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The Art of Politics The Politics of Art, The Place of Indigenous Contemporary Art is a collection of essays edited by Brisbane-based artist Fiona Foley. Relatively few books have been published on this topic; a fact that speaks volumes about the reception of Indigenous art in this country. Foley’s book makes an important contribution to political understandings of Australian Indigenous art, particularly in terms of its inclusion of a transnational indigenous context. Where the local domain of Indigenous politics in Australia is choked by racism disguised as conservatism, this context of transnational indigenous activism is clearly the political future for Australian Indigenous art.
In her role as Adjunct Professor at Queensland College of Arts, Foley convened a conference bearing the same title as the book in October 2005 at the Queensland Museum. The Art of Politics consists of selected papers from this conference. There is a strong sense of the local-to-local dynamics of globalism in this book, drawing together contributions from Papua New Guinea’s Michael Mel; Fa’aoleole Sofine Maiava from Aotearoa (New Zealand); Subba Ghosh from India; and Native American artist Kelvin Yazzie. Nine Australian contributors complete the volume, including an essay by Foley titled ‘A Touch of the Tar Brush’. Foley discusses a wall of silence in Australian art establishments and institutions and a more general ‘type of cultural violence through silencing’ (24). This escalating progression of silencing is described by Foley as an effort to exclude political activism in Indigenous art over the past thirteen years, running concurrent with the fading promise of the Keating era’s ‘new partnership’.
It is in the context of this ideological and political silence that the book raises an emerging ‘noise’ and hope for the future. Whilst they are not referred to specifically, new global political entities such as TIPM (Transnational Indigenous People’s Movement) and TSMO (Transnational Social Movement Organisations) set the tenor for the book’s aspirations, creating cohesive platforms for communication between geographically dispersed indigenous communities around the globe. The role of the visual arts in creating these platforms is profiled extensively throughout the book, particularly in those contributions by artists themselves such as Foley, Subba Ghosh, Ole Maiava, Aaron Seeto and Kelvin Yazzie. Ole Maiava’s two contributions actually consist of two series of digital images introduced by a few short sentences. ‘Aboriginal Con Temporary Art an Oz-Y-Moron?’ reflects on preconceived expectations or judgments about Aboriginal art and artists, and ‘Passive Insistence’ is a visual commentary on Fiona Foley’s Witnessing to Silence installation at the Brisbane Magistrates Court. These artistic contributions to the book make powerful statements regarding the visual arts’ capacity to communicate political material, and signal another future direction for Australian Indigenous art.
Michael Mel is another ‘noisy’ artist in the book, despite being the most quietly spoken of men. Mel’s essay provides context for his performance at The Art of Politics conference, where he instigated re-examination of (largely Melanesian) art objects held in the Queensland Museum, transforming them into ‘silent witnesses’ of history and cultural survival. The performance reinforced how objects have been (and still are) used to contain and frame people. There is an important lesson for the contemporary reception of Australian Indigenous art in Mel’s performance piece, as articulated in his following words;
The performance was built or based on performance processes from my own community where objects do not necessarily have or possess meaning. Meaning is realised as personal experience within the context of a performance… In this context, then, the sense of ‘I’ as a person is always in relation to someone. The ‘I’ is not a closed entity or vessel. (35)
Considering that the reception of Australian Indigenous art has been so heavily influenced by anthropological discourse—a discourse motivated by the pursuit of an artefact’s ‘meaning’, or understanding the entity of cultural identity—Mel’s Melanesian example signals one of the major problems in critical discourse regarding Australian Indigenous art. Mel’s performance and essay fundamentally refute the basis of an autonomous art object within his past and present culture, and insist on its inherently context-driven social and political function. Does this sound like a context-relativity akin to postmodernism? Of course it does. But we seem to be slow in realising that postmodern attitudes to meaning pre-date modernism, and how the Enlightenment’s atomistic approach to knowledge drove disciplinary fervour towards an untenable autonomous zone of meaning. The ‘transnational voice’ emanating from The Art of Politics makes this apparent and shakes the foundations of how we approach Indigenous art.
There are also a number of essays in the book that deal with the historical antecedents of Australian Indigenous art, such as Regina Ganter’s fascinating account of Asian-Aboriginal contact in Northern Australia. These contributions are a reflection of how an entire history of Australian Indigenous art demands political ‘review’.