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Country of context
by Eugenia Hill
I feel a little bit overawed having to follow Jeff [Samuels] but probably what I’m going to say might be put into perspective.
I’m one of two artists who have been asked to speak on community art and I guess I’m the person who’s been asked to speak specifically on issues of multiculturalism.
I am part of a collective, the Multicultural Art Workers Committee in South Australia. It was a collective founded upon the need for art workers and community participants who were involved in art work but never called themselves artists, for all sorts of reasons.
It was founded by those people to try and determine their own art forms and determine their own creative expression in what is a fairly hostile environment at times, for people who come from non–English speaking backgrounds, and Aboriginal people.
I’m glad I’m one of two people because I can actually concentrate on perhaps putting community arts into some context. I won’t show you any pictures. I’ll just talk.
Little is known of community arts, by many of you here, by practising artists, curators and institutions, and the myths that are usually heard about community arts; that they are overly supported and funded by government – that’s the most obvious myth. They labelled us amateur, and unimportant. That’s another fantastic myth. They are usually produced by rat–bags and stirrers, and we don’t mind that at all.
And that really, sometimes legitimate artists can gain employment from it, as a temporary measure only.
All art is political, and it’s not a question of whether as creators or re-creators of visual imagery or visual discourse we are free of ideal shackles, but rather why we work within particular groups or alone, and why we create terminology to define not only our practice but the various and often interlinking camps we belong to.
Why does this terminology exist? We have all heard of the term ‘high and/or legitimate art’ and we all use the term ‘community art’ for those cultural activities of marginalised groups.
Perhaps explanations can be found in the Australian identity, or Australian nationalism. Rather than being concerned with discourse on what the national identity should and could be, Australian nationalism seems to be forever very much encased in the loins of Western European thought, and of course ‘Mother England’.
Such colonial dependency is still the pervading obsession of dominant groups in our society, and one only has to point to the manifestations of Celebration of a nation, as huge examples of that.
Although images of Australia are changing, they continue to be manipulated to suit the interests and the tastes of dominant power groups who, more often than not, look to internationalism for their cues. These changing images have been refined and embroidered by visual artists, writers, critics, who themselves are aligned to dominant groups even though they may be competing ones.
Our nationalism, or desire for nationalism, is not so much based on a way forward, I think, but on a colonial and imperial dependency, which within our own country we manifest in the ‘us and them’ syndrome. ‘Us’ for those of us who are included in the system of things; the ‘old boys’ network, and ‘them’ for those who do not fit into this Western consumerist male image, which we try to preserve at all costs as our national identity.
Those who do not support the dominant order or reproduce the dominant images thus irritate, most of the time, and sometimes threaten the cohesion of our national identity.
So, Australia’s culture and the art products that derive from such a culture are not part of everyday life like they are in most countries, most homelands where immigrants have come from, and as Jeff spoke, in the Aboriginal community.
Art in Australia is another exclusive item, bound up and controlled by money markets. Mechanisms for exclusion have been many and they range from complete negation to trivialisation, to coercion, to total appropriation. No wonder few artists want to practise within such circumstances. All of these, or particular forms have been used at any one time in history to enable dominant groups to decide, to make and to claim history.
Within this context the culture and art of a multicultural Australia has been determined by power–brokers as the culture and art of ‘them’, the ‘others’, those that are not of us. And whether this art is Aboriginal art, women’s art, or the art of various and numerous immigrant people, not just one immigrant bloc, it is subjected to the margins. It is no wonder that these marginalised groups do not glimpse a reflection of themselves in the looking–glass but rather view a standardised persona, wearing all its different masks of fashion and innovation.
Community art has been a useful term for dominant groups to use to homogenise all those cultural activities created and recreated by minority groups. And, these minority groups have done, and continue to created and re-create culture in their struggle for survival.
Community art is not just the new force that’s been thrust upon us by funding bodies, or whatever. It’s always been there. It’s almost the Phoenix; the ashes where the Phoenix rises. But as such is social reality that one does not perceive themselves in a vacuum but through the perceptions of others.
Some multiculturalism has been used by groups in power and mirrored by many minority groups to be that of discrete, co–existing cultures of many ethnic groups living in Australia, cultures which are exotic, entertaining, foreign, folkloric, colourful, but above all peripheral; costumes in the park, brought out to dance at the will of commodity culture mongers.
These activities certainly serve social cohesion. They reinforce for all groups their place in the cultural hierarchy. Through trivialising a cultural activity outside its social ritual, dominant groups overtly and covertly demean this activity for the audience, as well as for the participant. Therefore, they reinforce the marginalisation of minority groups’ art forms, and affirm the exclusiveness of Australia cultural identity.
This Australian cultural identity or social cohesion must, however, give the appearance of being democratic, at least. Therefore, it also requires to coerce and appropriate, and this coercion can be seen in what Jeff has been talking about; wholesale appropriation of the symbols and designs of minority groups, the most blatant of these being the Aboriginal symbols used for interior decorations, tourism, but also appropriated by artists to decorate their own canvases.
This appropriation of imagery and symbols by others’ art forms is so relevant in the use of, and abuse of, African, Arabic and Asian art. Other immigrant art forms. And appropriation, unfortunately, doesn’t stop there. The lengths that we go to show a murky reflection of a multicultural society is in the use of artists with ethnic names to fill in gaps. On most occasions it is only the surname which breaks through the standardisation of dominant imagery. Certain meanings continue to dominate. Others remain neutered.
Any recognition of multiculturalism must take into account not just an understanding of minority cultures, as ‘them’ and not ‘us’, as peripheral, but an understanding of minority cultures and their relationship to the dominant culture.
Stephen Castle’s statement puts this quite succinctly: ‘The culture of minorities is recreated and recreated in the struggle to survive in a racist society, to cope with State discrimination, and to solve the problems of social and political marginalisation. Such cultures represent a break with, or thorough modification of tradition but also a rejection of the dominant norms of society.’
It is cynical for members of the dominant groups to see this culture as only a picturesque enrichment of the general culture. The art which arises out of such contradiction does not fit comfortably with anthropological concepts of ‘costumes in the park’, or Aboriginal bark painting or women’s needle–work.
These minority groups are creating a new language of images. It is seen as art, as a struggle for unity, for peace, for rights against racism, and such art is regarded as non–authentic; not ethnic, not Aboriginal, not women’s art, really.
I’d just like, as an ending, to get rid of some of the myths about community arts, that name that’s been given to the arts of minority groups that I’ve been talking about, and the art of minority groups which takes in workers; those who see themselves as part of the working–class, the unemployed, women, Aborigines, migrants, is based on extremely fragile patronage and minuscule sponsorship and funding, and statistics are available to show that.
It’s tolerated by dominant groups but only as a form of exclusion. It’s rarely seen in galleries in dominant institutions. However, it is supporting the creative production of many invisible artists who somehow or other within this context don’t seem to want to see themselves as part of this dominant group.
Their own image of themselves, their own art forms, as Jeff spoke earlier, have nothing to do with the kind of art that they see in galleries. Its gaining increasing support from artists who don’t wish to just work in a vacuum and minority groups and artists working within that context will keep struggling in order to make their claim on history, and to enter history on their own terms; to renegotiate history in Australia, that’s what political art is all about.
To find not the Mad Hatters in the looking–glass but their own reflection and as James Mollison stated in his introduction yesterday, ‘…there are many byways of Australian art, and it is only through the inclusion of all those byways that we will design our own Australian picture.’
© Jenny Hill, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.