than anyone (Tony Albert notwithstanding), the “archives of Aboriginality” contains much more, as the inclusion of King-Smith, Moffatt, Riley, Foley, and Bennett makes abundantly clear.  But if his focus is on the kitsch of Abo art, why drag these others, however briefly, into the discussion?  And if Deacon is an Indigenous artist with an unflinching gaze in this regard, why not examine how she has addressed the stereotypes, the white man’s view that she forces us to look at?  To hold up Moore’s work as an ironic example of that condescension seems far too easy, too simplistic, and too wide of the mark.  It tells us nothing new.

And why not address the question that Richard Bell so famously raised?  Is it not possible that our current sanctification of the story of acrylic painting at Papunya is simply another white man’s myth about Aboriginal art?  What would we learn if we juxtaposed  the stories told in Roman Black’s 1964 book Old and New Australian Aboriginal Art (to which Healy devotes the second half of this chapter) to those told by Bardon in Papunya: a place made after the story that Healy draws on in its first half?  Might it be that both stories are myths?  If they are, it is surely harder to understand the myths of our own time (Bardon’s) than those of an earlier period (Black’s) but providing insight into Bardon’s would be more valuable.

This sense of taking the easy way out, of not trying to answer the really hard cases, pervades my reading of Forgetting Aborigines.  Post-modernism’s ploy of using popular culture to unmask our unstated and unimagined prejudices can be a valuable tool of critical analysis, but here it remains simply the easy way out, a means of placing already discredited concepts center stage and telling us what has already become glaringly obvious.  The mirror of mis-recognition that they offer needs no polishing.

The blurb on the back of my copy of this book says that “Forgetting Aborigines explores a central paradox in Australian history: Aborigines are often remembered as absent in the face of a continuing and actual Indigenous historical presence.”  Healy does a good job of describing how, in the past, Aboriginal presence has been artificially and inaccurately constructed, how willing we have been to consign Aboriginal people to the past before they are actually gone.  Unfortunately, the book has very little to say about Indigenous presence in the here and now.  Yes, we have been mistaken in the past; the more interesting question I wish he had examined in how those mistakes inform our present views, and how much we may remain mistaken in the present.

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3 Responses to Remembrance of Things Forgotten

  1. El says:

    I read that book a couple of years ago. I felt, like you, that it had some good insights at the beginning but that overall it reflected the author’s position as an academic in a city where Aboriginal people make up a small proportion of the population, as a result of its history of massacres and dispossession. Hence, he tends to locate Aboriginality as a historical identity with limited frames for it as a contemporary set of identities.

  2. Lynn Bean says:

    I wouldn’t be so kind as either Will or El about this book. To me it displays great gaping holes in the author’s understanding of past and contemporary Aboriginal culture as well as lazy analysis and poor research.

  3. Will says:

    Thank you both, El and Lynn, for your comments. I almost gave up on this post halfway into it; I’m glad you added to what I managed to put out there.

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