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Aboriginal Australia - A Personal Story

Aboriginal Art

My journey into Aboriginal Australia started almost by complete accident.

I was completing my reading period for the Victorian Bar, having made the transition from solicitor to barrister, and had no idea how or if I was going to get any work. By chance, I heard a radio program on the ABC AM morning show about the need for new laws to protect Aboriginal artworks from unauthorised reproduction.

It was 1988 and there was a lot of copying of Aboriginal artworks going on – onto T shirts, tea towels and whatever.

I did something I had never done before or since, motivated by a sense of deep anxiety about my professional future – and the need to feed two young children as well as close regard for paying off the mortgage. I rang the producers of the AM morning current affairs program and said that I did not think a new law was needed and that copyright provided an answer, and I wanted those who were interviewed on the program to know.

Fortuitously, with the forces of salvation on my side, I then received a call from the Aboriginal artist Lin Onus, who was interviewed on the radio program. Lin was a terrific artist and generally a great guy. He had an established career as an artist but worked as a panel beater to help make ends meet. He was one of the leaders of the contemporary Aboriginal arts movement of the time.

He said, in his matter of fact way, if I was so clever I could help him and his fellow artists sort out the mess. As a result, almost my very first brief at the Victorian Bar involved flying to Arnhem land in the Northern Territory to take instructions from some traditional Aboriginal artists who were the people most affected by the unauthorised reproductions.

I had never met a traditional Aboriginal person before or hardly any Aboriginal people. In school I was taught about “terra nullius” – Australia was said to be a “no man’s” land when white settlers arrived in the late 1700s.

After a long day of travel we arrived at an outstation in central Arnhem land called Garmedi.

The few families living at this outstation had been previously living and working as cattle hands on large stations or in church-run settlements. In the early 1980s the leaders of clan groups of the area started a movement to return to their traditional lands and relearn the ways of their traditional lands and cultures. Amongst them were some of the leaders of the traditional Aboriginal art movement, including my lead client John Bulun Bulun.

John painted in ochres on bark, a skill associated with body painting, and which was observed when white settlers arrived.

He was a clan leader who had the exclusive entitlement under traditional law to paint certain images, most particularly in his case the magpie goose. The magpie goose is a prominent (noisy and very conspicuous) bird in the region and John was the only person entitled to depict it in his artwork. More about magpie geese shortly.

In almost all of his paintings, John depicted a black waterhole – a circular feature in his artwork. It was a mythic scene in his work. He was not depicting any waterholes in his area, but in particular a waterhole from some hundreds of kilometres away, with which he had a strong spiritual connection. I was later to learn (when visiting the area of John’s fabled waterhole for a later case) that he had never previously seen this waterhole but it was foremost in his mind, a bit like the way that Jews in Eastern Europe would dream about Jerusalem.

His paintings were concerned with the telling of ancient stories, generally about the creation of the world – like stories from his Genesis. They were also maps, locating key features of land, showing how to navigate the land. They were also declarations of ownership and management. On the Genesis issue, John and the people of Arnhem land have strong beliefs about the world being created in Arnhem land, a kind of garden of Eden, with life on Earth starting with the arrival of two sisters on a beach in east Arnhem land. It is remarkably confirming to see how the cultures of the world incidentally have common stories.

bulun bulun magpie geese1

John and his people believe that they were living on sacred land – a harsh and very challenging land in actual fact  - of intense heat and humidity and many pests (such as mosquitos the size of birds during the wet season) and perils - but which they had mastered.

At a practical level, it always strikes me as quite remarkable how well traditional people have managed their lives on their lands. True enough, there are many stories of despair and dislocation, but for the ones, like John, who went back and sought to re-establish relations with their lands - they became masters again of their hugely challenging environment.

John’s culture was not one of building and rebuilding, or of monuments and palaces or tributes to themselves or their cultural or economic power. As best I can understand, the essence of the traditional way was being a natural part of the living world, with as meaningful or significant a place in the hierarchy of nature as any other living thing. Their culture is one of affection and understanding for their environment.

To be frank, I would struggle to survive in their harsh and unforgiving lands for more than a few days. They have managed their relationships with their lands for tens of thousands of years.

It is a hallmark of that survival skill to see photos taken at the time of first encounter with white people – the last such first encounter being about 50 years ago in the western desert areas. The photos show people who look strong, healthy and proud. The image is a long way removed from the contemporary images we so often see of a broken, forlorn and dependent people.

