Representations of Aboriginals in Australian Art

In 1770 the First Fleet of British arrived in Australia, a land that was already home to the indigenous people, the Aboriginals. Britain colonized Australia through the notion “terra nullius,” justifying the colonization of land that was unoccupied, land that was not cultivated by the indigenous people, or without a European-recognized model of government (Willis, 95). Aboriginal and British beliefs were in constant conflict, for example Aboriginals believed in communal responsibility over territories and sharing material resources, whereas the European model favored individual ownership and resources that could be bought and sold (Willis, 95). Social Darwinism was invoked as a tactic to rid Australia of the Aboriginals who were shot, poisoned, and driven off their land under the pretense that they were inferior to the white man (Willis, 95). Ethnocentrism is an essential element in colonization; one ethnicity (in this case, the British) must feel superior enough to invade and take over another region due to their belief that their politics, economy, religion—or just general way of life—was the correct way.

This ethnocentrism played a principal role in the representation of the Aboriginals in Australian art. By not seeing an Aboriginal as an equal member of society, the white Australians often portrayed the native Australians as repugnant, simple, and barbaric creatures that inhabited the land almost as the flora and fauna did. However, the visual imagery of the Aboriginals is dependent upon the circumstances of the portrayal, the artist’s intended audience, and the general convention within the artist was working (Willis, 104). Also, in periods of productivity and confidence, representations of aboriginals tend to disappear from Australian art and reappear in more insecure times (Allen, 148).

Augustus Earle’s representation of the Aboriginals in his 1838 oil painting A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Daybreak is largely contrived. The work shows a group of white travelers resting fireside along with a group of Aboriginal guides. The landscape is romantic and moody with a sense of drama, making it almost a cinematic depiction of life in Australia. The work was actually painted after Earle had returned to London based on watercolors he’d painting while touring New South Wales; its intended audience was British (Johns, 99). Earle choose to amplify the exotic features of the Australian landscape as well as the Aboriginals. Earle has also incorporated romanticized aspects of colonial life for popular appeal and mystique of “direct contact with an exotic untamed landscape” and its inhabitants (Johns, 99). Earle’s work is an image of adventure rather than habitation (Allen, 20).

However, the work is almost entirely pieced together—Earle has taken elements from previous works, such as the seated Aboriginal with the cone-shaped head piece in the off-center of the middle ground which was taken from a 1826 unrelated watercolor study of a Newcastle Aboriginal, the sleeping dog in the left foreground originally appeared in Earle’s 1824 watercolor Governor Glass and His Companion, and the dead kangaroo in the foreground is similar to Earle’s early watercolor of an Aboriginal camp near Port Stevens (Johns, 99).

Earle also portrayed the aboriginals as the iconic “noble savage” in 1830’s Wentworth Falls, in which the aboriginals are also guides helping the white travelers. The stance of both aboriginals are similar to classical statues—one aboriginal in the middle ground is standing with one foot behind the other, arms at his side while the aboriginal in the foreground is kneeling behind one of the travelers, pointing off into the distance most likely directing the pioneers where to go. In both of these paintings, Earle is portraying the aboriginals as inherently good. They are assisting the white man with his travels, acting as a guide for the unknown landscape, rather than a combative or hostile threat.

The landscapes in both paintings are and dangerous with steep cliffs, jagged rocks, tumbling waterfalls, and larger-than-life trees, through which the travelers can only navigate with the assistance of the aboriginals. Earle later sympathetically depicted the results of colonization on the Aboriginals focusing on the human condition, showing them socially ostracized, dwelling nearly naked sitting on the dirt road in their own poverty in juxtaposition with a modern, a two-story building from which ghostly pale women emerge in pristine white gowns on George Street in 1830’s Natives of New South Wales As Seen In The Streets of Sydney and huddled around dying fires with pained facial expressions (The Colony in Perspective, 18-21).

John Glover’s 1840 oil on canvas painting A Corrobery of Natives in Van Dieman’s Land is a common early depiction of Aboriginals. In this work, a large group of Aboriginals are gathered around beaming pale yellow fire dancing and singing holding spears and some with shields. Glover approaches the aboriginals in the painting in a scientific, almost academic naturalist style who painted animals in various poses to show their physical features and structure. Each of the aboriginal figures are in varying poses, ranging from sitting under a serpentine tree in the left foreground to figures crouched down to figures with their knees bent with arms flailing up into the air. The Aboriginals are presented in a very primitive, monkey-like fashion. The aboriginals are in an artificial state of purity and perfection, looming from the muddy brown earth.

Glover’s representation of the Aboriginals is through a European lens. This work was part of six paintings that were sent to King Louis-Philippe of France in the early 1840s, accounting for the Euro-centric depiction of natives in such a scientific, impersonal manner due to its intended audience. The representation is also entirely contrived because by 1840 there were virtually no groups of Aboriginals living in the vicinity of Glover’s property. His paintings of the aboriginal people are based on his sketches from during his first years in the colony; in fact, the process of eradicating the Aboriginal population was under way (Johns, 128).

