RAW: In Conversation With – The Significance of Indigenous Art In Contemporary Society – 1K

After fulsomely praising the merits of the second in this year’s series of In Conservation With, hosted by the ABC’s Fenella Kernebone (Link to article here), my expectations of enthralling debate about the role of indigenous art were high. The panel for last night’s discussion, comprised of indigenous experts from the visual arts (Nici Cumpston – AGSA), theatre (Wesley Enoch – Queensland Theatre Company), music (Lou Bennett – Black Arm Band) and community involvement (Lee-Ann Buckskin – Carclew), also gave cause for optimism.

Sadly, it all got off to a very bad start and never recovered.

In response to Kernebone’s opener about the topic, Bennett insisted that we all needed to first contemplate and debate just exactly what is meant  by ‘indigenous’, ‘art’ and ‘contemporary’ society.  Two minutes later one punter in the audience got up and left, perhaps sensing what the next 90 minutes was then likely to bring. I just wish he had let us in on his hunch with a cry at the door of ‘oh no, what a waste of time this is going to be now’ or similar as he left for then we would all have been forewarned.

So instead of the advertised discussion about ‘the significance of indigenous art in contemporary society’ we got polemics and politics around the topic ‘contemporary indigenous art – discuss.’

Even though Kernebone tried to ignore Bennett’s opening distraction, the die was cast and soon she too was lapping up this Radio National type gab fest.

So to be clear, what did this audience member think the topic was going to lead to discussions about? Well, things like, is indigenous art about talking to indigenous people or is it about explaining and teaching their culture to other (non-indigenous) Australians or is about helping to break down racism or racial stereotypes in this country towards and about aborigines or is about building up the brand ‘indigenous art/music/…’ so others to come can advance the cause in time or should indigenous artists make their way by adopting to the white, mainstream or on their own cultural terms? Or is it about other things, but whatever they may be, how are we going in those causes, who are the role models and what’s next?

Instead we got snippets about some of the individuals on the panel’s personal triumphs and some of their activities, without being told whether they were a good thing (as part of the significance of indigenous art in contemporary society) or just a Government sponsored program (that it seemed some on the panel thought were all a bit misguided, especially when it came to health.) While Clifford Possum’s ability to bring $1m for one of his paintings was, you know, something we don’t want to talk about, the glittering triumph in the entire history of all indigenous culture it seemed for the panel was Cathy Freeman winning Gold at the Sydney Olympics.

On top we got some motherhood stuff about how what young aboriginals ought to strive for is being ‘allowed to dream to be what they want to be’, like they are the only people on the planet for whom this idea resonates. And then ‘although we (the panellists) have become quite successful, there remain a lot of indigenous people who are very disadvantaged.’ No kidding, but pray tell, how in modern Australia doesn’t this statement apply to a very large group of people, not just indigenous people and hence why this topic may be important to dealing with that issue.

It was clear from some of the questions asked that many in the audience were also peeved about the way this discussion went and while some will no doubt have left with a warm inner glow – the sing-along at the conclusion of proceedings may have aided that euphoria – I defy them to define exactly in 25 words or less what they actually gained from the evening. I can in one – nothing.

As Noel Pearson has often commented, indigenous spokespeople need to move on from playing on white man’s guilt and engage with mainstream society on making the world better for Australia’s indigenous in practical ways. Well, here for four indigenous spokespeople (and Fenella ‘I was there’ Kernebone) was a rare 90 minute opportunity before an (almost all white) audience of about 100 who had made the effort to come to The Space on a cold July night to listen and hopefully learn to explain ‘the significance of indigenous art in contemporary society’.

Sorry, panel, this was an opportunity you botched.

1 comment

  1. 25 words or less on what I got form the night? An exciting view into four inspiring people doing fantastic work in the arts, and a greater appreciation for the past forty years of indigenous art.

    I really appreciated the night, I was particularity taken by Wesley Enoch’s views on theatre in Australia today, and am very excited by what he will do with the QTC. I also really loved Lee-Ann Buckskin’s comments about taking young people into arts administration. I left the night feeling inspired, not only for the place of indigenous art, but for the place of Australian art in our society.

    I think what you gave as your first thought as to what the night would cover *was* covered – there was a great bit of the discussion about the place of Indigenous practice and practitioners within “white” or “mainstream” or “Western” society and art forms.

    Cathy Freeman’s achievement at the Olympics was used to explain the phenomenon where by artists are sometimes told they shouldn’t be working with the highest companies or whatever, because then aren’t they taking their skills away from the “people who need it”? Freeman, Enoch said, was never asked to “run slower” because in sports there is an empirical measure of who is the best – and arts gets tricky because you cannot apply those measures.

    Her victory was a highlight of Australian culture. But if you think that was presented as The Highlight of All Indigenous Culture, I really have to ask if you were listening to the panel at all? Not only was there great respect for 60,000 years of culture, there was so much knowledge and appreciation on that panel of the work of Indigenous artists since 1967: a great appreciation for a recent history which quite clearly impacts the practice of the people on that panel.

    And whether you want to see it or ignore it, on the whole Indigenous Australians are disproportionately disadvantaged. Don’t play the “white people have it hard too” card, because statistically, you’re wrong.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get to appreciate anything from the night. Because I thought it was great. And I thought the second one was awful.

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