Aboriginal photography

Indigenous art plays a great role in modern Australia because it is a field that connects strongly the past with the present and has an ability to define further development. From the historical perspective indigenous people were considered only as subjects by the settlers’ photographers that presented Aboriginal people as a dying race, objects of the scientific interest and tourists’ curiosity. However, the situation started to change in the 20th century when indigenous photographers began to use the photography to retake control over the Aboriginal representation as people with their own authenticity, unique culture, and traditions. Moreover, through portrait photographs, some indigenous artists were trying to resist colonial attitude, while others were attempting to change Aboriginal people representation, so that they would be able to reach visibility and voice to express their own opinion. Therefore, Aboriginal art through self-authored body representation is strongly connected with such issues as cultural invisibility, experiential authority, and political agency.

Hence, this paper is focused on Aboriginal photography and how it addresses cultural visibility, experiential authority, and political agency issues.

Australian Indigenous art is considered one of the oldest art traditions in the world. The variety and quality of Australian Indigenous art that is produced today reflects diversity and richness of Indigenous culture and distinct differences between geographic landscapes, languages, dialects, and tribes. Art has been always considered the critical Aboriginal life part that is able to connect the past and present, the land and the people, and the reality with the supernatural. There are many forms of Indigenous art, but one of the most critical from the historical and social perspectives is Indigenous photography art. Photography has a great meaning for Australia not only as a modern era product, but as a way of interaction between Australian settlers and indigenous people. The Aboriginal person’s image is a complex issue that has a deep significance in comparison with the non-Indigenous perceptions’ interpretation s. From the historical perspective, photographic portraits of indigenous Australians had a great meaning despite their difficult transformation from the harmful and negative experience to the positive representation tool. Hence, this field has a great history and a strong impact on modern society that is expressed through the portrait photographs.

Many photos of indigenous people that were taken in the 19th and 20th centuries showed them as savage and primitive, objects of scientific curiosity, and last members of a dying race. Therefore, the photographic depiction of indigenous people by non-indigenous explorers, anthropologists, and settlers started from the beginning of the 19th century. During the last period of the European colonization in the South Pacific and Oceania, the photography was used to disempower, control, label and dehumanize its subjects, whose main response was a defiant gaze at the lens that was controlled by white people. In the 19th century in Australia photography functions included the continent demystification and knowledge gathering. Part of this continent controlling and knowledge gathering process involved taking pictures indigenous people as the “others”, which means someone whom the settlers could define themselves against. Despite that some of the indigenous people photographic portraits were described as sympathetic, but such sympathy was part of the emphasis on people who had differences that could not be tolerated or accepted. Therefore, such sympathy was an evidence of the dominating attitude towards Aboriginal people that put them on the lower level in comparison with the non-indigenous people.

The idea of indigenous Australians as a dying race was dominant from 1870 to the 1920s in cultural perceptions. At that time, a lot of photographs were taken with an aim to record and document indigenous Australians as degraded scientific objects. In the end of the 19th century, many indigenous people photographs were produced for the commercial markets to satisfy the tourists’ curiosity. In a postcard size, Aboriginal people were imaged stereotypically as half- naked women and bare-skin warriors. In addition to such indigenous people`s representation at the end of the 19th century, such anthropologists as Charles Kerry and J.W. Lindt produced indigenous people portraits. These studio portraits presented nameless subjects, whose traditional life aspects were not covered, showing these people as primitive savages. The main point is that the absence of a name, clan affiliation, language, correct authenticity meant that the photographs were not an element of a scientific research, nor did they have any scientific goal. Such photographs’ aim was to present indigenous people as a backward and pre-modern part of society. Moreover, this was another form to express a dominating attitude to another race as low-level people. Therefore, it is possible to notice that the photographic portrait use was experienced by indigenous people from the negative perspective because they were only subjects to the ideas about a dying race, scientific objects, and savage people imaging.

However, such attitude changed in the opposite side in the 20th century, when the photographic portraiture started being used by indigenous people as a representation tool on their own terms and conditions. Hence, from the end of the 19th century till the beginning of the 20th century, indigenous people were rarely present as photography subjects. Nonetheless, the situation changed in the 1970s, when indigenous people began to reappear in photographs that had a political nature and intentions. Such photographs were aimed to be part of a struggle for the land rights and protests against colonial disadvantage and discrimination. Moreover, at the same time, the number of indigenous Australians that had access to art schools started to increase.

Thus, from the 1970s to the 1980s such photographers as Brook Andrew, Ricky Maynard, Brenda L. Croft, Leah King-Smith, Tracy Moffatt, and Michael Riley appeared in the Australian art field. They used camera in order to represent indigenous identity, so that it became visible and controlling in the representation means. For the artist like Leah King-Smith a camera and portraits became a way to revitalize and reconfigure the history of indigenous Australians` photographic representation, while for such artists as Kevin Gilbert, Alana Harris and Brenda L. Croft a camera and portraits was a chance to express their resistance. The first Indigenous photography exhibition was held in 1986 at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney. After two years, great photographic project was undertaken by non-Indigenous and Indigenous photographers to represent the contemporary Aboriginal life diversity in 20 different communities in Australia. This project markets a strong shift in photographic practice that involved indigenous people. Therefore, photography use was changed in a completely different direction with indigenous photographer’s appearance that was using portrait photographs as a way to make their community visible and respected.

Mervyn Bishop is known as the first professional indigenous photographer that played a great role in urban Indigenous art in Australia. He grew up in Brewarrina in the northern New South Wales. Mervyn Bishop was concentrated on giving Indigenous people voices and visibility. According to Fink, Bishop`s subjects varied from Barry Humphries’ and Cecil Beaton’s portraits to photographs of the Indigenous Australian history key political moments. Bishop always realized that inherently dramatic medium nature is the photography`s ability to tell a story in one image. Like famine victims and Holocaust survivors images, indigent Aboriginal people`s photographs constitute their own genre. In 1989 in his self-photography Marvyn Bishop asked if there was Aboriginal photography. In this photograph, the artist holds a little camera to his right eye and this gesture explains the desire to experience and define his work as Aboriginal. The major question whether the artists’ identification as Aboriginal has any difference. However, within a decade a great number of indigenous artists became known in photographic art. Therefore, self-conscious experience and identification of artists as Aboriginal Australians provided an alternative to the white representation forms of Aboriginality. Hence, Mervyn Bishop was one of the most famous indigenous photographers that were focused on giving Aboriginal people visibility through portraiture and other photographs as a separate genre.

Another bright Indigenous photographer is Destiny Deacon. She focuses on the degrading history of white representations of Aboriginal people, particularly children and women. Her target includes Australian national identity construction through demotic pictorial degradation of the Aboriginal subject. In the second part of the 20th-century, Aboriginal imagery appropriation was a marker of Australian identity that was a consistent theme at that time. Two of Destiny`s portraits imaging real black women resurrect the background of corrugated iron humpy, the image at the heart of the fringe-dweller trope in newspaper cartoons and liberal novels. The Princess of 1994 is a hybrid Aboriginal Island woman in womanly Dorothy Lamour-like proportional poses in front of a humpy, in a yellow, black and red grass skirt and Triumph full-figure bra. In her necklaces, she is holding a coconut. At her feet, it is possible to see a shell and scattered oranges, while one foot rests on as chunky, black telephone handset. Exotic native women are also imaged in Last laughs of 1995, in which three women, with a corrugated iron wall in background, cavort in revealing lingerie, denim, leopard skin and pearls. Thus, Destiny`s portraiture photographs are seriously engaged in Aboriginal identity.

A photograph has a power to reinforce, define, reproduce and control perspectives and assumptions. Though it can be used in a harmful way, it can also provide positive effect. Photography used by indigenous artists provided them with an opportunity to represent, retake, reclaim and reconfigure photographic Aboriginality representations in ways that counteract stereotypical imaging. The ability of Indigenous photographers to represent themselves and their communities on their own terms and conditions, and then to represent their works to both non-indigenous and indigenous audience is crucial because of intersubjective Aboriginality nature. The main point is that Aboriginality representations are influenced by and influence non-indigenous people’s attitude toward indigenous people.

Therefore, when indigenous artists use photographic portraits they are able to represent themselves in the way they wanted to be represented and to violate the presumed Western surveyors’ prerogative to control a camera due to which non-indigenous people historically developed knowledge about others. In general, it is critical to notice that portraiture photography can be used from both positive and negative perspectives. An outstanding example of the negative use is the settlers’ activities beginning from the 19th century. However, in the 20th century, with appearance of indigenous photography and Aboriginal artists, the portrait photographs were used as a way to control indigenous people’s representation not as objects, but as authentic and culturally unique people. Through such attitude, indigenous photographers were trying to reach visibility for Aboriginal people and to give them voices to express their own opinion and position. Hence, the portraiture by indigenous photographers was used to control their representation and to gain visibility.

Cultural invisibility is strongly connected with self- authored representations of the body in the indigenous art field. In general, politics addressed by indigenous artists were flux, complex and varied, but there are some fundamental issues that are commonly shared by indigenous people such as culture ownership, land reclamation, and sovereignty preservation. These issues greatly contribute to the Indigenous identity definition today and to indigenous people’s efforts to end the colonization. Thus, cultural sovereignty and self-representation are highly significant for indigenous people because without them Aboriginal people can face cultural invisibility.

The object is visible if it is discussed or spoken about, which means that it is visible as a discourse topic. Hence, the way of objects` discussion impacts the object itself. The visibility can be defined as a strong political dimension. However, the most critical thing is that visibility is crucial to surviving because only in case of being visible a person can be protected from violent attitude. Cultural visibility can be reached through the art field. A great role in representation process plays body because exactly body can be invisible from the social and cultural perspectives. Body can be defined as ideas` corpus that was given a shape and the representation abilityin the world of things. Invisibility proceeds through masking practices of contemporary era.

Therefore, cultural invisibility can be addressed through body self-representation. Self-imaging viewing is an intimate engagement with an image that always is a representation of others. Self-portrait for artists is an opportunity for intervention and reinvention for purposely refracting the mirrored gaze. Self-imaging that can be defined as indigenous can provoke various responses from a distanced viewer engagement that is unable to acknowledge the artists` subjectivity to proximate identification with the subject.

Self-representation is another form of communication where the first person addresses to the second. Thus, from self-representation possibilities’ perspectives, self-imaging can be understood as a less mediated form, where a subject and an artist are the same. It is like a message that is sent to the audience, demanding to look on the image and understand who the person on it is. From the Indigenous art perspective, it is possible to state that artist are trying to send the audience a message that Aboriginal people are culturally visible through self-authored body representation as communications way. The main point is that cultural visibility is a crucial survival condition, and indigenous artists are trying to turn the society`s attention to the Aboriginal problems through body representation. The colonists` attitude towards the nation without authenticity is wrong, and such works are trying to refuse this position and to persuade society in indigenous visibility. Hence, indigenous artists’ body representation is addressing cultural invisibility to survive and to make the Aboriginal rights respected.

At the same time, self-authored body representation addresses experiential authority that is often described in ethnographic works. Indigenous people representing was always a great part of scientists’ social works in the Anthropology field. Through the ethnography history, representing forms became various in manner and number. Thus, it became clear that representation depends not only on image itself but also on ethnographer`s presenting manner. Experiential authority is based on specific feeling towards foreign culture, gestures, and sensitivity for behavior of people. The main point is that in experiential authority people express their sympathy towards foreign culture through their language, gestures, posture and etc. From the historical perspective, it is possible to see that such attitude can be quite negative towards Aboriginal people. Particularly, in the 19th century, settlers were expressing the same empathy toward indigenous people as to different from them. Such differences could not be accepted or tolerated. This sympathy is not a sincere feeling, but another expression of domination over other people. Through such attitude, people were trying to show that they are on a higher level. Exactly these issues are addressed through body self-representation in Indigenous Australian art. Body images are putting an emphasis on the idea that such attitude is wrong and unacceptable. The main idea is that people are the same, with similar bodies and features, which means that all of them are equal. Hence, equal people cannot express sympathy based on authority and predomination because such attitude will be accepted as a serious offense. Therefore, self-authored body representation in Indigenous art addresses experiential authority through the idea of equality of all people. Thus, it is impossible to express sympathy basing on predomination attitude to equal people, particularly Aboriginal part, because it will be considered as a strong offense.

Also, self-authored body representation in the Indigenous art is related to the political agency conception. Political agency can be defined as an ability “to positively influence a collective future through transformative change.” From the wider notion perspective, political agency can be recognized as the fact that small changes can provide big changes. The main point is that actions, decisions, and words impact others. In practice, some unimportant from the first sight action can lead to really great differences. For example, when people use their voice to demand extent access for frequent train departures, these people become a part of political movement aimed to obtain structural changes that can lead to changes in investments, infrastructure, spatial planning etc. It is profound that political agency board notion gives people a critical role in collective changes, not only due to their ability to reach beyond influence spheres that can be visible for them, but also due to the fact that they can extend their impact through collaboration and conversation.

Contemporary Aboriginal policy in Australia covers indigenous and non-indigenous people multiple wishing to direct the policy effectively toward the rights of acceptance and respect. An essential problem is that the policy is made by non-indigenous people, who suppose the politics they believe is the best for the indigenous people, but Aboriginal people are not involved fully in a policy development. Such attitude provokes a strong resistance that is expressed through the art. Such situation has a long history and starts from the 20th century, when Indigenous photography was used as a resistance method. Through body representation, indigenous artist is trying to be involved in the struggle for land rights and to fight against colonization discrimination. From the policy agency perspective, they are using representation of their body to demand an extension of Aboriginal people’s rights and together they become a powerful movement that can provide changes in indigenous people`s acceptance. Hence, relation of self-authored body representation in Indigenous art to political agency is expressed through political resistance to discrimination.

Overall, it is critical to state that Indigenous art has a long history. Indigenous people were used as subjects to satisfy settlers’ theories about a dying race, tourists’ curiosity and the desire to image Aboriginals as savages and brutes. However, the situation started to change with appearance of indigenous photographers in the 20th century who through portraiture wanted to retake the control over representation and change the historical attitude to Aboriginal people. That was done in order to provide Aboriginal people with cultural visibility and voice to express their positions. Therefore, it is possible to say that Indigenous art addresses cultural invisibility through self-authored body representation. Body is a great tool for gaining cultural visibility. Through representing the body indigenous artists are trying to communicate with the audience and make it see an imaged person.

The main point is to reach the visibility, which is crucial for survival. At the same time, self-authored body representation is strongly connected to experiential authority that can be defined as sympathetic attitude toward foreign nation that can be expressed through gestures, posture, language etc. A sympathetic attitude was a common phenomenon towards indigenous people in the 19th century. It was expressed by white settlers and colonists towards Aboriginal people as too different from them and as low-leveled communities. Hence, Indigenous contemporary art addresses such issues through body representation as wrong attitude that is not acceptable.

Also, self-authored body representation is in tight relation to political agency that can be defined as an ability to demand rights extension through collective movement. The collective body representation by indigenous artists can be used as resistance towards the colonist`s attitude and a chance to fight for Aboriginal rights extension. Thus, Indigenous art is quite complex from the historical perspective and it is strongly connected to cultural invisibility, experiential authority, and political agency.

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