Indigenous Australia: Unfinished business

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The Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum sits uncomfortably between the past and present. It is a powerful combination of art and artefacts from the history of the hundreds of indigenous peoples in what is now known as Australia. The British Museum has been studiously self-conscious in acquiring and exhibiting these objects. It has taken seriously its role of representing people whose voices have largely been written out of their own histories. The exhibition has been curated in discussion with Aboriginal artists, historians and anthropologists. Many of the displays are presented in the words of Aboriginal people.

There is clearly a sensitivity to debates about representation, including an invitation to viewers to rethink the objects in terms of today’s supposedly better mutual understandings and relationships. The difficulty for the museum is how to represent so many different cultures, with their own traditions, languages and aesthetics, in what is quite a small exhibition. The artefacts are beautiful and unexpected and allow some insight into indigenous ways of understanding. They come with cautionary warnings about their unseen spiritual or historical significance. This is a move against the disempowering effects that colonialism has had.

Historically these objects have tended to be presented to a wider audience by the colonisers. But using them today as a way of appreciating indigenous knowledge and understanding still poses a danger. What does it mean today to say — as the exhibition does at one point — that settlers were unable to grasp the complexity of indigenous society? Most of the objects on display were acquired by the British Museum in the 19th century and these have been supplemented by contemporary works, many on loan from the National Museum of Australia.

Jonathan Jones is a Sydney-based Aboriginal artist whose work has been inspired by shields similar to those on display here. He has spoken about how the museum came to possess many of the artefacts: “It’s never very clear what the circumstances were… There’s a lot of information that’s been lost that’s connected to these objects. And today our job is to actually start re-looking at them and renegotiating their pasts and rewriting those histories.” Representatives of the museum view the exhibition as the start of a conversation about where these objects belong. Aboriginal artist Richard Bell has described Aboriginal art as “a white thing”. He argues that “there is no Aboriginal art industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal art. The key players in that industry are not Aboriginal. They are mostly white people whose areas of expertise are in the fields of anthropology and Western art.”

It’s hard to see how Aboriginal artists can successfully reclaim spaces in the institutions of Western art and museums at the same time as their communities are being dispossessed. More than 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia are currently under threat of “closure”. Prime minister Tony Abbott has cut half a billion Australian dollars to Indigenous social programmes, saying, “It’s not the job of the taxpayers to subsidise lifestyle choices.” Another danger comes from the large-scale and highly profitable mining of indigenous land by multinational companies.

The second half of the exhibition is dedicated to depictions of indigenous struggles against colonialism. This includes a spear and boomerang probably used by Jandamurra, the leader of the Bunuba people’s resistance between 1874 and 1887. Jandamurra led a guerrilla war against settler encroachments onto Bunuba land. His skull was kept as a trophy and sent to Britain where it eventually became part of a private museum collection. The Bunuba people continue to search the archives of British museums in an attempt to retrieve it. This detail doesn’t appear in the exhibition commentary.

Struggles for land rights and justice are documented, including the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an occupy-style protest camp set up by indigenous activists outside Australian Parliament House in 1972. There is also evidence of a petition to Queen Victoria about the treatment of Aboriginal people. In many ways the exhibition draws upon the notion of “unfinished business”, often spoken about by Aboriginal people in reference to colonisation and its ongoing effects. That business cannot be about a gradual reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, nor a matter of settling scores from the past. Rather, it must acknowledge that the continued existence of colonial settler states like Australia relies on ongoing violence and dispossession.

In the words of a Bunuba woman, June Oscar: “the boomerang [of Jandamawra] is connected to people today; it’s not separate from who and where we are today in Australia as Aboriginal people.”