Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (British Museum Exhibition)

In June we visited the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum. The premise of the exhibition was to display the art and showcase the culture of the indigenous peoples of mainland Australia & the Torres Straits Islands from their own perspective. Whilst the later sections of the exhibition inevitably looked at the impact of the arrival of the British the exhibition didn't begin there as if it was the British discovery of the continent that mattered. Instead it started with the art & traditions that had existed for millennia before that.

The opening section of the exhibition had two purposes - it was trying to convey a sense of the scale and diversity of the continent, and it was introducing the key concept of country. It's easy (from the perspective of all the way over here) to think of modern White Australia as a monolithic entity - beaches, barbies, sunshine, ex-pats & their descendents. So down one wall of the first section of the exhibition was a series of exhibits to point out the diversity in terms of environment and culture across the continent. This included a set of videos of different parts of Australia, with Aboriginal people walking through them or living in them. It also included a map of Australia divided up by the languages spoken at the time the first Western explorers came to the continent. The other side of this area had several pieces of art by several different groups of Aboriginal people. These showcased the variety of styles across the continent, and also began to introduce the idea of country.

The Aboriginal idea that we translate as the word "country" isn't the same as the normal meaning of the English word, it's not country like England is a country. The concept isn't about a nation-state or a large scale political division of land, nor is it a sort of land (as in countryside). It includes not only land but also the people, animals, plants and other resources on that piece of land. It also includes the myths and the stories associated with that place. There's a sense of ownership to it - a person or a family has "their country" - but that goes both ways, the people also belong to the land as much as the land belongs to them. A lot (all?) of the artwork in the exhibition was also tightly linked to the country of the artist(s). The art is a visual representation of the mythology and the geography of country. Several of the larger artworks were created by more than one artist - this is because each person paints their own country so as a story or artwork moves across different countries different people are involved. The exact meanings of the symbolism in the art will also only be known to the people whose country it is. Only the senior members of those people will know all the nuances - possibly not even then, as men and women may have different knowledge of their country. Which meant that while some things were explained in the exhibition labels other things were noted as something private to the artists.

I'm not sure I've explained country very well - it feels slippery to me because it's a completely different way of looking at the universe so neither I nor the language I use have the right words for the concepts. I'm also not personally particularly attached to places - less so than J, for instance - so I only grasp the idea on an intellectual level not an emotional one. Starting the exhibition with country as the key idea helped to put the last part of the exhibition - after the arrival of the Westerners - into sharper relief. Taking land from Aboriginal people, displacing communities, taking and using up the resources of the land isn't just about forced removal of property and inadequate compensation. It's also damaging and breaking something fundamental about how people's sense of self is structured.

The next two sections of the exhibition looked at using country (resources, trade) and tending country. Nobody's country has every resource, so trade between countries and even outside the continent was an important part of the economy. And it was an economy of reciprocal gift-giving with expectations and understandings about obligation which wouldn't necessarily (ever?) be spelt out - which lead to miscommunication once the British arrived. In order to make best use of the resources country needs to be tended both ritually and physically (although I suspect that's a division that isn't made). So this section of the exhibition included examples of ritual actions but also discussion of things like setting controlled fires to stimulate new growth of the local plant life. One of the exhibits was a photo of a chap in his ceremonial gear, sat on a chair taking a selfie with his iPad. While I was looking at it, I overheard a somewhat posh sounding older lady remarking to her companion "I suppose that's one time when it would be permissible to take a selfie!" which made me laugh (not out loud tho).

At the centre point of the exhibition, marking the transition from the Aboriginal Australia to the Colonial Australia was a memorial pole. These pieces of art were once funerary pieces for individuals the artist & his or her community wanted to remember, but in more modern times they've changed to be less associated with a particular person. This one had two figures at the top, one on each side of the pole. Both figures were planting a staff which ran down the whole of the pole through the rest of the design. One of these figures is an important ancestor of the artist, and his staff represents the law of the indigenous people enforced on the land. The other figure represents Captain Cook planting the British flag and enforcing the law of Britain on the land. The artist hasn't said which figure is which. It was a striking and thought provoking piece (once the symbolism was explained).

And so then the exhibition moved on to the era of British and White Australian rule over the continent. This was divided into two sections - first "encounters in country" which looked at the early settlement days, and then the exhibition finished with a look at post-independence Australia. The early settlement section had as one of its main themes how the indigenous people have been written out of the narrative of this period. Like the reports of explorers discovering new bits of the continent as if they'd gone out and walked alone through the wilderness. When actually they'd been taken by guides, along pre-existing trade routes to communities who they had negotiated to visit. And of course the claiming of the continent for Britain by Cook as it was "owned by nobody" when in actual fact every piece of land was somebody's country. One of the most striking pieces of art in this section was a modern painting done in an old-fashioned Western style - the ship on the ocean with its sails aflutter, the beach and the heroic figure in 18th Century uniform clearly having just landed on virgin territory. And yet this is not Cook the intrepid Westerner, this is an Aboriginal man.

The last part of the exhibition was pretty grim viewing - it documented the ways in which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have been treated as less than human since independence. Starting with the constitution of the new country which outright states that when you do a census you don't count indigenous people. Until shockingly recently Indigenous people weren't citizens - they were "wards of the state" who were much more restricted in what they were permitted to do, as if they were children. There was art in this section relating to the forced removal of people from their country, of the massacres of Aboriginal people and of the Lost Generation who were systematically removed from their families and adopted by White families to break the cultural ties of these children. Again the exhibition took care to remind us that Australia is not one monolithic place and there were many experiences of colonialism by different communities - in some cases these things were long enough ago that they are history; in others it has happened within living memory. Just before the end of the exhibition the timeline moved on to contemporary times, and highlighted both the ways that things are getting better and the debate within Aboriginal communities nowadays about their art in our museums. As the art and the artifacts are so closely linked to country some people feel that they shouldn't be taken away and put in a museum somewhere else. But others feel that so long as there is respect for the meaning of the piece and so long as there is an attempt to educate the people who come to see it (not just "oh look at this exotic thing from foreign parts") then it's OK. I didn't, however, really get the impression of enthusiasm for the idea from any of the stated positions ... which made for a rather uncomfortable sensation having just walked through this exhibition.

As a sort of palette cleanser the exhibition finished with a short but charming video of a man who is one of the last master basket weavers of particular type of basket we'd seen earlier in the exhibition. We also went to a short talk that evening by one of the curators, Lissant Bolton, who gave us a sense of the artists who'd made some of the contemporary art we'd seen in the exhibition. One thing she said that stuck with me was that it was notable that when she was visiting Australia during the set up phase of the exhibition she would bring objects and they would reciprocate by taking her to country associated with them. A sort of micro-scale view of the difference in the two cultures.

Categories: