Indigenous Australia @ the British Museum

‘The first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia through objects’

1. Artefacts

In three medium-sized rooms The BP exhibition, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, packs scores and scores of artworks and artefacts designed to illustrate and illuminate the history of the indigenous peoples of Australia. A timeline on the wall starts 60,000 years ago with the first evidence of humans on the continent, proceeds to the first artefacts and art some 40,000 years ago (at a time when Neanderthals were still living alongside homo sapiens in Britain), among much other evidence that Indigenous Australian is the longest continuous, unbroken culture anywhere in the world.

A huge map of Australia on the wall shows the patchwork of tribes and peoples which covered this vast country – the size of Europe – and, when the Europeans arrived, home to some 1 million Indigenous people speaking an estimated 250 separate languages.

From the BM’s collection of 6,000 Australian objects, this exhibition showcases a range of bowls, masks, spearheads, boomerangs, pendants, belts, shields, shell ornaments, speartips, generally dating from the Early Colonial Period (1770 to 1850) when missionaries and explorers began to collect them, most beautifully crafted and decorated with very appealing abstract and geometric designs.

Standout objects included a 5-foot-long crocodile ‘mask’ designed to be worn on the head and a small (6 inch square), wonderfully evocative head and shoulders carved out of coral.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia before 1888 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2. Art

Interspersed with these generally anonymous folk artefacts were large, sometimes very large, paintings by named and much more contemporary aboriginal artists. Almost without exception these were stunningly beautiful and inspiring. The artists included:

They are generally acrylic paint on canvas and there are enough of them, showing enough similarities in style, to have become known as ‘desert paintings’. (There are photos showing the large canvases laid out on a patch of desert and being worked on by one or several artists simultaneously with wide open spaces in the background.) They show abstract patterns derived from natural objects or creatures, but converted into flat panels covered in geometric patterns.There is no attempt at naturalism, they are not confined or trapped by Western notions of perspective or the notion that a painting must be a ‘window on the world’.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

I really liked the way the patterning suggests geometric regularity but is never actually exact, always has an organic-feeling variety and fluidity in its lines and circles, its matrices and swirls. And I loved the use of stippling, large dots of coloured paint to create a mosaic affect.

A century ago most Westerners lived in a post-Renaissance visual world, inculcated to think of ‘Art’ as depictions of heroic white men and docile gauze-veiled women (as exemplified in the recent exhibition at Leighton House). It took decades, maybe a century, of Modernism, the influence of Picasso and his generation breaking free from Renaissance traditions and taking inspiration from South Sea Island masks and African carvings to teach us how to see beauty in art which bears little or no relation to the stifling realism of the Western tradition, and to enjoy images like this for their confidence and imaginative power.

As well as examples of this ‘desert painting’ style, there were other bang up-to-date art works:

James Cook - with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983) South Australia (2014) Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

James Cook with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira (2014) © Vincent Namatjira

  • James Cook with declaration by Vincent Namatjira (2014) a large naive-style painting of Captain Cook holding a big white document representing the law by which the white man will steal the land
  • Undiscovered #4 by Michael Cook (2010) a large print of a photo of a beach showing a Captain Cook-era sailing ship anchored and a man in 18th century British Army uniform standing on the beach – except it is an aborigine in the uniform
  • Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana (b.1935) a large ‘totem pole’ type pole covered in painted patterns with two heads at the top representing Cook and a native god, Barama

And the Museum has commissioned works specifically for this show from Indigenous artists, including two from Judy Watson (b.1959) – the holes in the land 3 and the holes in the land 4 – in which she’s taken floor plans of the current museum and of the museum extension, created standard-size framed prints of the plans, then given them a wash of colour and superimposed on them the outlines of large dark Indigenous artefacts, in the first case, piturri bags.

3. Aboriginal beliefs

A large video screen just inside the door showed a montage of shots of contemporary Australia, breath-taking landscapes, the beaches and sea and islands, mysterious tree-fringed rivers and wide expanses of red desert dotted with spinifax plants, and then humans, the white world of highways and cars and shopping malls, and groups of aboriginals together in camps, painting young boys’ bodies with traditional designs, and the sound of flies in the desert.

