The Careers Of Gordon Bennett Cultural Studies Essay

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The emergence of new art forms, the adaptation of traditional art mediums and ways of expression, and the interplay with Western traditions reflect the changes and the adaptability of Australian Indigenous Art, Artists, and Culture. New art forms by Contemporary Indigenous Artists include media such as photography, film, instillation, and digital manipulation. The art of Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, and Gordon Bennett are examples of the continuing adaptability, interplay, and cross-cultural identity of Aboriginal art and artists.

Aboriginal art has a history steeped in a tradition of educational and spiritual ritual, with themes of family, tribal identity, location, and spiritual/cultural rites. Contemporary and emerging Indigenous artists are investigating similar themes in their work but by borrowing from their mixed traditions and using new media and forms of expression they create art with contemporary meaning thus keeping culture and identity alive and changing within the somewhat oppressive and ignorant nature of post colonial Australia.

In the second half of the 20th century, after two centuries of colonial oppression and assimilation policies within Australia political and social break-though for Aboriginal people in a dominant European culture was bought to an end. This enabled Aboriginal Artists to have the freedom to express their traditions, culture, and living identity.

According to 'Australian Indigenous Art: Local Dreamings, Global Consumption' , there were Simultaneous explosions of the Australian art market in the 1990's which gained international recognition for traditional Aboriginal art which emerged into contemporary Aboriginal art which appealed to white Australia's desire for cultural reconciliation, (M, Ryan, M, Keane, S, Cunningham, chapter 25). Thus, the interplay of Western and Indigenous artistic tradition gained significance and the recognition of artistic production in Aboriginal communities across Australia stimulated more urban Indigenous artists to explore themes of cultural alienation.

The first wave of contemporary Aboriginal painters including Clifford Possum, Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, utilized traditional repertoires of dots, blocks of color, with 'western' stimulating negative spaces and/or gestural brushstrokes to evoke the sense of a sacred and collective 'knowledge'. Collectors and museums began to actively collect these Aboriginal works, whose 'conceptual' paintings reinterpreted Australian colonial history.

Further exchanges between traditional and western art is evident today where Aboriginal Australians are producing art in remote regions continuing to explore their connections with their ancestral land and traditions painting ground designs, body art, and bark paintings but using contemporary art materials and canvases.

Such Indigenous artists compared with their contemporary artists, have different ideas and practices However, the works themselves are often seen to have a fair bit in common with contemporary artworks, particularly with conceptual and, installation art.

In the early times of pre-invasion, art served a different purpose than the ideas embedded within contemporary 'self'-expression and social commentary. Artistic designs were passed down with several levels of understanding and meaning for those with appropriate spiritual initiation and/or family/gender rites. They included hunting and survival education and rites, and they continued beliefs of creation and a time when spirit beings walked the earth, 'dreamtime'. The identity of the individual artist was perhaps not as significant as it is today.

Artists such as Tracey Moffat, (b.1960), Fiona Foley, (b.1964), and Gordon Bennett (b.1955), whom consider Indigenous art as a way to express political and social issues in new forms of contemporary media, reflects unique perspectives of a distinctive experiences. Whilst their art proclaims their aboriginal identity, it often acts as a medium for cultural renewal, operating beyond the classical idioms conforming to European, and other visual language and techniques.

As, written in Wally Caruana's book,

Aboriginal Art, chapter 6, Artists in the Town and City:

"as the movements for the recognition of aboriginal rights gained momentum, urban and rural artists found compelling reasons to produce art. Aboriginal people required imagery and symbols with which to express their ideals and inspirations. These issues of dispossession, broken families, racism-the secret history of Australia- and an intensifying of the sense of cultural identity provided strong motivation, and these themes are all apart of the repertoire of artists".

(W, Caruana, pg 195)

Fiona Foley

Works by aboriginal instillation and mixed media artist Fiona Foley, from Harvey Bay, Frazer Island, engages with the history, ideas and family tradition from her cultural heritage from the Wondunna clan of Badtjala tribe from her mother's side, and her work reflects the remembrance of colonial oppression, the colonized vision of Australia and her ancestors.

