Politics and social concerns in respect to Aboriginal printers or printmakers.

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Politics and social concerns in respect to Aboriginal printers or printmakers.


Samuels, Jeffrey.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Jeff Samuels: You’ll just have to bear with me because I’m quite nervous

Politics and social concerns in respect to Aboriginal printers or printmakers.
by Jeff Samuels


First, I must introduce myself. I’m part of an Aboriginal artists co-operative, which is based in Sydney, and the name of that co–operative is called Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative Limited. All the members in the co-operative are, as we say, Koori artists. We don’t say that we are Aboriginal artists. There are 11 members in that co-operative, and out of those 11 members there are eight printers, or people who have worked in the print medium, such as etching, lithography, lino, silkscreen and textiles.

Boomalli was set up by the artists in the co–operative to have more control and more say about what was happening in respect to Aboriginal art, especially from the areas where we come from, which is urban Aboriginal art, or contemporary Aboriginal art.

One of the printers from the co–operative was asked to speak. I have taken her place. The speaker was to be Fiona Foley. Fiona is presently in Assistant Art and Craft Advisor at Ramingining. The thing that I was to speak about today is politics and social concerns in respect to Aboriginal printers or printmakers.

I feel that any Aboriginal artist that does create any form of visual form is making a political statement. And, it is also a social statement. The Aboriginal sources for creation come from different areas or different places, and say what the non–Aboriginal printers… and I agree that the Aboriginal printer, or the Aboriginal artist, can no longer be ignored by the rest of the populace of Australia.

The successful attempt by previous governments, and by the landing of people on this continent, and the taking over of this land, and the purposes of trying to destroy Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal thought, and the way that Aboriginal people create images, has not been successful. It can be seen that why it’s not successful is those works that are presently in the exhibition here at the Australian National Gallery.

Of course, printing has always not been associated with Aboriginal culture but we have got evidence, that is the stencilling of, say, weapons, or food, or other implements on cave walls. It is one of the earliest forms of human stencilling. It was instant, and could be repeated. It was to show off the artist’s authority, and it was a practice that was to maintain and continue Aboriginal culture.

And as one of the artists that were in the exhibition, Raymond Meeks once said, ‘Art is a symbolic language for interpreting your environment, and feelings’. For me, I can find no other outlet to express my emotions. I have a natural need to interpret what I feel and see, and it is important to record it.

I think a lot of people see Aboriginal people as ‘Once upon a time’ people. But the fact is they are alive, and growing stronger. It is my birthright that allows me to be who I am. In the respect to Raymond, the use of lino and etching as a medium to create an emotion and Aboriginal culture has been very successful. Like most of the Aboriginal printmakers, you can see how we’re certain of the mediums. The Aboriginal artist has excelled and it’s a lot to do with the medium, which is accessible to the artist.

Also, some of the mediums are directly related to how Aboriginal traditional culture is practised, and that is by being very close to the earth, and using the hands, so that an instance like a carving; sitting down and painting on the ground. A lot of those forms or techniques that are seen in traditional painting or in traditional culture is transformed into the printing medium which the artists use.

I think it’s important that you, as an audience, should recognise and understand, and come to terms with the history of how print medium has been effective in 200 years of cultural oppression of the Aboriginal people. The print medium was first used to help to reinforce racist views and policies, and social stereotyping of Aboriginal people.

The first instance of the print medium that was used against the Aboriginal people was used when the proclamation of the British government owning… that no-one lived in Australia, so they took over it. The printed cartoons of Aboriginal people were very crude, very rude, and was very insulting to Aboriginal people.

The print medium is a very powerful medium. It was mentioned, the other day, how the print medium was seen as a way of distributing information to the masses. Yes, it did. It helped to distribute racism and all that ill–feeling towards Aboriginal people, mainly because of the existing view at that time. But they can still be related to today, because what we see in the newspaper is often that the print media, the cartoons, are still portraying Aboriginal people in a way that could be less insulting.

I must make a distinction here; we have two groups of artists. We have traditional artists, and we have that area which is still relatively new to, I think, most of you, and to the majority of people who create exhibitions in art galleries. The other area of Aboriginal art is the urban or contemporary art.

First, I will talk on the traditional artists. A lot of the stories and the ideas for the images produced by the traditional artists are directly related to traditional culture. That is, telling a story that is traditional; traditional belief. But, the thing that we must understand is that the traditional artists have the right to use that image. We’ll get onto the question of how people have appropriated Aboriginal imagery through the print medium later on.

