I was captured early this morning by an article sent to me by a friend on the artworks of Lucas Grogan. Grogan is a non-indigenous gay, Australian male, who appropriates the 'style' of Arnhem land painters in his work and as such he has been criticized for violating the established boundary between indigenous and non-indigenous culture and style. Fact is that there is no one style of art from Arnhem land, even though traditional techniques include cross-hatch and x-ray, dot-painting and stencil art and the diversity of aboriginal artwork includes bark and rock paintings, country (a kind of birds eye view of the landscape), carvings, weaving and string art.
I'm not entirely sure whether Grogan is being criticized because he's appropriating a style(s) perceived as belonging to a culture that is NOT his, or because he's considered opportunistic seizing a moment in time in which all things indigenous are significant and which will allow his work to create debate or at the very least, some kind of notoriety for him. Since the value of aboriginal paintings is not always about the beauty of such and their intrinsic indigeneity, but about a uniqueness of vision and those willing to pay good money to own that vision, then Grogan may be accused of being counterfeit to some degree, since his artwork is NOT as far as aboriginals are concerned 'his dreaming', but a dreaming borrowed from their history and their experiences.
Having said that, I think the primary issue at stake is that there is well established history of the exploitation of aboriginal peoples and nowhere has this been more blatant than in the art world, where aboriginal artists in the past produced paintings on masse in what can only be called sweat-shop conditions, often paid very little money for their efforts. Since they had no business sense and no concept of the value of their artwork they were easily exploited. Likewise, many unscrupulous individuals were co-opted to copy the style of paintings made by aboriginals, all in the name of a quick buck since the art world was interested not only in the artwork, but its provenance. Indeed, style and content became a hallmark of everything aboriginal. Some might feel that Grogan, who appears to be copying the style of aboriginal art, is relying on a non-educated art buyer who purchases the artwork believing that it was made by an aboriginal – when in these terms it may be considered counterfeit, like the thousands of didgeridoos sold that were painted by non indigenous people. In light of this, does that mean that non-indigenous artists cannot or should not appropriate traditional aboriginal artwork? Is their style, like their land, sacred?
Just for the sake of argument consider that Picasso formulated his Cubist style by appropriating the style of African artists, Matisse followed with precision the flat style of Japanese wood cuts and also appropriated the style of African art. Our own Imant Tillers appropriated texts and imagery from the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. Albert Namatjira learnt to paint in the 'western' style and many other indigenous artists create contemporary art using various media, which may or may not contain direct references to traditional aboriginal culture.
I'm currently reading Slavoj Žižek's The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity and in it he says: 'anxiety is the only emotion that does not deceive: all other emotions, from sorrow to love, are based on deceit' (57:2003). I suppose his rational for such a statement is that we can so easily lie about being sorry or about loving someone, since we are able to control to a certain extent our facial expressions and the words that we choose, whereas the affect of anxiety on our internal organs and its symptomatic display on the exterior body cannot easily be masked. I can understand the anxiety experienced by aboriginal artists in the top end who rely on the sale of their paintings for their survival and the anxiety they might experience when they see a young man, who is not of their culture appropriating it without ever having experienced the horrors of being a displaced, outcast in their own land.
My anxiety has been working through some of the issues at stake in this argument. I'd like to be generous and say that I think that Grogan's work might go some way towards opening up a discussion about the way in which we perceive indigenous peoples. Why we continue to view those from Arnhem land as 'true' aboriginals because they have black skin and why we have so much difficultly reconciling our anxiety about indigenous people of mixed heritage who have various shades of dark and light skin. Perhaps, after all, Grogan's work, reveals an integration of aboriginal culture into our own art history, a coalescence of 'black and white culture' and that's got to be a good thing?