The Carrier, Connector and the Communicator

by Kimberley Moulton

Heroes come in many forms. For me they are my Ancestors that survived invasion. They are the men and women that fought for civil rights, for my community’s freedom off the missions and from oppression. They are the family and community that raised me. They are people who show care and compassion. Heroes don’t have to wear capes and achieve grand things. Heroes can be anyone; perhaps we all have a hero moment at least once in our lifetimes.

Our cultural material new and old, held in museums, art galleries and homes across Australia and the world, are items of great significance for me. They speak of my heroes, my identity and my life. In the same way that the cross has special meaning for Christian religions, our objects are my items of worship.

These objects are carved by the hand of our old people and woven with memories thousands of years old. Our possum skin cloaks are not dormant objects but remain full of life and story; they embody our heroes. They carry the lines of our Country and clan and hold the secrets of our past.

The more we connect and revive and make the more these memories are unlocked. These items are divine in the way they offer a tangible link to who we can no longer speak to and directly connect us to our Ancestors, to culture and to Country.

“In these times the work of those who have gone before us, we have regained the freedom to our birthright, to reclaim, regenerate, revitalise and remember who we are and where we come from. Here is my Country, here, here!” Vicki Couzens, KeerrayWoorrooong Gunditjmara

In the past Aboriginal art and cultural material were primarily viewed in wider Australian culture as ‘craft’. Historically this definition of making has been challenging within a Western understanding, craft is sometimes viewed as lower in standard or a less valuable form of practice which diminished the social significance of craftspeople. This has been particularly problematic with Aboriginal makers being classified within just craft as this definition has been used to limit the collection and representation of Aboriginal art and cultural material within the fine art sphere. The term craft has also been linked to undervaluing items cultural significance and the sophisticated understanding of complex indigenous knowledge systems that pertain to the natural environment, technique and skill that is required for their creation. The notion of craft for me goes far beyond the utilitarian use, its size or material used. It is ever evolving and it is it the conceptual process behind the object and the articulation of that in a tangible form. If the item is made by an Aboriginal artist it has an intrinsic cultural use.

Aboriginal creative practice should not be fixed within one category of understanding. It is a continuous, living practice that shouldn’t be defined as purely craft or art or artefact. To do so is a restriction of cultural fluidity. For example, a Tasmanian shell necklace on display in a museum might be referred to as craft or artefact of body ornamentation, whilst a similar necklace in an art gallery might be classified as art. To the community it comes from, this necklace can simultaneously be an heroic signifier, an object of profound cultural connection, of self-determination and the tangible representation of the strength of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Of course, these tendencies of classification reflect the particular collecting methodologies of the institution, for instance an ethnographic approach or an aesthetic approach. But what place does this leave for new makers of culture to sit within? These paradigms can be limiting and yet also raise the question of how an Aboriginal-made object can be repositioned within a spectrum of vested meanings when simply placed within a different institutional space.

How do we navigate through these labels? Is a Coolamon or basket that was made one hundred years ago considered craft or is a possum skin cloak of a similar age craft? The cloak for example having had a functional purpose, but the usage of the cloak goes beyond the everyday to represent the visual language of its owners in terms of belonging to Country , sovereign birthright and kinship networks whilst also being an aesthetic display of line work and pattern. What about works made by a living Aboriginal artist such as a ceramic representation of a historical basket? How do we position an object as either craft or art when it not only sits on a boundary of use and conceptual relationships to the past but also preserves culture into the future?

Guided and inspired by the hand and techniques of the Ancestors current makers are creating possum cloaks, carvings, weavings and jewellery, ceramics, and quilts that speak of the old ways and continue culture in new. In a way this practice is a worship of who came before us and the items they have left. The heroes being the Ancestors but also people on the ground in community today, nurturing our children and youth, supporting our men and women, building strong healthy communities. Living makers document and explore culture in its current manifestation; but also interrogate colonial legacies. Through this they embody and represent our continuation and our histories in the most relevant and creative ways. Whether classified as craft, art or artefact, our objects have particular roles in both contributing to the artistic and cultural dialogue in Australia, but most importantly to living Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. These objects act as carriers of culture, connectors to family and communicators of self, belonging and history.