The right to produce them must be owned by them, for they are the only guardians. We see that the people who own the stories are actually guardians. They really don’t own that story, that design or that pattern. That pattern has to be passed down, and in a way that is a political statement which has been practised today, because a lot of that art form that is transferred onto the print media is directly related to generations of oral history that tells how Aboriginal people were the first people who was in this land, so it’s a spiritual one as well.

For the Aboriginal printmaker, these images are directly related to the great beings who gave the Aboriginal people their country, and their law. It is our artistic heritage that goes back to time itself.

With the access to the print medium, such as lino, some of these communities have gained another source of income but also, and this is an important thing to note, because of the use of the print mediums, the artist can innovate. Or, have personal expression.

Because of the destruction of some Aboriginal culture and ideas there is the other section of Aboriginal art which is the urban Koori art, or the contemporary art, which comes from a different background. But, the way the artists produce their work is, in a way, similar to the traditional artist because they are telling a story about social concerns or political concerns.

A lot of the artists also get inspiration from traditional culture. Some of (those) artists are, and I’ll just show you some of these slides.

Within all these slides you can see how directly relayed the Aboriginal culture is in the production of all these prints, the imagery.

(Shows slides)

I’ll stay on that one. I’ll get to political posters. Here you can see how the urban Aboriginal artist has combined the silkscreening technique, and also within the of silk–screening technique there is the other technique of photography. And also, we must take into consideration that the lettering technique is also an old form.

With most Aboriginal artists, that is traditional or urban artists, the art form is directly related to the present and to the past. Without the past and without the present, you won’t have any future, so that is a teaching, I think, from Aboriginal culture.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, how the print medium was used against Aboriginal people, here you can see how the print medium has become an ally to the Aboriginal people. It is a precise form to indicate to the viewer a quick and spontaneous message.

(Shows slides)

And, the other thing that is important of the other forms of printing mediums that Aboriginal people use is the use of material. Before the use of clothing, Aboriginal people used to paint the designs on their bodies and there was a reference made, I think, by the person I was working with, Christine Watson. She made a reference to how printing on cloth, in a way, is kind of related to how Aboriginal people used to paint their bodies, or their traditional designs on their body.

And now, that idea has been transferred to cloth. It’s a form of the print medium that most Aboriginal people can get access to very quickly, because of the industry which is Arawat Clothing, and most of all, as you have seen in the exhibition upstairs, if you’ve been to the exhibition, T–shirts. That’s been a very important medium; the T–shirt with the silkscreening on the T–shirt. It is similar to the posters; how the print medium has become the ally for Aboriginal people, to indicate to the rest of Australia how much that there is still a lot for each of us to try to come to terms with and to understand.

We must also have to understand that the accessibility of certain printing techniques to Aboriginal people is not as available as what it is to non–Aboriginal people. As you may have noticed in the exhibition upstairs, a lot of the main mediums that were used, the print mediums, was linocutting, silkscreening.

It was mentioned the other day that the minorities use the less expensive medium forms. Well, that’s a pretty good statement but, of course, you must consider that those mediums can be used and create very beautiful images, and it can help in artists learning about one technique and, of course, I’m sure that for the use of that one technique the interest of being involved with other techniques is, I think, a direct follow–on of that process of learning, especially in the art form.

With a lot of the urban and traditional printmakers, not so much with the traditional printmakers, the urban and contemporary printmakers have a voice, and they do exercise that voice. Not only is it that Aboriginal people, especially those who are urban and creating, to sit back and allow other people to determine how Aboriginal art is viewed or what is written about Aboriginal art. Aboriginal people are starting to question those views, especially in the print medium form, how it is spoken about; about Aboriginal people.

And, as I mentioned before, a lot of the artists, the urban Aboriginal artists or the contemporary Aboriginal artists, are very political. One of the artists who is in the exhibition upstairs, Alice Hinton–Batup, says ‘I work as a community arts worker at Garage Graphics. My role is with the community arts group to help Aboriginal people in the community to express themselves through printing. I mainly work with Koori kids and Koori people to help them to be politically aware of their position as Aboriginal people in Australian society today, to give them self–esteem and to be proud of what they are. Also, I work in Aboriginal education, which is very important.’

So, it can be seen very clearly how Aboriginal art is political, that is the traditional artists, because they are continuing to create traditional images, which is the continuation of Aboriginal culture; traditional culture. And the production by the urban and contemporary Aboriginal print–makers in producing imagery that directly relates to their position in Australian society, and how they see themselves as Aboriginal people.

And that’s it. Thank you. Do you want to ask any questions, or anything?