Bark painting of a barramundi. Western Arnhem Land, about 1961 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bark painting of a barramundi (about 1961) © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Against this visual and aural backdrop the wall labels and audio commentary didn’t attempt a summary of aboriginal beliefs but dropped insights. Not least because Aboriginal religion or traditional beliefs stretch the western mind, their traditions and holistic mindset completely different from our crisp, clearly demarcated divisions of meaning. I don’t pretend to understand it but it includes:

  • the importance of ‘country’ or the land
  • really ancient traditions and stories stretching back thousands of years
  • the songlines and dreamworld, a difficult concept to grasp, to do with the way the ancestors walked through the land and called it into being, called the animals and flora into existence, and the trails and tracks they left across the land which record these legends…

Something which struck me is the way the songlines stretch right across the land and are shared by different groups, so that someone walking them has to pass on to a different song in a different language to continue the journey. Different tribes and sub-tribes inhabited specific areas, but there was much migration and movement, and people could travel freely across the country.

In a small but, I think, significant way this sharing and overlap is exemplified in some of the desert paintings which are actually the product of many hands – the largest painting in the show, right at the start – exhibit 1 – was created by five artists.

‘Pukara’ by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor Acrylic on canvas Western Australia (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Pukara by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

4. Politics

I was already well aware that most of the artefacts here are in some sense ‘loot’, sometimes bought or given but most often simply plundered from their rightful owners, often in violent circumstances, and almost always separating the artefacts from the tribe, the location and the tradition which produced them, thus stripping them of much of their meaning and power.

After all, this is true of almost everything in the British Museum which, from one perspective, is a vast stash of loot from the criminal enterprise known as the ‘British Empire’.

But in the second room of the exhibition the dire history of British colonialism began to make its presence increasingly felt, with a sequence of images of the first British explorers, Dampier and then Captain Cook. Cook and his party had only been ashore ten minutes before they stared firing their guns at a couple of curious natives who’d come down to the beach to see them and relations with the Indigenous peoples continued in the same spirit of misunderstanding and one-sided aggression for the next couple of centuries.

The show is, after all, not an art exhibition but an attempt to tell Indigenous Australian history via objects, and no history of Australia is complete, or can even begin to be written, without taking account of the fact that the land was for tens of thousands of years inhabited by hundreds of tribes of people with an intimate relationship with the land, with rich and strange culture and traditions, and with expert knowledge of coaxing a livelihood out of the dryest continent in the world. Until we showed up and started shooting them, enslaving them, hunting them down, introducing them to alcoholism, prostitution and – even worse – western law about property and land ownership.

All this is indisputable and, if you wanted to be sickened and disgusted by the behaviour of the British explorers, colonists and convicts I recommend Robert Hughes’s massive history of crime and injustice, The Fatal Shore.

But as the exhibition moves into room three and the political injustices are laid on thicker and thicker the show becomes quite oppressive.

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972. Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972) National Museum of Australia

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972. National Museum of Australia

The final room is dominated by a wall-size video screen showing a 3-minute sequence of stills recording the aborigines’ liberation struggle, with highlights such as the way protesters renamed the 150th anniversary of the claiming of Australia for the British Crown, on January 26 1938, ‘A Day of Mourning’. And other milestones in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day (‘Key moments in the struggle for indigenous rights 1901 to 2015’). Among other striking facts we learned that the 1901 constitution which actually created the nation of Australia from six self-governing British colonies, for the purposes of census and population counting, explicitly excluded the aborigines, who were thereby declared non-people, non-existent, in their own country.

All this is true and important and tragic and disgusting BUT it had the regrettable affect of almost completely destroying the impact of the first half of the show.