Russell Drysdale’s also portrayed indigenous Australians in his 1953 painting Mullaloonah Tank. In terms of style, Drysdale’s painting is more modern and avant-garde than his more conventional predecessors like Earle and Glover. The painting depicts a group of aboriginals, consisting of two men and two women in the left foreground of the painting separated from the copper sky and distant mountain in the background by a makeshift white curtain. Although the figures are essentially in nature, Drysdale retains their sense of separation from the landscape with the screen-like, white sheet directly behind the group. The curtain represents the growing separation and alienation of the Aboriginals from their natural home in the outback. The figures are extremely elongated, taking up almost the entire canvas from top to bottom, similar to tall, structural trees often portrayed in early Australian art to show how Aboriginals have become synonymous with the land—they essentially are a part of it. Drysdale also used the same color palette of burnt orange, browns, yellows, and whites on both the natural Australian background and on the four figures showing that the aboriginals innately belong on the land. However, the aboriginals are not wearing in traditional Aboriginal dress; instead, they are wearing shapeless, European-style clothing to once again show the loss of traditional Aboriginal culture to the more modern White Australian culture of the 1950s.

Drysdale also portrayed aboriginals in Group of Aborigines (1953,) Shopping Day (1953,) Man and Woman (1960,) and Young Girl At The Rockpool (1963) all of which are sympathetic portraits of Aboriginal families. All of the subjects are posing as if they were before a camera in vast, empty streets—the focus is on the human being, not the landscape. These paintings show land that had once been part of the pioneer’s path and a place of opportunity, but is now desolate and unimportant to White Australians. Drysdale’s works signify the changing view of the bush as a destitute land that was no longer the home to heroes.  Drysdale also amplified color in paintings like 1959’s Snake Bay at Night and 1961’s Mangula, in which the Aboriginal figures are simplified with European conventions and embedded into the decorative landscape background. In 1963’s Ceremony at the Rockface, Drysdale chooses to depict an Aboriginal spiritual ceremony, in which a man holds his son who has his hands hoisted up over his head holding a spear. By showing a ceremony that’s Western equivalent is religious and evocative of the Byzantine Virgin and Child. Drysdale demonstrates an understanding and respect for Aboriginal beliefs, rather than a pejorative representation.
Drysdale, who came from a relatively wealthy family, choose to portray the aboriginals in this manner after he traveled to the bush and visited Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Mount Olga and Darwin in 1951 (Allen, 148). Drysdale emphasized the relationship between the Aboriginals to the land with undertones of the tension between native and White Australia by portraying the later effects of colonization, rather than direct conflict. This work is not narrative; Drysdale is “led by a sense of the poetic image rather than any conception of structure or purpose” (Allen, 151). Drysdale was also influenced by the end the Second World War, which catapulted many artists to shy away from straightforward depictions and escape into modernism and abstraction along with political and social message (Allen, 154).

Drysdale may have been influence by Tom Roberts who also examined the Aboriginal psyche in paintings like Aboriginal Head (Charlie Turner) circa 1892. The work was considered an unusual representation of an Aboriginal for the time because it suggested that he was a human who had a soul and his own inner life (Radford, 64). The work shows only Turner’s head in a vignette with broad, summary brush strokes using a color palette of mostly brown, orange, and white. By cutting off Turner’s head from his body, Roberts is displaying his alienation from his tribal group and thus any social context. By showing only an individual, the viewer may be more responsive and see him as more than part of a herd or object in the foreground—the only place to focus is Turner. Roberts also used similar compositions the portrait of the elegant young society women and actress, like Frances Ross from 1898. However, the portrait of Ross has much more social context: her decorative hat evokes the current fashion and the angle of her face, as well as her facial expression suggests she is having a conversation showing she is a social being, in tune with reality and has a specific place in it. The portrait of Turner has no social context to signify cultural belonging in Australia.

Another prominent feature of Roberts’ portrait of Turner is his brown eyes that are looking upward. Traditionally, this suggests “inner spiritual vision,” but in this work the eyes show a sense of fear, “as if Turner was looking up at some threatening authority” signaling the popular belief that Aboriginals were a dying race (Radford, 64). Roberts also chose to use the Aboriginal’s name rather than leaving him a nameless native as Earle and Glover did.

The representation of aboriginals in Australian art varies for a myriad of reasons—the artists’ personal views, the work’s intended audience, and the socio-historical circumstances of the representation. Each of these three works portray the Aboriginals in a unique way. English artist, Augustus Earle approaches the subject of the Aboriginals as the “noble savage,” meaning they were not these sub-human, disease-ridden barbarians, but gracious and dignified human beings uncorrupted by the burdens of conventional societal values like religion. In Earle’s work, A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Daybreak, the artist is showing a camaraderie and mateship between the Aboriginals and the traveling White Australians—although the representation of the natives is inaccurate due to the hyperbole of exoticism in the colony to entice British interest. Two years later, another English artist, John Glover, created A Corrobery of Natives in Van Dieman’s Land but instead of showing the Aboriginals as the noble savage, Glover creates a false identity for the Aboriginals by showing them as primitive, out of control, and monkey-like. Glover also chose to display the Aboriginals in a voyeuristic way—the Aboriginals are segregated, not interacting with the White man at all, which may signify that Glover believes they have nothing in common and could never be considered basic intellectual equals. In both Earle and Glover’s paintings, the aboriginals are portrayed from a distance, meaning you are unable to clearly see the facial expressions that are associated with human emotion and hence the viewer is unable to connect on a profound level. Drysdale and Roberts seem to be more sympathetic showing the results of colonization and its effect on the aboriginal state of mind due to their actual interaction, observation, and desire to penetrate the plights and beliefs of the Aboriginal people.

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