Culturally diverse art: not black and white

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Is Australian art reflecting our new world culture? Or are we too busy labelling art to allow it to explore the complexity of diversity?
We only need to look around any Australian city to be aware of our multiracial society. A visit to a food hall offers us, lucky cosmopolitan Australians, dumplings, empanadas and pho. But it can get a little trickier to find that same diversity on our gallery walls or our major stages, and even harder, at the boardrooms where the big decisions about cultural policy and funding are made.

That failure prompted the Wheeler Centre and Melbourne Festival to pose an important question: ‘How white is our art?’ Asialink CEO Lesley Alway sees two major issues getting in the way of true cultural diversity in the arts, 'one that operates at the level of presentation or representation and then another that operates at that level of institutions, or what I would call paradigms'.

Alway, who has extensive experience at the helm of key organisations such as Heide Museum of Modern Art, Sothesby’s Australia and Arts Victoria, believes Australia is doing fairly well on diverse representation but has yet to move from a purely western paradigm when thinking about the arts.

‘I think that at the level of presentation and representation there have been substantial shifts in terms of how Australia does present itself and represents itself,’ said Alway. She said that, contrary to international expectations, many of the artists, writers, performers, arts managers included in Asialink programs representing Australia in exhibitions, residencies or exchanges were from ‘non-white backgrounds’.

Despite the superficial perspective that Australia needs to present a positive image of itself internationally, Alway believes Australia is learning to present the complexity of its diversity. She points to a recent touring exhibition titled
Shadowlife which tackled difficult issues to do with contemporary Indigenous art in Asia . ‘What you realise in Asia is they want people to actually discuss some of the very important issues that Australia faces in a very sophisticated way, and know that we can actually do that.’

Speaking from the context of her work with Asialink she said Australia’s very Western culture of ‘management one on one’ with an excess of KPIs, forecasts and targets is often misunderstood. ‘In Asia, they go: “Why would you bother doing something if you already know the outcome?” When you actually think about it, it’s the most logical perspective that you can have, but we, in the sort of mindset and paradigms that we operate through the bureaucracies, don’t seem to be able to cope with that, so part of our role in Asialink is really trying to change that sort of paradigm. That would allow people to operate more through the creative process.’

For Indigenous artists the paradigm is complicated by being imposed from outside. Art critic Damian Smith reminded the panelists of the controversial work of Richard Bell who won the 2003 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award with a work including the prominent text
"Aboriginal Art — It's A White Thing".

Smith asked visual artist and curator Bindi Cole for her views on the state of Aboriginal art. Cole, who is of Australian and Wathaurung descent, was one of a group of plaintiffs who brought a successful racial discrimination action against
Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt for a column in which he suggested light-skinned Aborigines identified as such for political reasons.

She said many people in the Aboriginal community were hurt by the fact that Aboriginal art was mainly managed and defined by people outside the community. ’What I have seen with the institutions that are collecting art is that it’s very much about remote art to be considered political and authentic. The art that is coming out of the urban entities is being considered less authentic and perhaps less collectible,’ said Cole.

I think there is a real lack of a drive to collect what is happening [in Southeastern Australia] which is essentially the dreaming up here, but because I think there is a perspective that is less authentic somehow, because there is not as much of a connection to the culture as there would be in areas where the culture survived in a stronger way, it’s kind of overlooked.’

Cultural identity and the expectations around it are also a familiar plight to Michael Agan, who in curating musicians from the Pacific regions for an Olympic festival recently was faced with the question: ‘Are they going to wear grass skirts?’

Can’t Aboriginal artists do more than just dot paintings? Can’t a troupe of West Papuans delight audiences with some drum’n’bass? Why can’t Frank Yamma sound like country music?

‘I know that there are a lot of artists out there who don’t want to identify as Aboriginal artists, and who will say no to being in Aboriginal shows and all of those kinds of things because they feel like it is completely limiting to them,’ said Cole.

Agan identified a shift in language which showed an improvement in Australia's understanding of cultural diversity. ‘When I first started out doing my first grant applications, which was a few moons ago, dealing with funding bodies of various sorts, there was always a box to tick and back in those days one of the boxes was a term I haven’t seen for many years now, but it shows a shift in language and a shift in culture in some ways, and that box was NESB (Non-English Speaking Background),’ he said.

Now the institutions are seeking work that ticks the CALD box – Culturally and Linguistically Diverse. ‘For me this was the essence of language that represents or at least gives an indication of what it is ticking over in those institutional cultures,’ says Agan. ‘We don’t quite fit neatly into boxes and the artists we work with don’t necessarily fit into those boxes as well.’

So how do we navigate the turbulent waters between the needs of different individual artists, arts practices, the commercial requirements of establishments and organisations and the question of identity for individuals and groups?

‘That collision is where things happen and that is when it becomes a point of cultural production in itself, and so I don’t know what the answer is but as I look back in the past decades it is actually those points of tension that produce fabulous artworks, fabulous music and discourse as well,’ said Smith.

For Lesley Alway, constant advocacy is fundamental considering the political times we are in. ‘Somehow Australia really led the way in the 90s, in the mid-90s in terms of cultural policy and different models and innovation. We have really lost that because there’s been a political perception that supporting those things doesn’t buy votes and I think there has been an appeal to the lowest common denominator, but what that requires is actual political leadership and bureaucratic leadership to articulate why these things are important. But at the moment we have people too scared to actually articulate why these things are important.’

It is likely Australia will be asking the colour of its art for a few more generations, after all, we are living a very new world culture. ‘One of the things I love most about being alive is understanding or working out how to understand life cycles… You just need that little bit of patience, compassion and open heartedness and you’ll find that the rules the people cling to won’t melt but they start finding ways of being able to help you get what it is that you do,’ said Agan.

‘Everything is always multi-leveled and multi-layered and when you think you’ve cracked the code, in fact, you get pulled up short by artists, which is a fabulous thing about working with artists and creatives. Things are not actually what they seem, and they peel another layer,’ said Alway. ‘Our role as artists is that we explore the gaps in between, what happens between bits and pieces of the cannons and bureaucracies and those other things that we accept.’

‘In a sense I think what is the defining trope of white Australian culture? Maybe it is the A4 sheet, it’s the bureaucracy itself and it’s something that is very often, very hard to, actually, get bureaucracy to become self critical in a sense,’ said Smith.

Cole says the art itself will continue the discussion. ‘As an artist it is just about having continued opportunities, to have a voice to be able to say those things, to not be afraid, to be fearless and unashamed of what my truth is and getting that out there and having that heard, regardless of the consequences. I think it’s just about continuing the discussion like this through art and any other means possible.’

Leo Ribeiro

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