In making we carry our culture, continue its presence and create an ode to our Ancestors. Whether the materials used are a basket using the native Lomandra or weaving with wire and plastic, it is one and the same; it is culture. The strict notion of traditional and contemporary can work to limit the breadth of who we are as a people. To work within the dichotomy of ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’ implies a break within the cultural continuity of Aboriginal ways of being, of making and of continuing story. It also sets the parameters for what is classified as ‘authentic’ representations of culture and of Aboriginality.

“I believe it’s time that we put the work of Victorian Aboriginal art and craft on show in this state. Our stories, our history, our people, rivers, trees, significant places, our Country and our objects and artefacts hold the essence of this Country. Aboriginal Art is very diverse, beautiful and strong. Whether it is traditionally based or a more contemporary style is not important. What is important is that we as Aboriginal people recognise that we are connected. We all come from our Aboriginal Ancestors and we all come from a traditional past. This is our bond, this is our strength.” Lyn Thorpe, Yorta Yorta 2004

For hundreds of years Aboriginal cultural material and Ancestral remains have been collected by institutions like museums, universities and art galleries as examples of ethnographic curios, ‘primitive art’ and objects of the noble savage. In the twenty first century these ideologies associated with Indigenous material have shifted. However, its legacy still lingers and influences thinking within institutional cultural spaces today.

For early nineteenth and twentieth century museum collectors the most prized objects were ‘unimpaired by the whiteman’s tool’ to be made in a fashion that was ‘authentic’. With invasion and settlement, however, new materials such as glass and steel became readily available and were used in creating objects like shields, used to etch and carve, making the object less desirable to the collector.

This notion of ‘authentic’ ethnographic material and the stereotype of the ‘Aboriginal aesthetic’ continues to ignore the bounded nature of authenticity and legacy. Under this approach, when for example placing a ‘cultural value’ of an Aboriginal-made object that was made with steel versus one that used a possum jaw engraver, the activation of legacy (the fact that the knowledge, stories and the techniques have been passed down for tens of thousands of years to create both objects) is the same. Claims of what is more ‘authentic’ would be meaningless, would in fact be impossible, because it is this legacy, this knowledge that makes it a cultural object.

For many decades South Eastern Aboriginal artists and makers have felt the burden and have not been collected by institutions. Their works are considered either not ‘traditional’ enough to have place within a museum or not presenting an ‘authentic’ enough ‘Aboriginal aesthetic’ for art galleries, one which tends to lean towards dots or bark painting. Undoubtedly attitudes within institutions have been evolving in recent years and South Eastern artists are being recognised for their skill, cultural connections and contribution to Aboriginal arts. However the damaging binary tendency to position makers in the traditional or the contemporary still persists (and therefore these issues do continue to arise).

If a Margrook possum ball is produced by an Aboriginal maker, using New Zealand possum, stuffed with wool and sewn with a needle and thread why should the mere materials or tools used in its construction be reductive to the ‘authenticity’ or cultural value of the object? To place our objects into the binary of being ‘historically correct’ and ‘traditional’ forces us into the historical past. Aboriginal people should not have to remain in a space where we have been forced to justify our existence, our right to have and determine culture and our inherent need to continue our Ancestor’s work.

We need to move beyond the vernacular of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ in defining what we make; it is simply culture. Through making we can honour our heroes and maintain cultural legacy and to continue to create culture we can touch, wear and view.

Objects whether defined as craft or art or artefact have the power to educate and ultimately build better relationships between white and black Australia. Most importantly, continual creation of these objects keeps building our cultural strength  for future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heroes.

Kimberley Moulton is a Yorta Yorta woman and Senior Curator South Eastern Australian Aboriginal Collection at Museum Victoria. Kimberley is an Alumni of the inaugural Wesfarmers Indigenous ArtsLeadership Program at the National Gallery of Australia, the British Council’s 2013 ACCELERATE program in the United Kingdom researching contemporary art practice in museums at Oxford University, Cambridge University, British Museum, Tate Liverpool and Serpentine Gallery. In 2015 Kimberley was the inaugural National Gallery of Australia International Fellow at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection Virginia, USA and has written for various publications including Artlink and Art monthly.