Anyway, my first night on Garmedi outstation, back in early 1989, was full of excitement and trepidation. I had journeyed over a long day from Melbourne, through Darwin, light plane to the outstation of Maningrida and then by four- wheel drive to Garmedi. My entourage and I arrived at about 6pm local time and were met by John and others in the community. We had brought tinned food and other supplies to keep us going in the days ahead.

The Aboriginal people had a big laugh over the food we had brought. To them, we were living in a veritable natural supermarket, abundant with all the food you could possibly want.

John produced a shotgun and fired into the sky, hitting a low flying magpie goose, one of a flock struggling to fly under the weight they were carrying in the middle of the food-rich rainy season. The bloated magpie goose fell almost directly into the fire which John had prepared. That evening we ate magpie goose, and as guest of honour I was given all the best bits, which fortunately I could not see very well as darkness fell.

It was a serene scene – in the middle of the bush with traditional people, eating the freshest of bush tucker. I thought I had arrived in a kind of utopia until John decided to turn on the generator so we could watch an American sitcom on his video recorder.

One of our legal tasks was to address the challenge then being made to works of traditional artists as “original” works under the Copyright Act (ie., not copied). In order to do this we filmed John commencing a work on a new piece of bark which he had most skilfully made ready for an art piece. We captured him commencing painting on the bark, using ochres. It was clear that he was an artist of great originality.

Unfortunately, or otherwise, as can happen in these matters, our wires got crossed, and John thought that we were commissioning him to make a new art piece. When it was finished some months later, I received a call from John’s art centre advising me that the work we had asked him to make was ready for me to buy. I had not exactly planned on buying an art piece, and to be truthful there was not much of an opportunity to discuss the price. I still have it today and display it with much pride. It is a wet season painting, being the time of year when we were visiting, depicting the celebrated magpie geese together with the most powerful image of lightning. A copy of the image is depicted, together with some other Bulun Bulun works showing the fabled waterhole. A short film of John commencing the lightning painting is in the Archives section.

bulun mothers dreaming

The copyright claims turned out well. In the end, I was involved in acting in many cases on behalf of Aboriginal artists from all over Australia, and the problem of copyright infringement of Aboriginal art came largely addressed.

One further sidenote – upon resolving the cases and with a lot of money in hand from the outcome, a meeting was conducted with John and other artists who had brought claims as part of the case. I explained that as John’s work was the most widely used, he should receive the largest sum of money on a pro-rata basis. At this point, I was asked to leave the meeting room – not a common request from clients to a legal adviser. After some time I was called back. Again, I had completely misunderstood the Aboriginal way. It was explained to me that as each of the artists were similarly affected by the infringements (forget the western idea of numbers of infringing garments sold), the money should be shared equally.

I have since been many times to remote Aboriginal communities and lands. The experience of spending time in remote locations in Aboriginal country has well and truly entered my deepest inner being. I particularly recall one occasion when I was travelling with my oldest son, who was then 12, in the Kimberley area of north-west Australia. I was asked to visit communities in the area to discuss copyright issues, including the very interesting question of who owned copyright in dictionaries which white linguists were creating based on disappearing Aboriginal languages. My son and I were driving near Fitzroy Crossing about 400 kilometres east of Broome. It was night. The sky was clear. I stopped the car and turned the headlights off. The sky was illuminated with the stars against a perfectly black background. The thousands/millions of points of light in the sky shone with such intensity, we both gasped. There were the brilliant stars and there we were as tiny specks.

The Aboriginal art movement today defines our Australian national visual arts identity. We think of ourselves in dots and circles and take pride in the indigenous connections we make between these images and our distinctive national identity.

I mentioned earlier the origins of John Bulun Bulun’s artwork in body painting. The same is true of central desert or dot painting, but there is another quite remarkable fact about this art movement.

The use of oil paints in a vast array of colours on canvases commenced only in the early 1970s when a white school teacher at Papunya, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged artists in the community to try the new medium. Their first works using multi-coloured acrylic paints were undertaken on the walls of the school at Papunya. This was a truly original art movement, not in any way derivative from any other art movement. It was self-taught, and conveyed impressions of the desert lands that lived entirely in the artists’ minds. It was one of the truly great events on modern art. A number of the original works of this period are on display at the National Gallery in Canberra.

Of course, much of the contemporary Aboriginal story (away from art and culture) is bleak. The engagement with white settlers from the late 1700s onwards has been a disaster for Aboriginal communities. This is, by the way, in marked contrast, to the many hundreds of years of interaction between northern Australian Aboriginal communities and Macassan traders prior to white settlement.

