Australian Aboriginal artists, the archive and cross-cultural collaborations
Location SOAS Senate House - S108
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 15:30
Sessions 1


  • Fran Edmonds (University of Melbourne) email

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Short abstract

Collections of material culture from Aboriginal Australia remain largely inaccessible to those with Ancestral claims to them. We explore how Aboriginal artists are mobilizing collections to reconnect with culture, making and asserting their own representations in contemporary social contexts.

Long abstract

The proposed roundtable aims to advance understandings of Aboriginal Australian (re)connections with artefacts held in public collections as a contemporary form of cultural production. Artists are central to these processes, taking up museum objects, digital media, and archival research in innovative ways, to assert their cultural knowledge and support community wellbeing. These practices and their resulting works "speak back" to colonial histories of dispossession, disrupting conventional museum practices of representation, producing work that reveals the continuities of culture and exemplifying how culture is made and re-made as a reflection of creative, collaborative and forward-looking processes.

Artist Maree Clarke (Wemba Wemba/Yorta Yorta/Boonwurrung/Wadi Wadi), who creates work in multiple media (photography, body adornment, video production), will discuss her research with objects held in museum collections, alongside her reimagining of these in her art practice. Her work contests the legacies of colonisation in a region where Aboriginality is too-often assumed inauthentic. Curator Lindy Allen will speak to museums' responsibility in facilitating Indigenous access in dynamic, culturally-appropriate ways; anthropologist/social researcher Fran Edmonds will explore the creative uptake of digital technologies and intergenerational knowledge exchange that is facilitating new engagements with collections; medical anthropologist Richard Chenhall will comment on how these processes are crucial to identity and community wellbeing; and cultural anthropologist Sabra Thorner will propose strategies of co-research with Aboriginal artists and community members. Together, we are collectively grappling with and seeking to enact decolonising approaches in the representation(s) of Aboriginal people in museums and art-worlds in Australia and beyond.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


A Dialogic Discourse in Museums - Multiple Voices and Meaning Making

Author: Lindy Allen (Museums Victoria) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses contemporary curatorial practice and critical scholarship involved in the engagement of source communities with their cultural patrimony in museums. It explores the collaborative and cross-cultural nature of collections research and how knowledge and meanings are negotiated.

Long abstract

This paper looks at how knowledge, meaning and value making is ascribed through a cross-cultural collaborative research framework in contemporary museum curatorial practice. The intervention of Indigenous people, whose power and authority is paramount in relation to their cultural patrimony, underpins the "new curatorial praxis [that] incorporates community needs and perspectives" (Peers and Brown 2003:2). Combining this with knowledge drawn from applying anthropological and other relevant disciplinary methodologies to the critical analysis of Indigenous collections has maximised the potential for recovering evidence of past lifeways while also linking objects to people today and to people, places and events in the past.

The museum is the place of encounter and emblematic of the colonial past, and directly and indirectly can influence this engagement by Indigenous people with their cultural patrimony. The dynamics of the parties involved, both from within the source community/s and the museum staff is another crucial factor in the effectiveness of the "new curatorial praxis" that brings together these disparate cultural and disciplinary frames. It enables the historical noise associated with the collections to be eliminated and the layers accumulated during the lives of these things to be peeled away in order to reveal and restore a sense of their original purpose, meanings and context. At the same time, it facilitates the creation of new meanings from which alternative narratives and readings of the past emerge, resulting in breathing new life into these things and giving them an immediate relevance in the present.

'Telling it like it is': Aboriginal young people, cultural connections and digital storytelling

Author: Fran Edmonds (University of Melbourne) email

Short abstract

This paper examines a digital storytelling project among Aboriginal young people in southeast Australia as a way of supporting contemporary Aboriginal youth culture. It explores intercultural and decolonizing approaches to assist youth engagement with museums' collections and cultural institutions.

