Forms of ID: Printmaking and issues of cultural identity.

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Forms of ID: Printmaking and issues of cultural identity.


Williamson, Clare.


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



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Forms of ID: Printmaking and issues of cultural identity

Forms of ID: Printmaking and issues of cultural identity.
Clare Williamson


This paper has grown out of an exhibition which I curated for the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane in 1992. Titled Who do you take me for?, it presents photo-based work from Britain and Australia which deals with issues of cultural identity and marginalisation caused by mainstream perceptions of the other. These issues are obviously just as relevant to aspects of contemporary Australian printmaking. So in a way, this paper is an attempt to apply some form of theoretical discourse to printmaking while still allowing the artists and their works to speak for themselves.

Aboriginal people are the only residents of Australia who have not originally come from elsewhere. But we, the dominant Anglo culture, manage to classify them as the other. And, additionally to shore up our tentative position, we carefully classify all other more recent immigrants, particularly those from Asia, the Middle East, Latin and South America and Southern Europe as the other, as not quite Australian enough.

To counter these assumptions and labels placed upon them, some artists are choosing various art-forms as vehicles through which to assert their own sense of identity. Printmaking has emerged as a particularly appropriate medium for such expression as its multiplicity ensures that its message reaches a wider audience. It is important to stress that some artists of this experience are choosing to explore issues of cultural identity in their work. There is a danger in somehow expecting that artists of this experience should address these issues, that they don’t have the same rights as all other artists to explore any concept or subject through their work.

Cultural identity cannot be considered in isolation from other aspects of identity. The mythical notion that there is a simple identity discoverable ‘with-in’ a particular individual or group has been replaced in recent years by the assertion that identity is fluid, cutting across race, gender, sexuality and class.

Before I go any further I should say that I am not comfortable using any of the various labels which have emerged over recent years to refer to those members of our society who tend to be defined by their cultural identity more than others. For a start, we all have a cultural identity and labels tend to exclude and divide. Having said that I find I need some term in a discussion such as this. I will therefore refer to Aboriginal artists and artists of NESB, or Non-English Speaking Background, the term currently recommended by the Australia Council. NESB is not satisfactory, it is a negative term, defining what someone is not, and gives over-emphasis to language. However, it is better than ethnic or migrant or multicultural.

A growing concern over recent years has been the issue of identity, generated to a great extent by the questioning symptomatic of the postmodern predicament. Kobena Mercer points out,

One thing at least is clear — identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty.[1]

This exploration of identity, now found in contemporary practice, is often motivated by or developed in response to the increasingly conservative push for a monoculture and its attendant centralising of power.

Some artists have experienced the displacement and dislocation which occurs when their land has been invaded and their culture taken away from them. Raymond Meeks, an Aboriginal artist based in Sydney, describes what he is doing in his prints as ‘hunting for lost pieces of myself’.[2] Others have been raised in one culture and have been born and continue to live in Australia but identify culturally with the country of origin of their immigrant parents. A sense of living in two or more cultures at the same time, or of belonging to neither, is expressed in their work.

Milan Milojevic writes the following account,

There is the story of a young Greek girl in Melbourne who counted the blocks, houses, and then the fence-palings between home and school. She marked the middle paling and on the way to school, as she passed it, said to herself ‘Now I'm Australian’ and on the way home, ‘Now I'm Greek’.

As a first generation Australian, born in Hobart, Tasmania of Yugoslav-German descent, this quotation reflects my own position. The confrontation between European and Anglo-Celtic cultures imposed complexities and pressures during my upbringing relating to the survival of European traditions in a hostile environment intolerant of foreign immigrants. Throughout my adolescence I denied my background to the outside world. I wanted to eliminate any trace of my European roots. I was the most ‘dinky-di’ Aussie on the block.

