Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is a challenge to review

Shell Necklace, Displayed at the Great Exhibition, London, 1851. Maireener shell and fibre. Oyster Cove, Tasmania, before 1851 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Reviewing Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, which opened last week at London’s British Museum, is a challenge.

Sponsored by BP, the collaborative exhibition draws on Australian Aboriginal objects and artefacts, many of which were taken from disparate parts of the country during first-wave British colonisation. These now form part of the museum’s archival collection (AKA spoils of British colonisation). More recent works – in some cases by practising contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists – are also on display.

Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington, Kungkarangkalpa. Acrylic on canvas, 2013. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

Kungkarangkalpa, (Seven Sisters or Pleiades – above) is an immensely vibrant canvas collaboratively created by members of the Spinifex group, whose country lies in northwestern Australia. This - literally - stellar work documents the passage through the night sky of the eponymous star-sisters in their attempt to avoid unwanted advances of a sexual predator, an older man with sorcery powers, who relentlessly pursues them.

This nocturnal cycle is repeated eternally, reflecting, inter alia, detailed Aboriginal knowledge of astronomy and direction-finding. The joyous explosion of colour in this painting gives living, breathing testimony to Deborah Bird Rose’s observation, in her essay Nourishing Terrains (1996), that “…country is synonymous with life” (p10) and also that: “People say country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy.” (p7).

An ambitious exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation aims for both breadth and depth. Its title encapsulates an apt and nifty pun: Australian Aboriginal people, often against overwhelming odds, have endured – as in surviving over a long period of time – as distinct peoples, and have maintained some of their cultural practices, while not only enduring – in the sense of suffering painfully and patiently – the initial seismic shock of British colonisation but also its continuing bitter aftermath.

Dancing Figure - unknown artist, Noongar. Carol Native Settlement, WA, Australia (1945-1953). Ink on paper. © The Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition provides refreshingly strong coverage of the history and cultural practices of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, a relatively unusual occurrence in exhibitions of this kind. In many, Tasmanian Aboriginal lifeways are consigned to little more than an historical footnote, although this has been changing in recent years. No doubt this is greatly enabled by the choice of a widely respected exhibition curator, Gaye Sculthorpe, an Aboriginal Tasmanian.

A propos of this, a splendid Tasmanian maireener shell and fibre necklace is on display, the gracile design features of which reflect specific and enduring kinship relationships. These translucent bluish-green pearl-like shell necklaces are of great cultural significance for Aboriginal Tasmanians, kept alive today by the efforts of the incomparable Lola Greeno and other Tasmanian Aboriginal women.

At the centre of this visually splendid exhibition are several magisterial works, none more so than Yumari created by the late, great Pintupi artist Uta Uta Tjangala in 1981. Tjangala (c. 1922-1990) was one of the original group of Papunya artists who began painting with acrylics on canvas in the early 1970s.

Yumari (1981) – artwork by Uta Uta Tjangala (c. 1926-1990), Pintupi people. Papunya, NT, Australia. Acrylic on canvas. National Museum of Australia

Measuring more than 2.2 x 3.6 metres, Yumari is on loan from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. One dimension of the lengthy interconnecting stories underpinning this Pintupi “Yilpinji” work (“Yilpinji” is usually inadequately translated as “love magic”) relates to sorcery, seduction, lust, and other “R-rated” subject matter.

Part of the Yumari narrative recounts the transgressive sexual love of a man for his mother-in-law, the par excellence taboo relationship in many parts of Aboriginal Australia and its surrounding islands. Such illicit passion is widely regarded throughout tradition-oriented Aboriginal Australia as “the love that dare not speak its name”.

It’s a source of irresistible and delicious irony that, given its racy subject matter, part of this Yumari artwork – was recently selected and put into service as a watermark on all new and renewed Australian passports.

The exhibition also includes several short, rather oversimplified video loops, intended as illustrative. In all cases, greater depth of context needed to be provided. One video entails images showing certain aspects of the history of Aboriginal Land Rights, accompanied by a sound track with an Aboriginal voice-over adumbrating on that historical struggle; another frames the concept of “country”, with four minutes of footage attesting to the geographical and ecological diversity of Aboriginal Australia.

