Opinion

Is Australian Aboriginal Art Part of the African Diaspora?

Fiona Foley, "HHH" (2004). Courtesy of artist/Niagara Galleries. (via MoCADA.org)

I just started reading Toure’s Post Blackness: What It means to be Black Now, which features a number of black artists in America today. Race and identity is a concept that fascinates me to no end. Part of my interest stems from the categories I’m forced to navigate and what they mean to my own identity.

Filling out a census form in America means that when I mark “West Asian/Armenian” in the “ethnicity” box means I will be counted as “white.” Who decides? Why am I white? I refuse that label. That same label did not mean “white” in Canada, where “West Asian” is a fully credited category or in other countries in the world where there is a more nuances understanding of culture independent of skin color.

Recently, I received a press release from the Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) heralding their new show, Saying No: Reconciling Spirituality and Resistance in Indigenous Australian Art. My first reaction was astonishment. I didn’t understand how Australian Aboriginals fit into the mission of an institution concerned with the African diaspora? Sure, we’re all from Africa if we go far back enough but surely 50,000 years, when humans first set foot on the Australian continent, was a little too far back.

My confusion lead to my sending a query to MoCADA and I received this answer from Kalia Brooks, MoCADA’s exhibition director:

We make no claim of Aboriginal Australians as being from Africa (although some would argue this). MoCADA is most concerned with making connections to the current civil rights and spiritual movements of Indigenous Australians and that of black people in America. There has existed a Black Panther Party in Australia as well as a Black Power Movement. It is the recognition of blackness and the struggle over the rights to representation that fuel our interests in the exhibition. Both of these themes are issues that are embedded in the concept of an African diaspora.

How the notion of American blackness translated to Australia is a fascinating reality. The Koori History Website, which is an Aboriginal-owned and operated indigenous history education resource, explains how the idea of Black Power arrived in Australia:

The term was catapulted into the Australian imagination when the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) under the leadership of Bruce McGuinness and Bob Maza who, galvanized by the same notions as Malcolm and Stokely, 1968 invited a Caribbean activist and academic, Dr. Roosevelt Brown, to give a talk on ‘Black Power’ in Melbourne The initial result was frenzied media overreaction that was closely observed by younger activists in Brisbane and Sydney, thus the term came into use by a frustrated and impatient new indigenous political generation.

… Roberta (then Bobbi) Sykes said Australian Black Power had its own distinct (from US) interpretation. She said it was about ‘the power generated by people who seek to identify their own problems and those of the community as a whole, and who strive to take action in all possible forms to solve those problems’ Paul Coe saw it as the need for Aboriginal people ‘to take control both of the economical, the political and cultural resources of the people and of the land…so that they themselves have got the power to determine their own future.’ Bruce McGuinness, speaking in 1969 as Director of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) had declared that Black Power ‘does not necessarily involve violence’ but rather was ‘in essence…that black people are more likely to achieve freedom and justice…by working together as a group.’ So the Australian version of Black Power, like its American counterpart, was essentially about the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms, and to seek self-determination without white interference.

So, even if Australian Aboriginals are not black in the way we understand the term in America their work relates to many of the issues of African American art in America and African Diaspora art elsewhere.

Bravo to MoCADA for highlighting this little known link between Australian Aboriginal art and the rest of the world. Making art more universal should be the goal of any museum.

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