BRANDED: The Indigenous Aesthetic

Like a glowing iron brand taken from the red hot coals of a day old fire, I have been marked, marketed, packaged and sold as an Indigenous man. I wear this mark with pride, but this is just one component of my identity.

Glenn Pilkington

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I hate the word brand. People have forgotten the importance of sub-culture. We are a community and an intervention.
- Ben Watt, Founder, Buzzin’Fly Records¹

Every so often I think about the word Indigenous and the notions and implications the word carries along with it. I often think about my family and how their lives are different from mine. They live in regional Western Australia, close to the land, but not in the romanticised fashion often associated with the Indigenous brand. I live in the city, in an apartment building overlooking the river and the freeway, with which I have a great affinity. My family are Indigenous Australians, Yamitji people from the Gascoyne Murchison region and Nyoongar people from the south west of Western Australia. Most of my family live in Yawuru and Gija Country in the Kimberley, where I have spent a third of my life. They often fish, sometimes at a fairly remote fishing spot called Minari and sometimes with a trolley at a less remote place called Woolworths. Like most of us, my family listen to popular music, travel on aeroplanes, use the internet, communicate by email and, most importantly, they don’t feel they are any less ‘Indigenous’ for doing so.

I think about this probably a little too often, but this internal dialogue resonates right to my core. If I am one thing, I am hybrid, a result of many generations of diaspora. I am an Indigenous man, but I am also Dutch, French, English, Scottish and Pakistani and I, too, am Australian. I am these many things, but branded as one. Like a glowing iron brand taken from the red hot coals of a day old fire, I have been marked, marketed, packaged and sold as an Indigenous man. I wear this mark with pride, but this is just one component of my identity.

I recently made a pilgrimage to Melbourne by aeroplane to the National Indigenous Photographers’ Forum. Indigenous photographers and artists had travelled there from all corners of Indigenous Australia, from Palm Island, Sydney, Perth, Darwin and remote Tjuntjuntjara, to name a few. The first of its kind, the National Indigenous Photographers’ Forum was coordinated by Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography to provide Indigenous commercial photographers and visual artists with a platform to discover more about technical and visual principles of photography. Personally, what I found most invigorating during the three days was the discussion surrounding the representation, or re-presentation, of Indigenous people within historical colonial narratives, contemporary society and the art world. Re-presentation in this context differs from representation and refers to Indigenous artists who challenge historical representation of Indigenous peoples though their creative practice.

Christian Thompson
Humpy Away from Home 2008
100 x 100 cm
c-type print
image courtesy the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi

I had the pleasure of hearing addresses by two strong, passionate blak women, Fiona Foley and Brenda L Croft.² What was interesting was that, for both women, the re-presentation of Indigenous people was a recurrent theme. As artists and curators, this has been evident in their work for some time. A pertinent example of this is The National Indigenous Art Triennial 07: Culture Warriors, curated by Croft at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Currently on display at the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center in Washington DC, Culture Warriors provides a comprehensive and current survey of Indigenous art practice, here and now, and was received extremely well when on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Artists ranged from urban dwelling Indigenous painters, photographers and video artists Richard Bell and Christian Thompson, to artists working in traditional custodial practice such as John Mawurndjul and Jean Baptiste Apuatimi. This bringing together of diverse practices successfully challenges fixed views of Indigenous art practice.

The role of the artist is in constant recreation of itself, like a snake shedding its skin. The role is ephemeral, it is fluid, changing, growing, thriving, struggling and, of all things, it is transient. Both the nature and social role of contemporary art practice is ever-evolving. Its purpose for some is expression, for others it is documentation, or radical thought. For others, it is a crucial tool used to re-present personal cultural identity and a sense of self.

The question I asked myself as I left the forum for my hotel was this: How do we re-brand ourselves in a world where our Indigenous brand has become so sinuous with the context and content of our work? Is it possible as a curator or artist to escape the ever-strengthening grip of ethnographic prescription, when it is this very prescription that the Indigenous visual arts sector relies upon to sell the Indigenous brand? If it were at all possible, why would one want to re-brand, or be freed from the brand? To bite that hand that feeds? Why would McDonalds be rid of its famous glowing golden arches?

What became apparent over the three-day forum in Melbourne was that the Indigenous brand has become generalised, like saying ’sportswear’ rather than identifying something as ‘Adidas’. Indigeneity is diverse, and its breadth of personal experience and sensibility is almost immeasurable. However, within the fine art field the alignment of the brand with a visual aesthetic has become so inseparable that those working beyond that aesthetic are in a constant fight for survival, re-presentation and for the market to diversify its understanding of the Indigenous aesthetic. You may ask what art fits this accepted aesthetic? And, if you work within the art world or are a passionate collector, then my commentary may seem ambiguous, dated and redundant. However, for a general public, this accepted aesthetic is one of dot paintings from the central desert, imbued with symbols representing movement, cultural pilgrimage and translations of ceremonial body painting.

