Writing on "Aboriginal art" 1802-1929 : a critical and cultural analysis of the construction of a category

2017-09-27T07:24:03Z (GMT) by Lowish, Susan Kathleen
This thesis traces the term 'Aboriginal art' through a number of different genres of published literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In surveying the journals of early explorers, the field reports of naturalists, geologists and ethnologists, and the major contributions to Australian anthropology in the years 1802-1929, an historical account of the beginnings of the category 'Aboriginal art' is formed. This thesis argues that 'Aboriginal art', as a categorisation, is a construction resulting mostly from the combined effects of the interpretation and reinterpretation on certain published accounts, dating from the time of first contact. Even work in the field can be understood in this manner, as preconceived notions often shaped its focus and methodology and also because the results of fieldwork are often reinterpreted by other writers to furnish proof for their own theorems. As such, 'Aboriginal art', in the period under investigation, is defined by its reception rather than by any attempt to recognise what the artist may have originally intended or to make links between works based on their appearance. When the literature on 'Aboriginal art' is viewed en masse, certain topics predominate such as origin, authenticity and imitation. These topics are treated as thematic bases in the thesis around which chapters are formed. These chapters are also loosely chronological, beginning with accounts left by the first European explorers to come into contact with what is later know as 'Aboriginal art'. Certain beliefs and prejudices are perpetuated when secondary accounts relay these first encounters to wider audiences. The occupation and motivations of the various authors come into play when interpreting these texts, as do the dominant ideologies and methodological approaches of the day. Each of these factors affecting the production and reception of writing on 'Aboriginal art' is addressed in course of this investigation. Similarly, key events such as the International and Intercolonial Exhibitions and the opening of the first museums are analysed in relation to their impact on the writing on 'Aboriginal art'. The end date for this study is set by the exhibition, Australian Aboriginal Art (1929), staged in Melbourne at the combined National Gallery and National Museum of Victoria. This event and the writing contemporaneous with it does not signal the end of 'Aboriginal art' but instead signals that the term has gained sufficient currency to have a readily recognisable meaning, and connotes certain objects, ideas and values.0020Although the literature surveyed throughout this thesis demonstrates that there was little consensus reached in relation to the qualities, value and meaning of 'Aboriginal art', there is strong evidence to suggest that certain texts and authors were better suited or better able to disseminate their work than others. This thesis outlines one history of 'Aboriginal art' in the nineteenth century; a history constructed from the published accounts left by conservative, mostly middle class, white men. It is the opinions conveyed by these writers that shaped the public's perception of 'Aboriginal ait' at the time. It is the task of this thesis to determine the main themes and currents running through the bulk of this literature.