Foleys work deals with the issues of displacement and dispossession of land, the people and some of her work is highly political, committing herself to the history of Aboriginal people and represents racism and violence and identity, and raises issues from a historic and contemporary cultural view, (W, Caruana 260).

Annihilation of the Blacks


wood, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, string

278 x 300 x 60 cm

National Museum of Australia


'Annihilation of the blacks' (1986), is a frightening sculptural installation which is a part of the permanent collection of the Australian National Gallery (Caruana, 1993). The work represents the massacre of the disturbing treatment of Aboriginal people by the colonizers; as you can see in the image above the work consists of a white figure standing in front of 9 hanging black figures. The upright forked posts and cross poles are a powerful symbolic medium in traditionally oriented Aboriginal communities for shelters and homes.

It is also a sacred complex and symbol for the first residence of the Wagilak in Arnhem Land, which represents the Kunapipi ceremony (J, Reser, pg15). Also within the young Aboriginal boys waiting to be born again, as young men, are viewed metaphorically as flying foxes, hanging from the beam, it is said that the flying fox ancestral spirits brought circumcision to the central Arnhem Land clans and because the flying fox is a central totemic species to clans in this region.

Similarly, to the previously mentioned tradition of multiple levels of meaning, Foley draws inspiration from traditional Aboriginal culture and life, while making powerful and contemporary political statements. All of this gives the sculpture a very strong traditional as well as contemporary symbolic quality, with multiple and intertwined meanings and messages.

In her large sculptural installation work such as 'Land Deal', 1995, is about the response to the words of the nineteenth colonial official John Batman, when he described how he purchased 600, 000 acres from local aborigines in Port Phillip, in exchange for beads, blankets and knives, scissors. (

Fiona Foley: Land Deal 1995

installation view, Savode Gallery, Brisbane, 1995

mixed media, flour, found objects, text

dimensions variable

This work consists of a spiral of flour on the floor; representing the loss of lifestyle and health that consequently came about during white settlement, also invoking memory of the genocidal colonial practice of poisoning the flour given to aboriginal people. (MCA, Forbidden Fiona Foley.)

The work also incorporates the objects, which hang from the walls behind, suggesting the indigenous loss land in the transaction, reminding the public of the cold absence of indigenous voice as well as the lack of understanding in ongoing campaigns for land return, in which Foley and her families have embarked on.

In Avril Quaill's Article on the Traditional and Modern art of Australia, Foley personally engages herself with the 'Badtjala' material culture by referring to these objects as an examination into their history, collection, and interpretation, reclaiming their true significance to Aboriginal people, (A, Quaill). In addition, makes a note that The 'ambiguous relationship between the descendants of the white settlers and Australia's original inhabitants in Fraser Island's recent history as the struggle for recognition of native title for the Badtjala people continues' (A, Quaill).

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett, also with an aboriginal heritage from his mother's side, was an orphan from Cherbourg reserve 240km northwest of Brisbane. Known for his paintings, installation and multimedia art, Bennett focuses on a more personal viewpoint of past and present survival for his identity as an Australian and that of Aboriginal descent.

In Bennett's art, he represents an extensive range of Questions relating to his identity, his perception, and knowledge contained by cultural and historical discrimination created by European settlement in Australia, (National Gallery of Victoria, G, Bennett )

Bennett's art practice attempts to remove the obstacles that interfere with a positive development of self.

He uses self-portraits as a construct of self-identity and questions stereotypes and labels within national identity, immersed within a 'white' European culture. Bennett was unaware of his Aboriginality until his teenage years, as he described this knowledge as a 'psychic rupturing', (Ian McLean, '1996, p. 99) His art attempts to depict the complexity of both cultural perspectives. In his Instillation Work, Self portrait: Ancestor figures, 1992 he brings up issues of cultural identity as well as personal identity.