Audience member: As an urban Aboriginal printmaker did you have to re-learn many of the traditional images, or is it that as an urban printmaker you have grown up with these?

Jeff Samuels: Ah, no. Because I did not experience traditional culture, I grew up in traditional culture and I was attending the art institution. I felt that I needed to go back and to learn traditional culture. I found it very difficult to relate to the visual forms which were associated with Western art. I found that I could be more expressive if I went and studied a bit more about my own culture, and I continue to do that, at the moment.

Audience member: Do you think that Aboriginal children of today are getting more exposure to traditional culture?

Jeff Samuels: Yes, very much so. I can only, sort of, make it in reference to my time and to my parents’ time. In my parents’ time there was not all that much culture at all. Of course, my parents never went to school. I was fortunate enough that I did go to school, but I was not taught when I was at school of traditional belief.

The existing things films that they had on Aboriginal people, it’s quite ridiculous actually, quite old, but all that films and things like that change because of the technology and, of course, you have now that Aboriginal people are out there and are teaching now.

The policies on education can be refined a lot more but, presently, Aboriginal children in schools do have some basic traditional teaching, or teaching about Aboriginal culture or values, that is either urban or traditional.

Audience member: I was wondering whether you might like to make a comment about the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery. For example, in Sydney there’s a whole lot of T-shirts…

Jeff Samuels: Yeah. I understand, I understand. The appropriation of art for art, or pictures which have already been produced by any culture, is outright theft, I think anyway. I think it shouldn’t happen, but that’s my personal feeling. The appropriation of Aboriginal imagery by people who don’t know the culture, who don’t own that, that is insulting and that is stealing Aboriginal traditional design. The taking of traditional imagery without consent is not something that is relatively new to Australia.

The appropriation of putting them on T-shirts: I suppose in a way it’s getting the art form out there so that people can look at it but I don’t agree upon stealing and putting someone else’s art form on the T-shirt. I think that’s a parasite.

Audience member: Are there other co-operatives like Boomalli elsewhere in Australia?

Jeff Samuels: At present, we have some dialogue with some of the artists from Melbourne, and not as yet have they, sort of, come together to formulate, like we have, which we did in the beginning was come together and try to make aims and objectives in formulating our co–operative, but the idea is in there. In their brain, in other words, so it’s just got to bloom and flourish, that’s all. But they’re thinking about it.

Audience member: Could Aboriginal art influence Western art?

Jeff Samuels: Could it? I think it already has. Subtly, it has influenced Australians. Especially the modern art has been influenced by Aboriginal art, because the influence has been through the accessibility of the art form, to be on view for people to look at.

It can be a subconscious thing, and people just see something and it registered, but they mightn’t take any notice of it, and when you create something so that might just flow out of you.

You have to look at the other side of how art is produced. You have to look at the environment and the social background from which you produce that work. The influence of Aboriginal artists producing works and influencing Western art is, I think… some of the artists can feel how close Aboriginal people feel spiritually towards the land.

With artists, they can actually be receptacles and can actually do that; pick up that feeling, so I think that influence or that knowledge that Aboriginal people have towards the land about their art has influenced, certainly, some Australian artists about how they perceive the Australian bush, or the Australian landscape.

Audience member: Do you disapprove of that influence of Aboriginal art in a Western painting?

Jeff Samuels: The Aboriginal influence on Western painting?

Audience member: Do you disapprove of it?

Jeff Samuels: No. If it has the effect of making the relations between black and white in this country a bit more receptive towards each other, yes, I think it’s a good thing. But, if it’s to directly dominate one other culture I find that I don’t agree with that. And, that’s what has been happening, yes, but it’s good to have influences from other cultures.

We do live in a world where, because of the inventions men have, the world has become smaller so that we have to realise that there are other people who will influence the way we look at the world, and we have to think about that because we have to start thinking that there’s other people around who live on this earth, and that we just got to start respecting each other and respecting each other’s culture. Even though the views about your culture, or about the universe is different, you must understand that all people are humans and that they must start understanding each other and so on.

Audience member: Are new kinds of emerging from urban culture, urban artists?

Jeff Samuels: Well, the symbols are things that we both see all the time, and understand. Now, those symbols have replaced those traditional symbols so they are part of people’s life. So, they use those symbols to create an image.

With traditional culture are those images that have been passed down from generation to generation, and they have not been destroyed. So, their practice has been kept on, so they know how to do that.

Those symbols that urban Aboriginal artists use is what they see all the time in their environment, so they use those symbols to portray something.


© Jeff Samuels, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.