Patient Resistance

Review of Art in the Time of Colony

By Greg Lehman

Journal of Aboriginal Studies Journal, 2014:2

When Keith Windschuttle launched his book Fabrication of Aboriginal History in 2002, it  would have been almost impossible for him to imagine the stimulus that he was providing to critical inquiry on the recent history of Australia. Certainly, he seemed supremely confident at the time in his self-declared crusade against those who were threatening “…our understanding of the character of our nation and of the calibre of the British civilisation that we brought here in 1788.”

Windschuttle focused his assault on the case of Tasmania. Raphael Lemkin had put forward the same case as one of a number of examples of that most atrocious of assaults on human rights, for which Lemkin created the term ‘genocide’. To Windschuttle, the near disappearance of Tasmanian Aborigines within a lifetime of British arrival on the island was a different matter entirely. He told the Australian newspaper in December of 2002 that ‘…this was almost entirely a consequence of two factors: the long isolation that had left them vulnerable to introduced diseases, … and the fact that they traded and prostituted their women to such an extent that they lost the ability to reproduce themselves.’
This accusation of maladaption left Aborigines themselves to blame for their woes. It was Social Darwinism in extremis. We had all been mistaken. There had been no ‘Black War’ in Tasmania. Instead Windschuttle categorised events of the period as ‘a minor crime wave’. 

The flurry of response to Windschuttle’s book on Tasmania was led by Robert Manne’s edited volume Whitewash (2003).  This was followed by a decade-long wave of compelling scholarly critique, ironically leaving us with an infinitely more robust understanding of, and evidence base for the very charges by historians such as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan that Windschuttle had set out to demolish.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll muses briefly on all of this in her Acknowledgements, where she reveals the old offices of Quadrant Magazine (which championed Windschuttle’s work) as her place of living, and presumably writing.Her interest in place unfolds throughout Art in a Time of Colony. Indeed, thew book is itself a place. ‘I have built a museum in a book’, she says, ‘for an exhibition that needs the independence of the reader…’ Her interest in virtual museums follows installations at the 52nd Venice Biennale, Marrakech Biennale 2012, Kranich Museum, Vienna Zocolo, and Homebase IV Berlin.

Carroll commences her introduction with a quote from Satre, drawn from his own introduction to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

It is the moment of the boomerang; it is the third phase of violence, it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realise any more than we did the other times that it’s we who have launched it.’

Satre was supporting Fanon’s idea of the necessity of violence by colonised people against their foreign oppressors as a means of catharsis for the colonial subject. For all the energy and passion of responses from Aboriginal people to Windschuttle’s violence against our ancestors, I do not recall a single call for this ‘third phase’ of violent response – from either Aborigines, or our supporters.  Such has been the apparent peace prevailing since Australia’s frontier wars subsided. 

Carroll’s superbly-written study of colonial art, history, science and cultural encounter in Australia is a compelling account of Indigenous responses to Western imposition. Her book constructs biographies of five objects in order to emphasise that Indigenous responses to imperial culture have been eclectic and pervasive. Instead of tolerating an absence of First Voice, this book offers new insights into how history is inured to Indigenous responses that have been more than simply resistive to occupation, oppression and assimilation. Carroll argues that production by Aboriginal artists throughout the 19th century was constitutive of modernity, and that for this to have been missed by so many is testament to the coercive nature of the colonial project.

Philipa Levine, the series editor of Empires and the Making of the Modern World 1650-2000, of which Carroll’s volume is a part, describes the trails left by Aboriginal artists of this period as ‘fugitive and messy’. Consequently, the narratives emerging from scrutiny of these artists often manifest in museums as evidence of obscurity, or even obsolescence. Carroll’s response is to employ a methodology of ‘anachronism’ to imaginatively restore voices that might otherwise be lost to the history of art.

Anachronism is defined by Carroll as ‘the recurrence of being out of time’  - a condition forced upon the colonised subject by the British insistence on linear progression as part of the project of empire. The Aboriginal artist is thus precluded from the contemporary and denied authorship of history. Carroll points to the recurrence of  ‘serendipitous, mutual, strategic and subversive cross-cultural borrowings and more transgressive masquerades’ throughout the history of travel, exploration and colonisation as an essential source for understanding the work of Aboriginal artists.  These creative exchanges, involving artists she surveys over a period of two centuries, are argued as central to the ‘postcolonial struggle with Europe’s notion of the civilizing process’.

Perhaps the most immediate value of Art in a Time of Colony will be for those who struggle to understand the work of many contemporary Aboriginal artists. Carroll’s critical approach is the first to critically engage at length with the creative work of artists such as Julie Gough and Brook Andrew, who typically intervene, rather than simply draw on the historical archive in the production of their work.  In fact, it is by making sense of these artists in the incisive terms of her analysis that Carroll articulates clearly how 21st century Aboriginal artists can be sensibly understood alongside their predecessors, who are held in constrained obscurity by the 19th century archive.

Yakaduna/Tommy McRae’s work emerges in this analysis with the dialogical richness of installations such as Julie Gough’s The Chase, commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2002. Gough’s work intervenes in the canonical archive of Australian history painting by invoking an uncooperative juxtaposition of dense tea tree forest (also a favored material for spear-making) with E. Philips Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay (1802).  Carroll offers McRae’s drawing Corroboree, or William Buckley and the Dancers from the Wathaurong People (c. 1890) as a subtle means of negotiating contact and conflict by an artist who was witnessing to encounters of startling newness, and resolving this in pictures of dense polysemy.

In considering McRae’s drawings, Carroll’s lyrical analysis positions the role of the lyrebird as quintessential Australian mimic of place alongside Lacan’s view of mimicry as harmonisation against a ‘mottled background’ of, in this case, 19th century settler colonialism. With this analysis, McRae is lifted from a redundant role as naïve sketcher of grand processes (of which he is expected to understand little), to narrator of a complex moment of ‘transgressive masquerade’, in which he camouflages his own identity and those of his countrymen in an act of intentionality and subversion.

What would Windschuttle make of all this? It might be worth the cost of forwarding this volume if only we could expect a considered response. In its absence, I can only speculate that Carroll’s work would be passed over with the same easy disregard as that shown to other benchmark histories, such as those by James Boyce. I suspect this because Art in a Time of Colony, like the work of Reynolds and Ryan that provoked the History Wars, gives credit to Aborigines as creative, insightful agents of their own cosmos, rather than of their own demise. More than this, Carroll’s volume offers rare insight for scholars into what Aboriginal Australia has always/already understood about Aboriginal art; that the art of perception has an immutable relationship with the strategies of colonial power. Carroll understands the patience with which Indigenous people endure post-colonialism. It is patience that underpins an unbroken process of creative resistance.

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