BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Photography

BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

Acutely aware that photography is, for most of white Australia's history, intimately tied up with the loss of land and even children, contemporary indigenous Australians have reclaimed the camera for their own purposes. 'Re-take', a touring show from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, curated by Kelly Gellatly, actively invites a political reading of these recent practices. The educational nature of the show - awash with text, an audio-tour and a virtual version ( - inevitably means it could have arrived with a pre-packaged response. But while it is cut through with political narratives, this re-casting of contemporary and historical stereotypes packs a pleasurable punch.

Chronologically arranged from 1968 - only one year after indigenous Australians gained citizenship - the images track historical, conceptual and photographic developments in a kind of history lesson from the paradigms of social documentary to post-Modernism and beyond. Australia's first Aboriginal press photographer Mervyn Bishop's photograph from 1975 of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring red dirt in the hands of the frail traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari is one of a handful of continually reproduced icons which the show consolidates as a classic. Its symbolic condensation of a landmark hand-over ceremony maintains an affecting potential, sharpened by nostalgia (Lingiari led a strike and met near starvation against a group of British mining companies) and embodies the show's conceptual focus: we learn that it was a staged image of a ritual which had previously occurred inside a darkened shed, re-performed for Bishop against the blue sky, reproduced in newspapers of the day and history books since, and now re-presented as art.

Images from Australia's 1988 Bicentennial (including those from the watershed After Two Hundred Years documentary project), are highly politicised. Ricky Maynard's devastating images of housing conditions, or Kevin Gilbert's March for Justice Banner, January 1988 (1988) ('White Australia: Not a Nation but a Community of Thieves') reiterate photography's power for circulating otherwise invisible histories and protests.

By the late 80s, the currents of post-Modernism produced a so-called 'second wave' of indigenous photography and lead to more personal explorations of contemporary Aboriginality. The influence of art school is apparent in Michael Riley's self-conscious portraits and Christian iconography. Leah King-Smith's popular series 'Patterns of Connection' (1992) overlays 19th century colonial photographs with contemporary painted images of the Australian bush. Here, the return of repressed ancestral ghosts act to respiritualise the landscape. With somewhat less transcendent ambitions, Destiny Deacon, sensitive to the infantilisation of the 'exotic', manipulates the kitsch codes of mass media with an incisive, wry humour.

In the 90s the rise of digital photography has been combined with certain performative elements. Rea's Look Who's Calling the Kettle Black (1992) presents bold multi-hued computer-generated domestic appliances with a series of dictionary definitions, which she incorporates with colonial imagery - a linking of domesticity with slavery that plugs into both post- colonial and feminist thinking. Brook Andrews' enactment of the theoretical other I Split Your Gaze (1998), is influenced by pop culture and advertising. Meanwhile Ricky Maynard's social documentary series of correctional facilities confronts the issue of over-representation of Aborigines in prison and black deaths in custody. Like Brenda Croft's gritty images of the Sydney suburb of Redfern, Maynard's work relies on the grains of truth offered by the indexical analogue as a way of empowering and generating alternatives to dominant visual records and memories.

Tracey Moffatt, Australia's most celebrated indigenous photo-artist - and who has dealt with the 19th century master/slave dialectic - is the show's obvious omission. But Moffatt has always distanced herself from the label 'Aboriginal Artist'. In Is there an Aboriginal Photography? (1989) Bishop holds a tiny toy camera to his eye to question the essential link between his work and his skin colour - a clever gesture which utilises both documentary and deconstructive self-representational strategies to indicate a desire for a diverse indigenous presence.

The story 'Re-take' constructs might seem too neat. But complex stories about the reasons for the explosion of indigenous photographic art - political, aesthetic, art institutional and theoretical - are present in the mixing of genres. Of the many issues confronting indigenous Australians today - land claims, sovereignty, stolen children, housing conditions, health, imprisonment, etc. - the intersections of race, gender and sexuality are articulated most forcefully via the constant photographic stain of the black body.