The installation consists of images of his family and drawing. The self- portrait of the artist seems to be present everywhere within the installation but is in fact nowhere. The drawers on the wooden dressing table are each labeled 'self' that is partly closed while the other drawers are labeled 'history' and 'culture' that seems to be partly open and partly closed. Bennett seems to indicate his sense of reconciliation with Aboriginal culture and History, and the need to develop a full sense of self-identity in the context of his Aboriginal decent.

An understanding of self in the context of family does not seem enough as the mirror, acts as a persistent symbol in this piece, as stated in Ian McLean's article 'Towards an Australian Postcolonial Art' in: The Art on Gordon Bennett,

"In the mirror, everything is possible because nothing is there"

(Ian McLean, p.105)

Gordon Bennett: Self-portrait (Ancestor figures) 1992

chest of drawers, watercolour, photocopies, lead, rocks, masking tape


(National gallery of Victoria)

In addition, the white lines on the floor with stones placed in various places represent another symbol acting as the base of the installation that also appears to confirm this sense. What is interesting is that in European traditions, the means to map a particular space, land, etc applies to the ownership and territory of that place/land, bringing to mind the way stereotypes, labels, identities, and systems of thought are fixed. On the corners of each of the corners are the letters A B C D which may indicate the way maps are constructed to find different locations, they also represent according to Rebecca Lancashire in the new York times 1997 that the first letter are of racial slurs:

'Identity is fixed and self is understood in the context of words such as Abo, Boong, Coon, and Darkie'

(R, Lean & Gordon Bennett, 1996, p. 99)

"You have to understand my position of having no designs or images or stories on which to draw to assert my Aboriginality…. In just three generations, that heritage has been lost to me" (Gordon Bennett, 102)

According to the article on Gordon Bennett in the Gallery of Victoria:

Blood has, in the past been a measure of Aboriginality. The 'purer' the bloodlines, the more Aboriginal you were. Mixing of pure 'blood' with European 'blood' was feared by Europeans, 'authenticity' was at risk and identity diluted.

(National Gallery of Victpria: G, Bennett)

The fact that Bennett felt himself that as an Australian with both Aboriginal and Anglo Celtic descent had no right to his indigenous heritage. He states in his Manifesto:

"The traditionalist studies of Anthropology and Ethnography have thus tended to reinforce popular romantic beliefs of an 'authentic' Aboriginality associated with the 'Dreaming' and images of 'primitive' desert people, thereby supporting the popular judgment that only remote 'full-bloods' is real Aborigines."

(Gordon Bennett, Manifesto, 99)

Gordon Bennett explores his ideas in a more implicit way in Self-portrait: Interior/ Exterior, 1992. This instillation piece exposes the savage yet terrifying truth of colonial occupation as he again depicts himself as a black empty coffin like box, seeming to suggest 'black skin'. Red paint splats and thick textural surfaces are applied to the box, and the whip, as it hangs from the side, seems to point out the 'bloody' conquest, like lash markings, as it literally opens up this black skin of paint revealing the words 'cut me'. (Lean & G, Bennett, 99)

Gordon Bennett: Self portrait: Interior/Exterior 1992

Instillation: synthetic polymer paint on canvas on pine frames, leather stock whip, paper tags

(National Gallery of Victoria)

The response, as a viewer, leaves me to feel the torturous truth, suffering, and brutal murder that has been carried on throughout history of the Aboriginal people. Bonnets work acts as deep scar leaving behind marks that will never heal or fade. It is a powerful piece, conceptually representing a body, a memory of pain, violence, exploitation, and suffering. In addition, historically evaluates Aboriginality.

In the Victorian Education site it explains that:

'The oppressors, those who use the whip, and the oppressed, those enslaved by the whip. These opposites are not absolute. Bennett is more interested in exploring what lies between'

(National Gallery of Victoria: Gordon Bennett)

a statement written by Bennett himself, explains his thoughts on the work:

"My work is often seen as about exploring my identity in order to secure it, like I'm searching for it, like I've lost it somewhere, which is the total opposite to what I'm doing. Sure, I'm exploring identity, but I'm trying to make it obvious about how open it is; how it's a process of the negotiation of these different sites of memory, human relations. It is all those other things, and it shouldn't be closed off. It shouldn't be a thing that constricts nor should it be an imposed thing, from outside oneself, like a prison.