It reads rather like a travelogue, with imprecise accompanying signage: “Diverse people, environments, and connection to country.”

Bark painting of a barramundi. Western Arnhem Land, c. 1961. © The Trustees of the British Museum

As an exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation hovers uneasily between being a fine art exhibition showing the diversity and sheer visual and sociocultural potency of contemporary Australian visual art practice, and older-style ethnographic survey of objects excavated from the archives of the British Museum, arranged in rows behind glass cases - as is the case with various weapons including spears, spear heads, boomerangs and so forth.

Spear Points – a group of spear points crafted from various types of stone, glass (including from coloured bottles) and the cream-coloured ceramic insulators from telegraph poles. Kimberley region, WA, Australia. c. 1855-1940. © The Trustees of the British Museum

That exhibition style, albeit in this context in post-modern garb, is redolent of the “Wunderkammer” (literally “Cabinets of Wonder”) – European keeping-places for objects pertaining to specifically-themed collections of yesteryear. While the relationship between these two disparate approaches is not one of seamless fusion, it certainly makes for an exhibition that’s good to think with.

On entering this rather rarefied, relatively small space comprised of only a few rooms, one strolls into an immense kaleidoscope, a time-capsule encompassing the intermeshed histories of Australian Aboriginal people with British colonists and collectors.

While the artefacts and artworks on display reveal a good deal about the passions and priorities of the colonised, as do the trophies of the coloniser, I feel that more guidance in terms of explaining the exhibition’s aims and themes would have been helpful.

James Cook – with the Declaration, Vincent Namatjira, 2014. © Vincent Namatjira

As historian and anthropologist Patrick Wolfe pointed out in his essay Nation and Miscegenation (1994):

To get in the way, all the native has to do is stay at home. Since it cuts through Indigenous society to connect directly to its territorial basis, it is awkward to speak of settler colonisation as an articulation between coloniser and colonised. As a social relationship, it is best conceived of as a negative articulation. The cultural logic which is organic to a negative articulation is one of elimination.

Getting in the way while staying at home is readily applicable to the still-seeping, festering wound of the joint British-Australian nuclear testing program that took place at Maralinga and elsewhere on Aboriginal land through the 1950s and into the 1960s, horribly maiming (and worse) significant numbers of Aboriginal people and affecting subsequent generations in terms of birth defects, life expectancy and in multifarious other ways.

While admittedly this is dealt with in reasonable depth in the catalogue, the text accompanying the exhibition simply states that some Aboriginal people were “removed from the arid centre of Australia when the land was needed for atomic testing”.

Spear Thrower Black Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Reading between the lines is quite possible for some aspects of this exhibition, but this anodyne statement nullifies that possibility. Maralinga and the atomic testing program in general remain unfinished business, implicating both the British and Australians, and it seems unduly timid not to have served this up to the Brits a tad more forcefully.

In terms of the in situ documentation of these works, surely more should be expected of the British public? In any case reading such signage isn’t mandatory. The excellent accompanying catalogue develops the exhibition’s themes to a considerably greater extent, but – at £25 – purchasing it may well be beyond the means of many visitors.

Magpie Geese in the Arafura Swamp (1988) – artwork by George Milpurrurru (1934-1998), Gurrumba Gurrumba clan, Yirritja moiety, Yolngu. Ramingining, central Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Natural pigment on bark. © The artist's family and Bula'bula Arts, Ramingining

This implicit contention informing this exhibition is that the elimination to which Wolfe alludes has never been (fully) realised, largely on account of continuing Aboriginal resistance. In such an historical site as the British Museum, imbued with such gravitas, a great strength of this exhibition is simply broaching this matter, and providing the visual evidence to back it up.

But the critique mounted by the exhibition is mild, because it is presented indirectly and very politely – not something for which we Australians are well known. Maybe it’s the best approach, because preaching/proselytising can be counterproductive. On the other hand, has a greater opportunity been lost?

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation will be on show in Australia later this year, British Museum artefacts and objects included. It’s a lay-down misère that then, some of the simmering, underlying, understated, and underplayed issues arising from this exhibition, including the possibility of repatriating some of these works, will be aired, and a few sparks may fly.


Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is at the British Museum until August 2.

Also by Christine Nicholls: The “Dreamtime” series