CACS Case studies: Aboriginality

Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.


In this case study we look at concepts of power, race and identity from an indigenous perspective. We look at the social and cultural conditions for the establishment and critique of power both historically and in Australia today. We focus in particular on the concept of Aboriginality and how representation in art, design and film can reflect underlying assumptions and prejudices.



A term coined by Indigenous Australian anthropologist and activist Marcia Langton to conceptualize the disparity between representations of Indigenous Australians in film and media and their actual life circumstances. Aboriginality, like Edward Said‘s term Orientalism, on which it is modelled, seeks to expose the underlying assumptions and prejudices guiding the depictions of Indigenous Australians made by white Australians. Moreover it is concerned to show the ‘real world’ effects these depictions have in shaping policy and hence the daily lives of Indigenous Australians.

(Buchanan 2010, 1)



The otherness of the other. Alterity refers to both the quality of strangeness inherent in the other and the fact of their strangeness. Strangeness here means simply that neither our prior knowledge nor our prior experience prepares us for the encounter with this other. For Emmanuel Levinas, the Paris-based Lithuanian philosopher and ethicist who established the concept, the only being capable of fully satisfying these conditions is God. His notion of ethics revolves around the idea that one should open oneself to an encounter with the divine Mystery, that is, the alterity, of God as other. This notion has also been used in anthropology, particularly by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity (1993), as a way of thinking about the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized. It has also been used in psychoanalysis to describe the relationship between the self and the other, namely that part of ourselves (such as the abject) that we disavow.

(Buchanan 2010,  12)


Derived from the Greek ‘ethnos’, which is usually rendered as ‘nation’, it designates shared beliefs, values, experiences, loyalties and a subjective sense of common origin among self-defined groups of people. The term is close in meaning to race, but is often used in preference because it lacks the latter’s problematic biological dimension. In contrast to race, which tends to be used to express hierarchical discrepancies in power, ethnicity is a matter of self-perception and is generally of an affirmative order. It primarily refers to cultural distinctiveness. However, in its first usage it was used to designate heathen ‘others’, and a trace of this pejorative origin lingers inasmuch as ethnicity is usually only used in relation to minority, or other non-hegemonic groups.

(Buchanan 2010, 155)





Tracey Moffat 2009, Other,  video 7 minute continuous loop, not on display, available at:

OTHER by Tracey Moffatt from Momentum Worldwide on Vimeo.

Moffat’s video compilation explores the contact between whites and non-whites, Europeans and non-Europeans, examining the processes of first contact, first touch, and co-mingling, as exhibited through interspersed clips from primarily western film and television. This work unpacks the construction of ‘alterity’, showing the construction of the ‘other’ as has been enacted by a Hollywood-dominated entertainment industry. In many ways, this film can be understood by thinking about Edward Said’s ideas about ‘manufactured otherness’ and the questions of power and dominance that this raises. The ‘gaze’ examined in Moffat’s film (the many people looking and seeing), is an explicit unpacking of Said’s ideas.

Watch this short interview with Edward Said and think about what it can mean to only hear stories of the ‘other’ told by the dominant (Western/European/white) voice:


Len Lye 1929, Tusalava, 35mm, black and white, silent, Film Society, not on display, available at


Len Lye’s short experimental film was constructed using 4400 hand drawn images.  The animation style was influenced by Aboriginal and Maori artforms and shows two seemingly organic figures that interact and evolve in an apparently parasitic or symbiotic relationship, progressing towards something like redemption as the two figures eventually meld. The British Board of Censors nearly refused this film a certificate because they ‘suspected it might be about sex’ (, however this abstract film can also be read as an examination of the merging of cultures and an examination of the processes of othering and alterity.

The use of Maori and Aboriginal visual motifs is one obvious element that lends to this reading, but as you watch the video try to think of other visual elements that could be used to support this understanding of Lye’s film.

(Music students might be interested in following up the composer of the original score for this film, Jack Ellit. His score has been lost but it was an experimental jazz-inspired score for two pianos:

Imants Tillers and Michael Nelson Jagamara 2012, Hymn to the night, Acrylic on 165 canvas boards, 277 x 532cm,  Fireworks Gallery, Brisbane.