(Gordon Bennett, Manifesto)

Tracey Moffatt

Tracey Moffatt, born into a fostered white family in Brisbane, close to were her Aboriginal ancestors grew up, on a mission outside of Brisbane called Cherbourg, (S,Alessandra: Article) plays a huge part in representing a multicultural role in society as she examines the ways Australia's colonial past enlightens the present. The photographs, mostly stills from her film-making, places a narrative images into many of the stories being told, representations past and present times in Aboriginal History, her perspective seems to identify to her Aboriginality and feminist view point. However, she cautiously uses her style of narratives with multiple and specific politics concern of Australian identity, with an inspiration of the lives of her Aboriginal heritage and culture. Her unique visual style of cinematic images challenges the stereotypes of race and gender, with issues symbolic of political references, (Rutherford, A, chapter 18)

Tracey Moffatt

Up In The Sky # 1, 1997

series of 25 images

off set print

61 Ã- 76cm

72 x 102 paper size

Edition of 60

(Roslyn oxley9 Gallery)

Her compelling and very powerful photographic works such as 'Up in the Sky' 1998, is a sequence of twenty-five black and white photos set in the desert tells stories of the Stolen Generation when children were forced from their homes and families and relocated due to the Australian Governments assimilation policies. Moffatt's images refer to these events and collectively convey her memory of her own personal experiences as well as the reality, influenced by culture, with a force of isolation and despair, focusing on the distress of remote living.

Tracey Moffatt: Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, Still, 1989

(Queensland Art Gallery)

In her films still 'Night Cries': A rural Tragedy 1989, she represents the truth and memory about a mother and daughter relationship with a focus on events that took place focusing on Death, childhood, loneliness and memory. The film brings forth the powerful issues related to the black and white relations of Australian history during the attempts to assimilate Australian Indigenous people into the white society, (Q, Art Gallery, Art, Landscape, and Culture)

The growing interest in Aboriginal art, coinciding with changing Australian social values, which has gained momentum since the 1970s has created new opportunities for Indigenous artists. As a consequence of the interest and question of 'Indigenous identity', the emergence of new cross cultural art forms and ways of expression, including photography and installation, continue to reflect the changes, the interplay and the adaptability of Australian/Indigenous culture and identities. Artists such as Fiona Foley, Gordon Bennett, and Tracey Moffatt, continue to explore and comment on notions of mixed cultural identity, 'official' histories, and of individual autonomy, as well as expressing their interpretation of the ongoing legacy of post colonial Australia, and its effect on their family and on a broader culture. Meanwhile, the imperatives to produce art for a traditional Indigenous purpose, continues in an expanded and more informed environment. Indigenous artists practicing in both traditional and/or western styles can be appreciated for their spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic qualities, as well as for their dialogue regarding their individual, social, and political achievements and aspirations.


A, Quaill: World of Dreaming: Traditional and Modern Art, Australia, 2000:

M, Ryan, M, Keane, S, Cunningham, chapter 25:

J, Reser: The Historic and Cultural Symbolic Landscape, North University of Queensland, 1999.

MCA, Learning Recourses: Forbidden Fiona Foley, Art Museum of Queensland, History and memory:

National Gallery of Victoria: Gordon Bennett:

S, Alessandra: Dreaming Back, Tracey Moffatt, 2007

Rutherford, A: Tracey Moffatt, from an Interview. Chapter 18:

Q, Art Gallery, Art, Landscape, and Culture: Tracey Moffatt:

W, Caruana: Aboriginal Art: chapter 6, Artists in the town and City.2003.

G, Bennett & I, McLean: The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, 1996.

Ian McLean, 'Towards an Australian Postcolonial Art' in The Art of Gordon Bennett, p.105

Gordon Bennett & Chris McAuliffe, 'Interview with Gordon Bennett' in Rex Butler (e d.) What is Appropriation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art in the 1980s and 1990s. IMA Publishing, Brisbane, 2004, p. 27