For the first half hour I was straining my brain to understand concepts of land and tradition and art which are completely alien to the Western tradition, well beyond my understanding – as well as learning more tangible insights into Aboriginal art such as, snakes are an important symbol as they are bringers of water to this dry land – or about techniques of painting with ochre on bark. I was working up a feeling of wonder and awe at the age and depth and beauty of these works and of this culture.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

But I felt the delicacy and fragile insight conveyed in these early impressions was rained all over by the increasing politicisation of the show. No doubt the Indigenous peoples have to fight fire with fire and join in the governing western discourse in order to win their due and their rights. No doubt they had to hire lawyers and sign petitions and lobby the authorities and protest and create posters and banners and march for freedom. But I am over-familiar with the rhetorics of western political discourse; like a lot of other people I am sick of western politics and politicians.

With an audible thump the show went from celebrating the invaluable and barely comprehensible insights of a unique and priceless culture, to feeling like I was listening to John Humphreys barking at a lying politician on the Today programme.

I was much more interested to learn that Uta Uta Tjangala (1926 to 90) was a native artist who initiated the transfer of sand and body paintings onto canvas, and therefore a ‘pioneer of contemporary Australian art’. Or to see the photo of aboriginal artist Byron Brooks painting on a large canvas stretched out on the dirt floor outside with a vista of desert stretching into the distance and surrounded by ten or more dogs lazing or sleeping in the hot sun.

You’d have to be quite tough-minded to retain the fleeting feelings the wonderful art and artefacts evoke in the first part of this exhibition and not allow them to be tainted by mounting feelings of anger and shame at the miserable treatment of the Aborigines which the second half documents.

5. The oppressiveness of the Greek legacy

Greek sculpture

The aborigine show is a few hundred yards away from the bigger, blockbuster exhibition about Greek sculpture also currently showing at the British Museum. That show ends with Michelangelo adulating fragments of Greek statuary and so, along with the rest of the Renaissance, passing on the worship of the perfect body into the Western tradition. I made the point in my review of it that, just as all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, so all Western art could be said to be footnotes to Greek sculpture.

The power of perfection

Going further, the Defining Beauty exhibition shows the intimate connection between images of perfection and power: the gods were powerful because they were perfect embodiments of the human form: their power somehow stemmed from their perfection; and their perfection gave them power. They are stunningly perfect.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC © the trustees of the British Museum

Athenian imperialism

People often forget that Athens, at the peak of its artistic and political achievement, was a slave-owning society at the head of an Empire which it had conquered by force. In this sense the Greek statues in the Defining Beauty show are not innocent. They represent Power.

The power of ideas

But not just the power of an army. They represent the power of Greek ideas, the fundamental notion that you gain control over things, over the world, by defining and distinguishing, just as the Greeks pioneered mathematics by exploring all aspects of the interactions of precise, defined values or Plato’s dialogues pursue the definition of abstract terms like the Good, the Beautiful, the Just into mind-boggling depths of analysis.

Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms

In fact, Plato found himself persuaded that all earthly objects are the fallen, imperfect copies of things which exist in Ideal Form in another dimension. In some heaven or the Mind of God reside the permanent and Perfect Forms of Beauty, Justice, Law, Power, Morality and so on. These abstract ideas had one perfect form which we lesser mortals, in this fallen world, invoke every time we mention them. Just as, on a cultural and religious level, there was one god to an idea – the god of war, the god of the sea, the goddess of love, the king of the gods and so on.

Precision of Idea. Unity of Idea. Intellectual Perfection. Physical Beauty. Power. All are interlinked. (And were of course handed on into Christianity, the intellectual heir of the ancient world.)

The clash epitomised

I had these Greek ideas in mind as I walked through the Indigenous Australian show and the vast distance between the two worlds crystallised, for me, in a photo included in the video of key moments in the aborigines’ struggle for justice. This photo shows a white man (presumably a lawyer) standing with three Indigenous men in western suits, all in the shadow of a neo-classical statue of Justice, perfect in shape and form with a light toga falling off her perfect breasts and holding the requisite scales of justice.