The idea that Aboriginal peoples had no contact with the outside world before white settlement is wrong. Macassan traders sailed with the trade winds from their islands to locations to the north and east of Darwin in search of the prized sea cucumber (trepung). They traded with the local Aboriginal people for hundreds of years, but always made a point of leaving at the end of the season – and not claiming any territory for themselves. Their return for the trepung season was welcomed. Their presence today is particularly recalled in the depictions of their sailing ships in some ancient cave paintings as well as the incorporation of Macassan words in the languages of northern Australia. For example, the common word for “money” in northern Australian Aboriginal languages is “rupiah”. Ironically the harmonious Macassan trade was prohibited by the Commonwealth government in the early 20th century.

Aboriginal people also had plenty of contact with Melanesians living just across the water from the Torres Strait, and who appear also to have a marked influence on the artwork of the Tiwi Islands, just north of Darwin.

Much of the cause of the decline of Aborigines in Australia has been due to racism in combination with an imperative of the white settlers to take over valuable Aboriginal lands and remove Aboriginal people from these lands (often by force, sometimes extreme). The result has been a dispossessed, forlorn and alienated people, with a terrible susceptibility to alcoholism, drug abuse and family violence.

In recent times, my Indigenous story has passed along two new paths. At the Victorian Bar, we have a proud history of assisting Aboriginal law students and law graduates with mentoring and other forms of professional and financial assistance. As a result, ambitious and talented Aboriginal students from all over Australia have been completing their law degrees at Melbourne universities, finding work as lawyers and starting careers at the Bar. It is a long road, but through professional groups focussing on what they might be able to achieve through mentoring and focused support, a lot can happen to improve professional advancement for Aboriginal students and graduates. A lot of good work has been done in this area in the law. Some businesses have also shown strong leadership with significant Aboriginal recruitment programs – such as NAB, BHP and Fortescue.

Improving education opportunities is to me a crucially important step. While I have mentioned work being done at the tertiary level, there is enormous work to do at all levels of education. I once asked the Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson, during his period as Australian of the Year, what he thought would be his one big achievement in that symbolic role. He said it would be making sure that every Aboriginal kindergarten age child had a kindergarten to attend. The sub-primary and primary education of Aboriginal children is an enormous challenge. In remote places in the northern and central parts of Australia, many Aboriginal children know little English. They have few, if any, teachers who can teach them in their own languages. The children are often susceptible to eye and ear problems which are easily preventable in the big cities. They can often have trouble hearing their teachers. And that is just the beginning.

Another area of personal interest concerns the repatriation of Aboriginal remains, in which I have been involved as a member of the Board of Museums Victoria. Aboriginal remains taken for scientific or other purposes over many decades are being returned to communities through the auspices of organisations like our Museum. The Museum has a sub-committee, made up mostly of Indigenous community representatives, which processes requests for repatriation, of which there have been many hundreds. The members of this sub-committee take their role in this process with utmost care and pride.

I am a Board representative on this sub-committee and I cannot help but think that I wish I could be involved in the repatriation of the remains of my own people following the devastation of Jewish communities in Europe in the Second World War.

I am convinced that a good part of my connection with Aboriginal people comes from my Jewish background. Jews, like Aborigines, have a culture fashioned around their ancient homeland and long cultural communal practices deeply connected with ideas of  “the land”.

The linkage between Jews and Aborigines was uniquely and profoundly on display when William Cooper, an Aboriginal man who lived in Melbourne, launched a demonstration against the persecution of Jews in Europe in 1938, following the infamous Krystalnacht. Cooper and a few other Aboriginal people marched to the German consulate in Melbourne in November 1938 to demand the end of discrimination against the Jews. Here was a group of Aboriginal people taking it right up to the Nazis with no fear and a belief that with the power and determination of a group of Aboriginal leaders they could turn the course of history happening far away. He was a remarkable man, after whom one of the buildings housing the Supreme Court of Victoria is now named.

Cooper said to speak against anti-semitism was to speak up against all racial discrimination, including most particularly the discrimination against his own people, and that there was only a short step between the persecution and killing of Jews in Germany and the persecution and killing of Aborigines in Australia. He was a man of great wisdom and courage, who explained to all of us the slippery slope of racism on which the fate of Aborigines and Jews are so closely connected, and which presents a constant challenge.