Tony Albert
No Place 3 2009
chromogenic print
100 x 100 cm
courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith, Melbourne

This struggle is long lived, continuing over some three decades, yet there is no surrender. Artists such as Fiona Foley, Dianne Jones, Tony Albert, Vernon Ah Kee, Christian Thompson, Brenda L Croft, Gordon Hookey, Richard Bell, Jenny Fraser, Nici Cumpston and Bindi Cole continue to challenge the status quo by re-presenting their passions, their cultures, their people and most importantly themselves, as considered contemporary artists engaged in practice that redefines the notions of Indigeneity. Indigenous curators are now integral to collecting a breadth of Indigenous work and delivering exhibitions that re-present Indigenous people in a self-empowered manner. These curators, along with a growing group of artists working in diverse practices, are at the forefront of this discussion, redefining publicly accepted understandings to reflect the diversity of Australian Indigenous life and, in a larger conversation, human life - after all, we are all just human.

Looking closely at the structures within both commercial and public art institutions it seems that the Indigenous brand is both the angel and the devil. Institutions have, in the past three to four decades, focused on developing Indigenous collections and endless exhibitions advocating for Indigenous artists and communities. But is it this advocacy in the most public of arenas that has predetermined the public conception of the Indigenous brand and established the accepted and valued Indigenous aesthetic? There is no question that traditional contemporary Indigenous art practice, informed by ancestral lore, language, ceremony and story, has produced some of the most divine and visually succulent works of art to come out of Australia, both in the past and in the here and now. The commercial and institutional commitment to this aspect of Indigenous art has indeed changed the way the world perceives Indigenous society, but at what cost?

With such investment and emphasis on custodial practice, the associated notions of traditional life rich with language, cultural knowledge and custom have somehow become transferable to all Indigenous artists, working in all mediums and thematic contexts. Artists working in photo media, video, and performance cannot escape the romantic notions of traditional custodial practice, and works produced by an Indigenous artist are somehow isolated within the Indigenous brand, compared to the associated aesthetic, and then often refuted in the minds of many. For some artists this is not a problem and actually provides inspiration for content working with a modality of institutional critique, as seen in the Aboriginal Dot Painting series 2001 by Indigenous photographer Dianne Jones. In these works Jones uses the text ‘dot, dot, dot…’ in simple and highly graphic works which investigate the preconceived ideas around Indigenous art and its accepted aesthetic.

For artists engaging in the critical discourse of the global environment, whose work is informed, researched and seeking dynamic academic engagement with issues surrounding global race politics, oppression and accepted European history, such romantic notions of Indigeneity are immobilising, generic and pre-determined stereotypes of the colonial world.

Fiona Foley - Wild Times 2001

Fiona Foley
Wild times #2 2001
type C photograph
76 x 112 cm
courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

In Fiona Foley’s presentation at the National Indigenous Photographers’ Forum, she made the following commentary, which has been a catalyst for this article.

I’d like to reflect on the series, Wild Times Call, created in the United States during 2001, and the response to the work in Australia. Melbourne art critic Robert Nelson made the observation about the Seminole men in the photographs, attired in their regalia, standing on their reservation in Tampa, Florida.

In The Age, Nelson wrote:

Her photographs are monumental and melancholy, depicting the artist among her people, the largely massacred and displaced Badtjala, formerly of Fraser Island. She often appears on her own, wrapped up in textiles of heavy weave or coarse loom-state pattern, looking over an Australian landscape with heroic sadness.

The same article also contained the word primitive no less than thirteen times. In an international context, I thought about white Australia’s attitudes towards Indigenous peoples the world over. Did Robert Nelson think we – Indigenous folk – all look the same? What was I to make of the language used in this review? Is there a fixed type of thinking about race in Australia? Perhaps a lazy methodology in his reporting, or was I really a 21st century primitive at work?³

How is it possible for an artist to re-define the terms in which their work is read, critiqued, interpreted and dissected? If we have come to a juncture where the interpretation of Indigenous artwork has become, let’s say, more about generalised ethnographic and narrative-driven assumptions than informed research, or even real human communication, I think we have to honestly accept that change is needed at all levels, don’t you?