Long abstract

In 2017, a group of Aboriginal young people from southeast Australia were included in the groundbreaking Sovereignty exhibition, the first survey of southeast Australian Aboriginal art to be held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, located in central Melbourne. The young people's artworks consisted of a series of visually creative digital stories, the result of a three-year Australian Research Council Linkage Project. While the exhibition enhanced opportunities for the broader public to engage with and gain deeper understandings of the history and diversity of Aboriginality in the southeast, for the young participants involved, their digital stories also represented new assertions of contemporary Aboriginal youth culture. The short videos and creative digital imagery, inspired by engagement with material culture from museums' collections, were immediately appealing and recognisable forms of knowledge transmission for young audiences. Yet, they also provided insights to methods of representation that Aboriginal youth are using to explore their identities and culture, in a region where Aboriginality is frequently contested and considered inauthentic.

This paper will discuss the intersection between the making of the digital stories as new forms of creative cultural production, alongside the implementation of a collaborative and community-based methodology, that fostered intercultural and intergenerational knowledge exchange. Participant's engagement with museums' collections and exhibiting of their digital stories in Sovereignty, also prompted questions about the tensions and possibilities of decolonizing cultural institutions to support Indigenous young people's cultural knowledge, their experiences and ambitions, and their ongoing interaction in the sector.

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The Photograph as Archive: Crafting Contemporary Koorie Culture

Author: Sabra Thorner (Florida State University) email

Short abstract

This paper examines relationships between archival photography, historical artifacts, and contemporary art practice. Focusing on Aboriginal Australian artist Maree Clarke's kangaroo-teeth necklace-making, I emphasize collaborative/decolonizing approaches to representation in museum- and artworlds.

Long abstract

In 2008, an Aboriginal Australian artist based in Melbourne, Australia, Maree Clarke, created a kangaroo-teeth necklace, revivifying an art/cultural practice for the first time in over a century. She was inspired to do so after viewing an 1880 photograph of an ancestor wearing such adornment, and conducting object-based research on the extant pre-contact necklaces held by the Melbourne Museum (and later, around the world). This presentation brings these three things—archival photograph, historical artifacts, and contemporary art praxis—into the same analytical frame. I consider the photograph as itself an archive, reproduced in various media and taken up in multiple trajectories of knowledge production about Aboriginal people; an index of social relations of the past, exemplifying complex contact histories; and an impetus to new creative expression, including repetition, experimentation/innovation, and performance/re-enactment.

In an urban context in which Aboriginality has too-long been ignored and/or marginalized, Clarke's work is the work of culture-making: asserting continuity between self, ancestors, and descendants; the embeddedness of people in place; and the tangible connections between past, present, and future. At the same time, her practice is also profoundly interconnected with (and reliant upon) non-Aboriginal collaborators—curators, collections managers, gallery owners, anthropologists and other researchers, technical specialists—and provides a model for intercultural/decolonizing production and representation in museums and artworlds in Australia and beyond.


Author: Maree Clarke email

Short abstract

Koori artist Maree Clarke will discuss her work to regenerate "culture" in an Australian urban. Through her work, "the archive" includes oral storytelling, museum objects, and traditional lands; it also points to the responsibility of intergenerational knowledge exchange.

Long abstract

Multi-media artist/curator Maree Clarke will discuss her work to regenerate cultural practices among Aboriginal people in Australia's southeast. Her praxis—in photography, body adornment, and video/digital media—emerges from knowledge handed down by her Ancestors and older siblings; as well as research in museum/archival collections around the world. All of the works are embedded in Country, relying on the materials and designs that Aboriginal people have been using forever; and each involves intergenerational knowledge transmission at every stage of the making process. Creativity and experimentation abounds in her practice, as each new work critiques the reverberating effects of colonial dispossession, asserts the continuity of culture, and challenges artworld conventions, including the representative potential of the media in which she works. Additionally, Maree's work concerns ways of dealing with trauma and grief in the Aboriginal community - an ongoing effect of colonization - and she has developed unique models of mourning and healing practices through her artwork.

Clarke lives and works in the city of Melbourne—where Aboriginality is too-often assumed inauthentic and obsolete. Her practice is simultaneously collaborative and expressive; revivifying and innovative. Through her work "the archive," includes the storytelling of her forbears, the extant objects and photographs held in state galleries and museums, and the land from which she gathers her materials and inspiration. "The archive" is also a living/breathing thing, a way of talking about art/culture as inextricably linked and fundamental to the sustaining of hope and life, often against all odds.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.