My work deals with this dilemma of cultural identity. It is an investigation of and a direct response to my family's adjustment to a new country.[3]

In some respects, marginality and otherness have become fashionable concepts in the era of postmodernism. But, as a result, these concepts have tended to be raised within the broader postmodern thesis of the end of meaning. Lucy Lippard writes:

I have become much more sensitive to, and angered by, the absence of meaning in many of the most beautifully made or cleverly stylised art objects. When it is fashionable for art world insiders to celebrate meaningless and parodists operate on the same level as the parodied, perhaps only those who have been forced outside can make a larger, newly meaningful contribution.[4]

As Gayatri Spivak often points out, postmodernism has continued as a late stage of imperial modernism. It still comes from the centre. It is still unable to accept processes outside its own terms of reference.[5]

Australia itself is often perceived as lying in the margins. However, if we look at our contemporary art practice, we find that we are just as guilty of marginalising many forms of artistic practice within our own culture, and of championing work which conforms to that emerging from the global centres.

The West has managed to classify more than two-thirds of the world’s population as ‘minority’. Its position of power is consciously maintained through the promotion of such a binary system of self/other.

Trinh Minh-ha says of this system,

Reversal strategies have reigned for some time. They accept the margins; so do we. For without the margin, there is no centre, no heart. ...The margins, our sites of survival become our fighting grounds and their site for pilgrimage. Thus, while we turn around and reclaim them as our exclusive territory, they happily approve for the divisions between margin and centre should be preserved, and as clearly demarcated as possible, if the two positions are to remain intact in their power relations.[6]

During the 1980s and 1990s, postcolonial theory has emphasised the need to move away from the centre. This has also been aided by the increasing influence of other marginal subcultures, such as lesbian and gay culture. A cultural politics which promotes difference rather than a homogeneous ‘other’ can provide means of dismantling these hierarchies of inequality and discrimination and opposes essentialist and monoculturalist systems. The significance of work produced by artists such as those presented here, lies in their rejection of such binary approaches. Alternative practices are being developed which open up a third way beyond essentialist theories of culture. As Lucy Lippard states,

I’m inclined to welcome any approach that destabilises, sometimes dismantles, and looks to the reconstruction or invention of an identity that is both new and ancient, that elbows its way into the future while remaining conscious and caring of its past.[7]

By refusing to be identified as the other, these artists are able to destabilise the very self-definition of their oppressors.

Work which is particularly effective in this regard is that produced by women, gay and lesbian artists who are Aboriginal or of NESB. Perceived as the ‘other’ on two or three counts, their art cuts across any neat binary division. A new positive identity is put forward which refutes the marginal position assigned to them by the dominant centre. Visual art continues to serve as an important battleground for these broader social strategies because aesthetic judgements and issues of ‘quality’ are powerful and subjective weapons. When asked about art world racism, one major New York art critic recently pronounced that he was not interested in ‘minority structures’, that non-white artists had their own institutions that were set up to ‘take care of them’, and that he was only interested in ‘quality’. The individual critic in question has a record of curating exhibitions which are one hundred percent white.[8] The fact that the majority of curators and gallery directors in Australia are Anglo is obviously a major factor.

Australia's earlier policies of assimilation and of a white Australia have done nothing to encourage the art establishment to embrace the art practices of other groups. In the late 1940s, the advice given by Charles Price, a staunch advocate of assimilation, to the Australian Government was,

Australia should be careful not to allow too dense a settlement of early arrivals. They should rather be dispersed and Australia should concentrate on eliminating immigrants’ old ideas, on destroying the old worlds in the interests of new Australia.[9]

But the situation is slowly changing, largely as a result of the efforts of artists themselves. Multiculturalism has become a catchphrase since the 1970s and art institutions are being forced to begin some soul searching; about their exhibitions, their programs, their staffs and their audiences. In recent years, we have witnessed a number of government initiatives, including the National Agenda for a multi-cultural Australia, the Plan for Cultural Heritage Institutions to Reflect Australia’s Cultural Diversity, and Helen Andreoni’s report commissioned by NAVA, entitled Outside the gum tree: the visual arts in multicultural Australia.