There is nothing particularly new about my commentary within this conversation, and many before me have championed the cause with conviction, determination and passion. For that, I am eternally grateful. Engagement in ongoing debate and critical discourse surrounding the re-presentation of Indigenous art, an evolving and diverse field, is imperative to the creation of challenging, meaningful, confrontational and informed contemporary Indigenous art practice. Multiple sub-cultures lie within all cultures and, within commodity culture, it is inevitable that creative works will fall within brands. But brands must diversify and change in form as shifts in the branded product appear. The most successful brands are those that are responsive to contemporary culture and all of its sub-cultures.

Dianne Jones - Aboriginal dot painting series # 4, 2001

Dianne Jones
Aboriginal dot painting series #4 2001
inkjet on photo paper
60 x 60 cm
Image courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

As an emerging artist working predominantly with digital media, the Indigenous brand has been instrumental in the early successes of my art practice, yet now it lingers on, premeditating the way in which society will forever read my work. For many, this is a battle that they are willing to fight. Some before me have chosen to work as artists outside the Indigenous brand and their work is now highly valued within the global visual arts environment. From my perspective, I am still analysing the enthusiastic response to my work, and comparing the response to my current sales history, through no fault of my representative gallery. The representation of my Indigenous self within my work is not contained within the aesthetic but more within the inspiration behind the work, within the sensibility of its creation. For my next body of work I was thinking of working with blue and white Dutch-inspired Delfts Blauw.⁴ Interesting? Maybe. Personally rewarding? Possibly. But probably not the right brand.

Indigenous Australia as a term conjures romanticised images of traditional custodial life and the passing of sacred knowledge, of life on the land, of a rich cultural understanding. But does it conjure an image of a fair-skinned working professional, living in urban Country, who relies on commodity to such a degree that left in the hot arid landscape of Australia for a day or so would burn, blister and probably perish?5 I am Indigenous, I have no traditional language, other than Aboriginal English, nor does my father or my grandmother. Come to think of it, I speak more Dutch and Spanish than any traditional Indigenous language. My Indigenous custom has been passed, for at least three generations, in English.

To me, what it is to be Indigenous is a deeply personal connection I have to myself, my living family, my ancestors and this land we call Australia. It is a feeling that is always present in my body. It is a sense of ‘knowing’ and understanding. And at the forefront of my Aboriginality is a completely overwhelming sense of responsibility. This is what it means for me to be Indigenous. Indigenous is not a brand, not a marketing tool, not a sales pitch, but a way of life and an indescribable privilege. It is also a privilege that Indigenous people are now sharing their understandings of the world and their unique sensibility and connection with their Country through art. For countrymen and women, living in urban regional and remote Australia, from all walks of like, culture is omnipresent.

Earlier I commented on the nature of the artist, and now I would like to reflect. Like the artist, Indigenous identity and culture is transient and evolving, it is dynamic, not static and it is of the highest importance that our understandings and perceptions of Indigenous art and culture are aligned with contemporary culture, instead of keeping it shackled to the past.

¹ Buzzin’ Fly at Plastic People, London, July 24 2009. Posted to YouTube August 12, 2009.
Episode 02 [Video file]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XigDPbD1oXg&feature=channel

² Blak: a term first attributed to Destiny Deacon and used in her work Blak Lik Mi 1991. The term Blak is a reclaimed re-presentation of the term black or blacks, which was commonly used in a pejorative context. See Deacon in H Perkins, Half Light: Portraits from Black Australia, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008, 66.

³ Fiona Foley, ‘Erasure’, paper presented at National Indigenous Photographers’ Forum, Melbourne, 12 October 2009.

Delfts Blauw (Blue Delft) describes collectable and recognisable blue and white pottery made in Delfts, Netherlands from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

5 Country is a term which describes a place in which an individual or group of people feel a custodial connection. This place of important cultural significance can be where people or their family have been born or raised, but also a place which has held significance within family lineage. Country in this context also refers to a place to which an individual feels a strong and deeply personal affinity. An understanding of one’s Country describes an intimate relationship between person and place.

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2 Comments

  1. Paola Balla commented on December 16, 2009 | Permalink

    Well done Glen,
    we met at the Indigenous photography forum in Melb. Fantastic paper, it really resonates with me, my Indigenous identity & the complexities of making art within the “brand.”

    Paola, visual artist & wemba wemba & gunditjmara woman

  2. Kira Randolph commented on February 9, 2010 | Permalink

    I read this article in my Aboriginal Art Reading Group alongside Brenda Crofts’ Me-take exhibition (PCP) catalog essay and they were such complementary pieces. One reader in our group requested Pilkington write a 10,000 word essay; I hope to read more by him soon.

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  1. [...] to Brenda Croft’s me-take exhibition essay (PCP), “I see deadly people” and Glenn Pilkington’s FLASH comment, “Branded: The Indigenous Aesthetic.” The Aboriginal and Islander Photographers Exhibition was the first to showcase exclusively [...]

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