What is Indigenous Australia in 2013?

Of course, there is no singular Indigenous Australia. Angelo Soulas/AAP

What is Indigenous Australia in 2013? To begin to answer this question, I believe it is important to proceed with a few key caveats:

1) There is no singular Indigenous Australia. Thus, anything written at the level of broadness reflected in the question will tend towards generalisations that risk eliding the diversity and richness of the Indigenous experiences in Australia.

2) Indigeneity is an open question in and of itself. It is a matter of personal and community identification that has significant ramifications for social justice and the allocation of resources.

3) It is probably not appropriate for an outsider such as myself to speak on these issues. In fact the ideal form of this essay would be a series of testimonials from various Australians of Indigenous heritage from different regions, classes, communities, genders, and ages. I have asked a few of my friends to provide some testimonials, and a few of these are included in this essay, but in no way should what I discuss be considered representative or even comprehensive.

With these caveats, I believe it is important to write this essay for two reasons.

First, in the four and a half years that I have spent as a Design Anthropologist in Melbourne I have been deeply moved by my everyday experiences of the diversity, vibrancy, and resiliency in Australia’s Indigenous communities. Second, as an African-American migrant to Australia who works with people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in design and the arts, I possess a unique “outsider’s” perspective on what the phenomenon of Indigenous Australia(s) might be.

This perspective is based on similar histories of colonisation, dispossession, the criminalisation and sexualisation of “black bodies,” attempted genocide, and discrimination. It is based on continued disparities in the physical health, incarceration rates, education rates, social and emotional well-being in Indigenous Australian and African-American communities. But most importantly, it is based on a shared capacity to continue in the struggle for social, economic, and environmental justice with a sense of righteous anger, hope and joy.

This essay is divided into three themes (“diverse”, “hybrid” and “resilient”) that I have heard repetitively in conversations, presentations, and discussions with Australians of Indigenous heritage.

As a specialist in design and the arts, I will often describe how these themes are made tangible through the visual cultures of Indigenous Australia in 2013.

Diverse

Indigenous Australia in 2013 is diverse. The Australian Commonwealth definition of Indigenous refers specifically to someone who is:

a person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, who identifies as being from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage, and who is accepted as such by the community in which the person associates.

This definition does not address the diversity of Indigenous communities if one includes migrants of Indigenous heritage from their respective nations. Yet, they are also part of Indigenous Australia.

Maree Clarke’s 2012 Ritual and Ceremony Exhibition at Swinburne University included rediscovered cultural practices of possum skin cloaks, kopi mourning caps, and male mourning scarification. Elizabeth Tunstall

But even working within the Commonwealth definition of Indigenous, the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is represented through each one’s different “home” country or island; history of European encounter; location in urban, regional, or urban setting; class, gender and age; and language and customs.

It is estimated by Australian linguists that at the time of European contact, there were more than 250 Indigenous languages spoken, with more than 500 dialects. According to the 2011 Australian Census, more than 100 Indigenous languages including creoles are spoken in Indigenous Australia.

Nicholas Rothwell, in a recent article in The Australian, discusses the implications of this diversity for judging the 77 works presented in the 2013 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. While recognising the “sensitivities that surround the discussion of indigenous identities,” he states that the show displayed the “dilemma of difference” in which Indigenous traditional arts are evaluated against contemporary arts.

Ray Thomas’s painting See, Hear, and Say No Evil from his 2012 Swinburne Exhibition, Contemporary Gunnai Style, features recovered Gunnai language and background patterns from Gunnai shields. Elizabeth Tunstall

Yet, from the perspective of Indigenous Australia, art and design, my Indigenous artist friends and colleagues approach diversity as being less of a dilemma than a point of celebration. In Victoria, where I work, artists such as Maree Clarke, Treahna Hamm, Ray Thomas, Aunty Esther Kirby, and Steaphan Paton actively seek to recapture traditional knowledge and practices in order to give them contemporary forms.

Hybrid

As part of this diversity, Indigenous Australia 2013 recognises its hybridity both in its racial heritage but also in its history. One of my doctoral students, Myles Russell Cook, articulates this growing perspective in his email response to me for this essay:

I am a descendant of the Wotjobaluk people on my mother’s side and I am white. As a young white man with Aboriginal heritage living in inner-city Melbourne this means that I, like many others, identify within a discourse of hybridity.

That is, I openly embrace all of my cultural heritages, including my Aboriginality. I have always felt the need to justify my skin colour by explaining that I have grown up within contemporary urban Aboriginal communities. I have endeavoured to, wherever possible and practical, learn Aboriginal languages and customs.

I both self-recognise my Aboriginality and am recognised by many elders and custodians of the land. However, I still find my identity is dependent on my social context. It is fluid and shifting, unstable and constantly being redefined.

As an African-American, which itself is both a racial and cultural mix of African, European, and Native American heritages, I resonate with this emergent aspect of Indigenous Australia. I celebrate it as a manifestation of shift in the cultural and political oppression that Indigenous Australians have faced. Perhaps tied to the Commonwealth’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 2008, there is now room in Australia to be both Indigenous and Australian.

Nowhere in the art and design world has this been made more apparent than in the recently opened First Peoples exhibition on permanent display at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.

Display panels at the First Peoples exhibition at Bunjilaka, Melbourne Museum. Museum Victoria/ John Broomfield

One of the last sections of the exhibition is entitled Our Shared History. As a Design Anthropologist, I have visited many colonial and Indigenous museums all over the world. Bunjilaka is the first I have attended that tells the story of Indigenous peoples in a voice that says, “This is your history as well, so let’s explore our shared history together”.

Resilient

The fact Indigenous Australia in 2013 can claim its diversity, hybrid histories, and identities speaks to the most enduring aspect of Indigenous peoples—resilience. Here I respectfully leave the last word to my Swinburne colleague Andrew Peters (Wurundjeri/ Yorta Yorta descendant):

In many respects, an answer to this question remains largely unchanged from the same question in 1967. Chronic disparities in health, welfare and education statistics paint a bleak picture of greater recognition of problems, but little actions of remedy. Racism continues to haunt many sectors of Indigenous Australia despite the many claims of its demise in this country.

However, the future is not bleak. The knowledge of the culture from non-Indigenous people is slowly growing, and more and more sections of our society are embracing Indigenous culture. And fundamental to the continuation of these positive steps is the ever-resilient, always present pride that we, as Indigenous Australians, have in our culture, our ancestors, our history, and our people. Enduring cultural pride, above all, describes Indigenous Australia in 2013.




This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new Arts + Culture section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.