One of the tens of thousands of copies of Greek-style super-realist statues which were deployed all around the British Empire to embody ‘our values’: eg the rule of law (i.e. the rule of lawyers), democracy (for white men only), justice (if you can afford it), the integrity of private property (once you’ve stolen it from its rightful owners) and so on.

What Captain Cook brought

When Captain Cook and his crew came ashore they brought not just the obvious tools of conquest – the guns and metal tools and diseases which would decimate the natives. More insidiously, they brought Western law with its vast array of definitions of property and ownership, the precise and pedantic system of codes and rules which was to steal an entire country from its inhabitants. They brought minds educated to venerate big abstract ideas: Civilisation, Culture, Law, Justice, Writing – and used to ‘reading’ those ideas in their chracterstically classical embodiments – Architecture, Public Spaces, Libraries, Statues.

Indigenous culture

In Australia they found none of that. The reverse. The early part of the exhibition emphasises aboriginal culture’s fluidity and depth and localism, the land inhabited by numerous tribes with their own histories, cultures and languages and myths of ancestors criss-crossing the terrain in mysterious tracks and passages, creating the animals and the stories and the means for survival.

Difficult-to-grasp, intangible ideas which the earliest settlers simply didn’t see, couldn’t touch or understand, and so ignored, and so assumed the land was, to all intents and purposes – to white men’s intents and purposes – empty, because the aborigines’ life and culture couldn’t be captured or defined in our precise and pedantic legal terms, wasn’t embodied in forms, in objects or buildings or books, which we could understand.

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855 © the trustees of the British Museum


And the scattered artefacts, the beautiful things the natives made and which gained their meaning from the location and tradition they arose from, these also couldn’t be defined, didn’t refer to One God (as Christian missionaries understood it) or even to one Pantheon of Gods (as a classically-educated Westerner would be familiar with) couldn’t be explained according to the kind of unitary system which Westerners understood and insisted on as the only method to generate meaning. And so could be looted and shipped back to the vast lumberyard of the Museum with impunity, higgledy-piggledy, stripped of their mystical associations, the spoils of Empire.


All of which led me to wonder: If all philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, then can the whole history of Western colonialism and imperial conquest be said to be footnotes to the Greek ideals of discrete, defined, logical concepts – to Greek notions of perfectionism – to the tyranny of Perfect Ideas and concepts – a mindset, a way of thinking, which the conquerors repeatedly failed to find among the native peoples in America, Australia and Africa who instead practiced more holistic, overlapping, complex and less authoritarian modes of belief.

And that this fateful clash of cultures is epitomised – in the realm of art and iconography, at any rate – in these two fascinating exhibitions at the British Museum.


On the way out, right next to the main entrance to the museum, don’t miss the room off to one side which is displaying a handful of larrikitj, or memorial poles by contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi, made from the trunks of young-ish trees, absolutely covered with minute designs based on swarms of mullet fish – creating a mesmeric swirling pattern of tiny lozenges or facets which, on closer examination, turn out to be teeny, tiny stylised images of fish. Wonderful, beautiful, enchanting.

The promotional video

Related links


Other British Museum reviews

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1 Comment

  1. Jose De Juan

     /  May 1, 2015

    Normally, I wouldn’t have payed much attention to an exhibition like this but your commentary has prompted me to try and get to it. It sounds fascinating. I disagree with the notion of Western civilization and philosophy as footnotes to Plato. I see it more as the struggle to gain better understanding by rejecting and overturning previous generations’ definitions. If anything defines Western thought is its constant re-definition and questioning of the past, sometimes going too far. May be this is the product of constant strife and war. The heroes of Western civilization tend to be those who came up with ways to revolt against the past definitions whether in music or art or science.Much more so than generals and imperialists. The idea that Western highly `civilized ` people are much different from aboriginal people when it comes down to the core. Western civilization and its constraints on private property laws and power structures have victimized as many natives as people that actually belong to the ranks of he ‘civilized’ with alcoholism and prostitution being part and parcel of the Western world as much as they became part of the newly incorporated/conquered aboriginal cultures.


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