It will be a long time, however, before artists are exhibited solely on the strengths of their work, regardless of cultural identity, gender or sexual orientation. Juan Davila has stated,

Once I realised what the condition of the emigrant meant in Australia, I decided to strengthen my voice as an ‘Australian’. I nevertheless have to return to Chile frequently, because of the loss of language and history the migrant suffers. Australia is still not very interested in the conditions of countries outside its borders; for the average Australian the earlier cultural and historical experience of the emigrant does not exist.[10]

Current attitudes towards multicultural art practice are still embedded in the ‘melting pot’ mentality which tends to blur distinctions between the many different cultures and also promotes a sort of ‘folk tradition’ of expression.

As the printmaker Eugenia Hill has written,

When we are asked to don a costume we perform a ritual which many of us do not fully understand. It is a ritual which momentarily fills us with those emotions that tie peoples of a culture together, the same emotions which envelop us with generations of cultural history presented in one song or dance from the homeland. Yet when that moment is finished we go about our daily lives, working within a social context that has little semblance to those momentary cultural activities performed perhaps once, twice or three times a year.[11]

Multicultural arts are often placed under the umbrella of community arts for the purpose of funding and programs. This increases the difficulty faced by these artists in gaining access to the venues for so-called mainstream art.

Aboriginal and NESB artists must also decide whether to ignore or admit to white Anglo audiences. Should their work celebrate pride in their own culture, or should it address the racism inherent in the wider Anglo audience, or should it feel any responsibility to do either?

Fiona Foley says of her work,

There are two main aspects to my work: one contains the political element and the other a spirituality tied up with Aboriginal heritage and our land. I feel that it is important to take a strong political stand in my work as an affirmation that Aboriginal art and culture has survived two hundred years of white colonisation and is still strong.[12]

The fact that a sizeable number of Aboriginal or NESB printmakers choose to address issues of marginalisation of identity in their work is a reflection of and response to the stereotypical and negative pictures presented by the mainstream press.

For centuries, Asian people, in particular, have been depicted as an exotic other. Today the media perpetuates these myths and compounds them with tactics of fear: fear of an Asian invasion which will (conveniently) become the primary cause of high unemployment. Earlier this year, after a handful of Chinese refugees were found wandering in rugged bush in 45o heat, the Sunday Mail (Brisbane’s Sunday paper, not exactly known for its high level of journalism) ran a major article headed ‘ASIAN INVASION SCARE IN NORTH’. Part of it read:

As three more survivors from the party of Asians shipwrecked on the remote Kimberley coast reached safety yesterday, fears were raised in Canberra that a massive influx of boat people was already underway. Locals are amazed how 43 of the original 56 Asian boat people struggled through snake-infested and rugged bush. Wyndham police Sgt Michael Harper said if the group had done what they claimed, ‘they would make Superman look like a sheila’.[13]

The media generally tends to represent people from Asian, African and southern European cultures as either picturesque exotica, as starving beggars, as natives fighting each other, or as victims of natural disasters. Western viewers are encouraged to develop a relationship of either charity or pity.

The issue of whether exhibitions or conference papers which deal with cultural identity actually ghettoise these artists by separating them out for attention is an important one. Obviously I see a place for them, to raise questions and encourage debate, but I look forward to the day when they are no longer necessary.

As Edite Vidins states,

I would hope that retrospectively the work is appreciated not only for its authorship but as a visual and poetic object.[14]

We have to be careful to avoid a sort of benevolent ‘Third Worldism’. Curators and critics occupy positions of power. What we need to be doing is looking at our culture, and the many groups who make up that culture, to question centres and margins within contemporary Australian art practice, and exhibiting and collecting policies of art institutions.