In the 1980s, non-Indigenous artist Imants Tillers appropriated a painting by Indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara (also spelt Tjakamarra), Five Dreamings and used it in his work The Nine Shots. Another Indigenous artist, Gordon Bennet (Triptych: Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire from week 4), brought this appropriation to light and after a cycle of the two artists responding to each other, they struck up an unlikely collaboration to create this work.  As a cross-cultural conversation, this painting demonstrates the value of looking beyond one’s own perspective and finding a contact with the ‘other’. “I feel grateful for having had the personal contact,” Tillers said in The Australian, “There is still a huge cultural gulf between a Warlpiri artist and a Western artist, but painting is a way of connecting” ( It is interesting that Tiller’s is the voice most often heard speaking on this collaboration, while Jagamara has responded primarily through visual formats.

Use your online research skills to find the original artwork by Jagamara and the appropriated work by Tillers. We are going to focus on this work in the tutorials. Also make sure you read the essay by Prof. Ian McLean about this work

Richard Bell 2003, ‘Bell’s Theorum: Aboriginal Art – It’s a white thing!’, accessed 12/02/2015.


Richard Bell was the winner of the 20th National Aboriginal &Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2003 and in this essay he unpacks the white ownership of Aboriginal art and questions the current systems of sale and ownership as continuations of racist “obstacles and barriers” that prevent Aboriginal Australians from controlling their own futures. “Like some voracious ancient God,” Bell states, “Western Art devours all offerings at will.” In a celebration of Aboriginality, Bell reclaims Aboriginal art, unpacking the inherent colonialism, paternalism and superiority implied by the Western ownership of indigenous art, artists and the proliferation of Western ‘experts’ on Aboriginal art.

In light of the dominant white voices on the topics of Aboriginality and appropriation, read this Aboriginal perspective of the question and take the challenge Bell puts forward to question and identify your own internalised understanding of Aboriginal culture.

Yhonnie Scarce, Weak in Colour But Strong in Blood, 2014, detail, blown glass and found components, dimensions variable. Commissioned for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney and installed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, courtesy the artist and dianne tanzer gallery + projects. Photography by Janelle Low.  Yhonnie Scarce,  Weak in Colour But Strong in Blood , 2014, installation view, blown glass and found components, dimensions variable. Commissioned for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney and installed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, courtesy the artist and dianne tanzer gallery + projects. Photography by Janelle Low.  Yhonnie Scarce’s installation of glass and found objects, commissioned for the 2014 Sydney Bienale explores the continuing impacts of colonial practices in Australia. The work refers to the “medico-scientific eugenic practices of the early 1900s”  ( enacted during the early years of the White Australia policy, and during the formalisation of the Stolen Children practices. Scarce’s work shows us the Aboriginal people as trays and beakers of blown glass fruits, with the younger, lighter ones being separated out into trays to be rehoused in white homes and the “broken black” ones set aside to be discarded. Scarce is telling a personal story, an unpacking her own family’s history in this work.

Watch this video where Scarce talks about the reality of being a ‘politically motivated artist’ and what it means to discuss these hard issues in artworks:

Artbites: Outlaws from Linden New Art on Vimeo.

Romaine Moreton 2001, “Are You Beautiful Today?”, Post me to the Prime Minister,  IAD Press, Alice Springs, NT.


“Are You Beautiful Today?” is a poem about living as an Aboriginal Australian. Romaine Moreton asks the reader to compare themselves to the her own situation, starting out with the most basic question: ‘Are your children safe and well, / Brother, mother, sister too?’ This seemingly innocuous query leads into a poem that unpacks a narrative of systemic disadvantage demonstrated most succinctly by the repeated motif of laughing at tragedy and impending death. “We sit around our lounge rooms, / Discussing jail and suicide as though asking/ One lump or two?/ And all of this makes me laugh,/ And I laugh/ Till I am blue,” Moreton writes, raising the inevitable comparisons between her community’s tea time conversation and those outside of the Indigenous traps.  ‘Poetry,’ Moreton says, ‘has the power to defy history’ ( and in this poem she asks the reader to consider a history that is still being written today.

Read the poem here and use your online research skills to find some context of Moreton’s own history.


McLean, Ian and Una Rey, 2012 “Black and White a Tale of Two Cities.” The Loaded Ground, ANU Drill Hall Gallery, pp.29-40

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