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Aboriginal art as decor: the politics of assimilation in white Australian homes 1930-1970

By Carolyn Lovitt


Deposited with permission of the author. © 2000 Carolyn LovittThis thesis will examine the White Australian home between 1930 and 1970, during the formation and implementation of policies of assimilation. The home will be considered as one of the primary sites for the display and negotiation of Aboriginal culture. The incorporation of Aboriginal-style decor within the White Australian home provided a powerful metaphor for the way Aboriginal people might relate to the Australian state under the policy of assimilation. Two main trajectories of thought have coincided in home decor: how should Australia look as it enters into a period of self-conscious modernisation, and how should Aboriginality fit into this? These trajectories were not just metaphorical stagings of nationhood but were physical projections from which, it was believed, larger social changes would result. In the 1930s after a period of interracial violence that received unprecedented international publicity, theories of assimilation were put forward as a more modern, scientific and humanitarian alternative to the existing policies of protection. Anthropologists proposed utilising art as a way to further the campaign for citizenship and assimilation. It was one matter to implement a policy that sought to internalise a marginalised group into mainstream Australian culture, but another to create an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance in which assimilation would become an everyday reality in White Australia. The adaptation of Aboriginal art to home decor represented a determined effort to recontextualise Aboriginal culture and assert its relevancy in contemporary Australian life at a time when this was far from being a given. I will examine the public campaigns, and the private correspondence of A.P. Elkin and Frederick McCarthy, to show how anthropologists influenced artists, and how the pedagogical environment of the museum met with the commercial, ideological and increasingly political sphere of the domestic. In the postwar period enormous claims were made for the role of decor in Australian homes as commerce, politics, and modernity all intersected at a domestic level. Through examining the work of artist Byram Mansell I will argue that the metaphors of Aboriginal-style decor extended beyond the home into home-like spheres elsewhere, particularly the Railways. The Railways offered a theatrical experience of modernity in which Aboriginal art would help Australia come to terms with the new world and the old at the same time. As a metaphor for assimilation, the display of Aboriginal art within Australian homes often pointed towards the instability of race relations rather than the simple containment of Aboriginal people. At a title when Black and White relations were entering a period of considerable change the domestication of Aboriginality signified the possibility of resolving persistent national insecurities and of feeling at home. However, while decor promised the possibility of resolution, hailing an optimistic new racial frontier, Aboriginal-style decor also remained an unstable, and contentious feature of domestic design, as anxious as it was assertive. These issues will be further explored in the work of several contemporary avant-garde artists who have identified the home as a key site in the politics of identity formation, both oppressive and empowering

Topics: decorative arts, Aboriginal Australian arts, treatment of Aboriginal Australians, government relations, race discrimination, race relations, 20th century, Australia
Year: 2000
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