As Homi Bhabha states,

... the point of intervention should shift from the identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse... What needs to be questioned, is the mode of representation of otherness, which depends crucially on how the “west” is deployed within these discourses.[15]

In many contemporary Australian prints dealing with issues of cultural identity, the artist acts as both creator and subject. Depiction of the self is obviously central to explorations of identity. These images, however, are more than acts of self-portraiture. The artist is subject and protagonist, a participant in a process which questions appearance as much as it records it.

The family snapshot occupies a special place in one’s sense of self. Either of one’s own past, or of one's family history, the snapshot survives as a symbol of memory which has no real historical value to the outside viewer. Its very banality often gives it the power to emotionally move the viewer and to trigger associations with the subjects. Both Edite Vidins and Milan Milojevic use snapshots taken by their families as the basis for their images.

Edite Vidins says of her art in general,

My work draws upon my background with particular reference to its ‘differenceness’. As a Latvian kid I was strongly motivated to assimilate with our white Anglo culture, particularly considering my extreme ethnic marginalisation. At least the Greek, Italian, Jewish kids had reasonably strong peer groups. And as I had the appearance of any other Anglo child it seemed to me the thing to do, but everything else gave me away from my name, to my lunch, to my home. Needless to say, I always felt more comfortable with the 'others'.[16]

This recapturing of one’s own (both individual and collective) history is an important step towards a positive reclaiming of identity. These printmakers do so with anger, passion and humour. Their voices are a challenge to the silence expected of them as the ‘other’.

As the British-based artist Pratibha Parma has so eloquently written,

In that transient moment she traversed that space between the consciousness of victim to that of the survivor.[17]

© Clare Williamson, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.

[1] Kobena Mercer, 'Welcome to the jungle: identity and diversity in postmodern politics', in Jonathon Rutherford, ed., Identity: community, culture, difference. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990, p. 43.

[2] Raymond Meeks, quoted in Roger Butler, 'From Dreamtime to machine time', Imprint  vol. 21 no.3–4, October 1986, p. 13.

[3] Milan Milojevic, Artist’s statement, Artlink vol. 11 (1 & 2), Autumn–Winter 1991, p. 71.

[4] Lucy Lippard, Mixed blessings: new art in a multicultural America. Pantheon, New York, 1990, p. 23.

[5] Gayatri Spivak, 'Explanation and culture: marginalia', in Out there: marginalisation and contemporary cultures, ed. by Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1990, p. 383.

[6] Trinh Minh-ha, 'Cotton and iron', in Out there: marginalisation and contemporary cultures, op. cit., p. 330.

[7] Lippard, op. cit, p. 14.

[8] Howardena Pindell, 'Art world racism: a documentation', New Art Examiner, March 1989, p. 32.

[9] Charles Price, quoted by Milan Milojevic, 'Reconstructing a cultural identity', Imprint, vol. 24, no. 2 June 1989, p. 2.

[10] Juan Davila, interviewed by Paul Foss, Hysterical tears: Juan Davila, GMP Publishers, London, 1985, p. 13.

[11] Eugenia Hill, quoted in We helped build Australia, Adelaide University Gallery, Adelaide, 1986.

[12] Fiona Foley, Artist’s statement, Aboriginal Australian views in print and poster, Print Council of Australia, Melbourne, 1987, p. 6.

[13] 'Asian invasion scare in north', Sunday Mail, 19 January 1992, p. 3.

[14] Edite Vidins, 'Livs circa 1955', unpublished paper presented at Who do you take me for? forum, Institute of Modern Art, March 1992.

[15] Homi Bhabha, 'The other question: difference, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism', Out there: marginalisation and contemporary cultures, op. cit., pp. 71–72.

[16] Edite Vidins, op. cit.

[17] Pratibha Parma, 'Emergence 2', in Kwesi Owusu, ed., Storms of the heart: an anthology of Black arts and culture. Camden Press, London, 1988, p. 50.